Advocates Want Former State Hospital To Be Restored

For over a century, the facility was a mainstay for employment in southwestern Wyoming

The Wyoming State Hospital, a brick facility shown here, was originally completed in 1887 and used for over a century. (Courtesy photo from Save the Old Wyoming State Hospital and Rep. Jon Conrad, R-Mountain View)

By Carrie Haderlie

Special to the Wyoming Truth

In 1886, the Wyoming Territorial Legislature allocated $30,000 for a facility that would “house the mentally insane and lunatics.” In 1923, the 17th Legislature declared the official name of the asylum, located in Evanston, would become the Wyoming State Hospital. And in 2003, the hospital was listed on the National Historic Register.

Today, the future of the hospital is in jeopardy: Advocates who call their effort “Save the Old Wyoming State Hospital” want the 26-building, 110-acre campus to be left intact, but a Healthcare Facilities Task Force created by elected officials in 2014 has recommended demolition.

“Unfortunately, [a listing on the National Historic Register] doesn’t bring any restrictions on what can be done with that property,” Jim Davis, a member of the Save the Old Wyoming State Hospital group and the Evanston Historic Preservation Commission, said in a recent town hall meeting in Evanston.

Advocates for restoration say the industrial kitchen could be used as an educational space. (Courtesy photo from Save the Old Wyoming State Hospital and Rep. Jon Conrad, R-Mountain View)

While the buildings are scheduled for demolition starting next summer, an estimated $54 million necessary to complete the full project has not been allocated, according to Rep. Jon Conrad (R-Mountain View).

Kim Deti, a spokesperson for the Wyoming Department of Health, confirmed in an email to the Wyoming Truth that there has been no direct state general fund appropriation of $54 million “sitting in an account waiting to be spent on abatement and demolition.”

The Legislature approved $15 million in unused Department of Health funding, if available, to begin demolition. Around $3 million is currently available for project work, Deti said.

A separate budget footnote authorizing an additional $39 million in unused funding, if available, has “no available funds,” she added.

Conrad said the project’s authorized funding is different than appropriated funding. The authorized money, he said, will be used to build a facility for demolition equipment and to take down buildings in the worst condition next summer.

“Think of the 26 buildings. They’re going to take the 26th, the 25th, the 24th, or, [in] my words, the worst of the broken buildings,” Conrad said during a livestreamed town hall meeting hosted by Save the Old Wyoming State Hospital in Evanston on Dec. 4.

Conrad said he’d like a yearlong “official pause” on demolition authorized by the Department of Health, Gov. Mark Gordon the Legislature. A delay, Conrad hopes, would give private developers time to plan rehabilitation.

Deti said because demolition is not fully funded, it will be phased and delays “will occur naturally.”

Books still line the shelves in the State Hospital’s library. (Courtesy photo from Save the Old Wyoming State Hospital and Rep. Jon Conrad, R-Mountain View)

Advocates say it would cost less to restore than demolish

A decade ago, the hospital served patients and employed staff in multiple buildings on the large campus. Concerns over building conditions, utilities and safety included a long-term structural issue with load-bearing, unreinforced masonry walls and concrete floors. An earthquake could have been disastrous in the high seismic risk zone, Deti said.

The Healthcare Facilities Task Force decided to renovate and expand the newest existing building to create the improved, consolidated facility the Department of Health uses today.

Jennie Hegeman, an Evanston City councilor and member of the Save the Old Wyoming State Hospital group, said she understands the need for a new facility.

“What I don’t concur with is that they had to condemn it,” Hegeman told the Wyoming Truth.

Two independent feasibility studies, one by the City of Evanston and another by architectural firm Meyers Anderson, concluded it could be repurposed, she said.

Hegeman noted it would cost about $51 million to save the facility — less than the estimated $54 million in demolition costs.

Davis said the brick buildings are in good shape despite having been unheated for two years.

“Those buildings were maintained for years,” Davis told the Wyoming Truth, adding that for a century, the facility employed full-time carpenters, electricians and maintenance workers.

A view of the City of Evanston from the State Hospital site. (Courtesy photo from Save the Old Wyoming State Hospital and Rep. Jon Conrad, R-Mountain View)

Now, with a private developer interested in rehabilitating the facilities, advocates regard the facility as an economic development prospect that could bring jobs and sales tax revenue for the county and city. No different than older buildings around town, Hegeman said they could be used for housing, business space or culinary education.

“We need a 24-hour vet. There’s a place in there with a surgical space, so perfect,” she said. “It’s far better to restore this facility [than tear it down].”

Moving forward

Survey and design work related to abatement and demolition has started, according to Deti. As funding allows, the next step will be a series of bids for abatement and demolition of small sets of buildings.

“We’re talking about maybe two or three structures at a time. There are more than 20 total. It’s reasonable to expect the buildings in the very worst condition will be the first removed,” Deti said.

Ultimately, it will be elected policymakers who make final decisions about the fate of the hospital, Deti said. The hospital is a state facility on state trust land, which has specific legal meaning. If officials decide not to use the remaining building or land for state or local government purposes, the Board of Land Commissioners would have responsibility to execute a sale. Government uses have to come first.

The state can’t offer the property, with or without buildings, to a chosen private developer, according to Deti. An official bid process would not guarantee a chosen developer.

“Community members might be expecting one thing and get something completely different,” Deti said.

But for many residents, the hospital has been a mainstay on the hill, and they don’t want to see it go.

“If the people in the City of Evanston said, ‘Eh, I don’t care,’ then they would have spoken. But they’re saying, ‘My mother worked there, I worked there,’” Hegeman said.

The owner has every right to destroy the property, Davis said, “but it will be a shame if this place is leveled to the ground.”

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