The Tide Turns for South Dakota’s Oldest Public Institution

Posted on: September 27th, 2012 by Jenny Buddenborg

Aerial view of the Human Services Center circa 1935. Credit Yankton County Historical Society.

In 2009 South Dakota’s state government was determined to systematically demolish 11 historic buildings on the campus of the state’s oldest public institution – the Human Services Center located in Yankton County. The State had abandoned the buildings over the years in favor of building a new, “modern” complex on the same site. Due to lack of use and maintenance, the buildings progressively decayed, but their stories lived on.

Those stories began in 1878 when the campus was established as the Dakota Hospital for the Insane. The state of South Dakota didn’t even yet exist, but the Dakota Territory did, and its capital was Yankton. Largely constructed between 1882 and 1942, the buildings feature Neo-Classical, Art Deco, Italianate, Prairie, and Neo-Renaissance architectural styles. Many of the buildings are constructed of South Dakota-quarried Sioux Quartzite with foot-thick walls, clay tile roofing, and concrete for fireproofing. They were built to last.

It was at the HSC where Dr. Leonard Mead, hospital superintendent from 1891-1920, implemented his groundbreaking idea of creating an environment that would be therapeutically beneficial for patients instead of the sterile, fear-provoking asylums of the day. Landscaping and aesthetic symmetry provided an atmosphere of beauty and comfort to patients. Because of this tribute to human service and the majestic architecture, the campus was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.

Carrara marble staircase that graces the interior lobby of the Mead Building. Credit: Yankton County Historical Society

When the threat to the historic campus reached its peak in 2009 as the state legislature considered an appropriation to demolish three of the buildings, the National Trust joined ranks with Preserve South Dakota to elevate awareness of this important place. The statewide nonprofit organization successfully nominated it as one of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. At the same time, the Yankton County Historical Society expressed interest in moving its Dakota Territorial Museum into the vacant Mead Building that was slated for demolition, a 50,000-square-foot Neo-Renaissance beauty with a curvilinear Carrara marble staircase gracing the lobby.

As part of the 11 Most advocacy efforts, the National Trust created the HSC Advocacy Coalition, a group of local, state, and national representatives who set about implementing strategies to prevent the demolitions, promote building reuse, and support the historical society’s vision for the Mead Building. Due to the pressure and strategic advocacy of the 11 Most listing, coupled with a slow economy, the State of South Dakota never did allocate the demolition funding. This in itself was cause for celebration, but despite the coalition’s efforts to work with the State on identifying and facilitating redevelopment of the buildings, little forward progress was made.

The State was unwilling to seriously discuss the sale or lease of the buildings until an interested developer(s) appeared, but it was also unwilling to actively promote the buildings to make potential developers aware of the opportunity. On top of that, developers that knew of the situation were unwilling to deal with the associated politics. Fortunately, that started to change when a new state administration entered the picture in 2011.

Since then, there has been greater interaction between the governor’s office, the HSC Advocacy Coalition, and the Yankton County Historical Society. In July, the governor and lieutenant governor visited the Mead Building to meet with historical society staff and members, local elected officials, and other stakeholders. The outcome was the signing of a 20-year lease with the option for purchase between the State and historical society for the rehabilitation and use of the Mead Building as the Dakota Territorial Museum.

The Mead Building was named for the HSC’s first hospital superintendent Dr. Leonard Mead. Credit: Jennifer Buddenborg

Overcoming the building ownership hurdle is a big success for this 11 Most site. The HSC Advocacy Coalition has been touting the Mead Building reuse as a catalyst for redeveloping the larger historic campus since the beginning of our advocacy efforts, and now the governor does as well. Our hope is that the governor will actively work with the coalition to identify new uses and development opportunities for the remaining historic buildings that honor the character and stories of the place. In addition, the City of Yankton recently acquired vacant land on the HSC campus that sits adjacent to the historic buildings for redevelopment opportunities. The coalition is trying to engage the City to discuss how the historic HSC campus can be a part of a comprehensive site development plan.

The tide has turned for the endangered Human Services Center campus and the National Trust and partners continue to persevere in the preservation and reuse of the impressive collection of buildings. For more information on the Mead Building rehabilitation, visit the Dakota Territorial Museum website.

About Jenny Buddenborg

Jenny Buddenborg is a senior field officer in the National Trust’s Denver Field Office.