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Saving mom’s memorabilia

The late Georgia Sedahl’s daughter, with the help of a Brainerd lawmaker, was able to save three pieces of memorabilia from the impending wrecking ball that’s scheduled to tear down buildings at the former Brainerd State Hospital site.

When Barbara Sedahl Eckenberg of Duluth learned the building named after her mother, longtime state hospital employee Georgia Sedahl, was slated to be destroyed this fall she knew she had to retrieve three items.

“They’re going to tear grandma’s building down,” is what niece Kari Brusseau, told Eckenberg. Another niece of Eckenberg’s, Staci Headley, also lives in the Brainerd area.

Contacting Rep. John Ward, DFL-Brainerd, through Facebook, she asked his help to recover a photo of her mother and a plaque noting the building’s 1992 dedication from inside Building 4. She also wanted a wooden sign outside of the building which stated Sedahl Center.

Ward saw to it that the plaque and photo were retrieved and helped make arrangements for the sign to be set aside by state officials next week. The plaque and photo were being cleaned and polished before being given to the family.

“I just couldn’t have them bulldozed in the building,” Eckenberg said by phone from Duluth. “This is hard enough.”

Her mother started at what was then Brainerd State Hospital in 1960, when the facility was one of the largest employers in Brainerd. She began her career as a psychiatric tech, Eckenberg said, and ended it in 1986 as a volunteer coordinator and public relations specialist. Eckenberg said her mother conducted many high school tours at the state hospital and even guided such dignitaries as Hubert H. Humphrey.

Sedahl died in 1991 and Building No. 4 was named after her in 1992.

Eckenberg said she intends to hang the plaque and photo in her dining room. The wooden sign will be erected at a memory garden at her home in Duluth.

“My mom, she would have just been blown away that it (the building) was dedicated to her,” Eckenberg said. “This was more than just a job and career for her. She loved all those kids (with mental health problems). She would bring them home. Those kids never experienced home life.”

Ward, who worked at the state hospital as an educator, said many families who put blood, sweat and tears into the hospital campus have fond memories of it.

He said Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson thanked him for his efforts to find another use for the facility but informed him that demolition plans would proceed. She said in her letter it costs the state $1 million a year to keep the buildings open and the cost to bring them up to code was prohibitive, Ward said.

Ward reluctantly acknowledged that the effort to save the 10 buildings which were scheduled for demolition would not succeed.

“I hate to say ‘uncle’,” he said. “I’ve fought to the bitter end.”

Ward said he was told by state officials that the demolition contractor has fenced the buildings and abatement teams were removing asbestos from windows. The lawmaker said a more precise demolition schedule might be available after state officials meet with the contractor Monday.

Ten buildings are set to be destroyed at the Brainerd Regional Treatment Center campus at the junction of Highways 25 and 18. They are buildings 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 17, 19, 4, 37, east tunnels and related roadways, sidewalks and water lines.

The state hospital opened in 1958 and at its peak, had a population of 1,500 patients, according to a Dispatch story printed on the 30th anniversary of the campus. A change in mental health treatment philosophy resulted in dramatic reduction of patient numbers from 1958 to 1979.

Earlier Ward said that Buildings 1 and 2, the main central buildings near the entrance were not scheduled for this demolition project. Programs that continue to operate there include a MnCARE administrative program (Building 20), the Minnesota Neuro-rehabilitation Services (Building 21) and Community Addiction Recovery Enterprises (Building 22).