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Yankton's Mead Building
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Yankton's Mead Building
Images Courtesy Yankton County Historical Society

The future home of Yankton's Dakota Territorial Museum opened in 1909 as the women's receiving hospital at what was known at the time as the Dakota Hospital for the Insane.

The building now bears the name of the hospital superintendent who had it built. Dr. Leonard C. Mead.

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Dr. Mead was a visionary and progressive in his approach to both mental health care and architecture. He knew where the two could intersect. The marble staircase at the main entrance of the building was intended to dignify and enoble the institution and the patients being cared for within its walls.

Crystal Nelson, Director of the Dakota Territorial Museum, says Dr. Mead faced opposition from a skeptical public.

"People were calling him crazy for spending so much effort and time and money into building buildings like this that were so architecturally unique and decorative," Nelson said. "You know, a huge marble staircase you'd probably only seen in mansions at the time and he put it in a building for mentally ill patients. People could not understand this philosophy. They couldn't understand why he would do this but he was a very progressive thinker. He knew or felt that every patient has something that makes them tick. Every patient has something that he knew would be needed to get inside - past the mentally ill part - and find some serenity within themselves."

Mead's desire to see more and better buildings was also a response to both necessity and tragedy. In 1882, years before Mead came to Yankton, a fire in the institution's original and overcrowded wooden building killed five men. When Mead took over as superintendent in 1891, the institution's buildings were still overcrowded and they were still disastrously unsafe. in 1899, a fire ripped through what was known as the laundry cottage. 17 women housed in the upper floors of the building died in the blaze.

Dr. Mead and other superintendents had been begging the state legislature for more money to build better and more facilities. Immediately after the 1899 fire, the legislature finally allocated money and passed bills calling for fire-resistant construction of state buildings.

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Dr. Leonard Mead died in 1920.

In 1974 the Yankton State Hospital was renamed the South Dakota Human Services Center, or HSC.

In the 1980's the state again seriously considered the need for facilities upgrades. In 1991, Governor George S. Mickelson had a study done. The state wanted to know if the old buldings could be renovated but a decision was made to build a new facility from the ground up. Instead of multiple buildings connected by tunnels, the new facility would all under one roof.

The George S. Mickelson center for the neurosciences opened in 1996. Many of the old state hospital buildings have been razed. But, thanks to a large measure of community support, the Mead building has been spared. In 2008, the Yankton County Historical Society voted unanimously as a board of directors to pursue the Mead building, renovate it, and one day turn it into a new museum and cultural center.

"In 2012, in June, we signed a long-term, twenty-year lease with the State of South Dakota," said Nelson. "The stipulations of that lease say that by the year 2018, they - the Yankton County Historical Society as the Dakota Territorial Museum - need to occupy the Mead building. Not occupy the entire building, but we have to occupy the building and be functioning solely out of that building by the end of 2018. So those plans are very set in stone. Once the Yankton County Historical Society feels that we are confident that we want to own the building, there has already been state legislation passed that stipulates that we can buy the building from the State of South Dakota - after twenty years or any time within that twenty years - for a dollar."

If that seems cheap, consider the estimated five million dollars it will take to renovate the building The work is being done in phases over a span of years.

Learn more in this "Dakota Life" segment from September of 2014.

View a Flickr photo gallery of the renovation in 2016.

View a Flickr photo gallery of the Mead Building before renovation.

Related blog post - Landmarks: Restoring a Yankton Treasure Nearly Lost