After years of sitting dark and vacant, a historic riverfront property in Anoka is stirring to life. Sun now streams through windows previously boarded up. Fresh paint coats the walls. New flooring extends underfoot.
In less than two months of work, volunteers have opened the doors to one of three century-old structures recently taken over by a nonprofit with the goal of transforming them into veterans housing. More than 350 volunteers have pitched in so far to turn the first empty structure into a safe place to live, giving at-risk and homeless veterans a place to “heal with honor” in time for winter.
Some are calling it the “miracle on 4th Street,” a nod to a Christmas classic and the address where the brick structures sit on a broader campus at 3300 4th Av., a serene site overlooking the wooded banks of the Rum River.
The first veterans moved in Dec. 1, a goal set at a September rally to launch the project. Observers say meeting this tight deadline is no small feat given the condition of the buildings, which have been gathering mold, dust and graffiti from years of disuse.
“Nobody thought it could happen,” said Sen. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, a key supporter of the project. “It’s a miracle, actually.”
The project represents the culmination of a yearslong debate about what to do with the three storied buildings, which are owned by Anoka County and part of the old Anoka State Hospital, once known as the Anoka “Asylum for the Insane.”
The state deeded the old campus to the county in 2000, with the county still using several of the original buildings. In recent years, the county had looked into demolishing the three shuttered structures, citing the costly repairs needed to renovate them.
But a lease deal struck this fall between the county and city of Anoka after months of wrangling is giving the city a chance to develop the structures — known as cottages 2, 3 and 4, plus an auditorium — and certify them for occupancy.
The new sign out front reads “Eagle’s Healing Nest,” a nod to the nonprofit run by Melony Butler in Sauk Centre, Minn., and now being replicated in Anoka by subleasing the structures from the city. Butler’s Sauk Centre operation also provides housing to veterans in renovated historic buildings.
“This was about family and what can be accomplished through community,” Butler said. “The buildings didn’t need to be torn down. They just needed love.”
The recently renovated cottage is now open to male veterans. The first men have already moved in. Festive wreaths and decorated Christmas trees adorn the property as volunteers prepare for a Christmas celebration and open house planned for Dec. 16.
Work is underway to get a second building ready to house female veterans by Feb. 1. The third building will then be converted for families, with the three structures expected to house about 30 individuals each.
Butler and her team rely exclusively on donations and volunteer work and are still looking for help in the Anoka renovations. Some volunteers say they’ve put their lives on hold for the last two months, coming out to the property day after day to get it ready for veterans before cold weather set in.
On a recent afternoon, workers repaired windows, hauled away debris and scrubbed surfaces. They arranged furniture and added homey touches to sunlit rooms: quilts on each bed, flowers or books on bedside tables, artwork on the walls.
Walking from room to room, Abeler pointed out markers of progress: The toilets flush. A clean ceiling spans overhead. Doors open and seal shut. The lights have been flipped on. These little sights and sounds have become celebrated milestones, drowning out the skepticism from some corners over the accelerated timeline and the formidable labor needed.
“It was a six-month project that we completed in 57 days,” said Lucie Cutts, a volunteer who has been coordinating the project’s cleaning tasks. “That’s pretty remarkable.”