SANDSTONE, Minn. – Jack Allen stands in an abandoned school near a second-floor window that local kids use as a door. “The first thing I’ll do when I get the building is block this window,” he said. “They were breaking in a lot over the last summer. It was bad.”
The sprawling, three-story school was built a century ago of stout blocks of sandstone from a quarry nearby. It’s imposing, with grand-arched doorways, but inside it’s a mess — vandalized, ransacked by copper thieves, damaged by cold. It has stood empty and without heat since a new school was built outside town.
Allen, an easygoing man with a gleam in his eye, is perhaps its best and last hope. He wants to buy the old school from the city for $1 and make it the new home of Harvest Christian School, a private school here where he is principal. He also envisions a thrift store, a coffee shop, doctors’ offices, a commercial kitchen, community classrooms and events spaces. “We want to bring back that community feeling,” he said. “I want people in the building. It’s a majestic building.”
That’s a sentiment small-city residents throughout Minnesota share as they struggle with old infrastructure — schools and hotels and churches that made more sense when there were hordes of kids in town or traveling salesmen moving through. They often debate for years their options with these iconic buildings. Sometimes they find new uses for them. Sometimes cities push the buildings over. The decisions say a lot about a community’s resources, cohesiveness and collective imagination.
In Fergus Falls, for example, residents rallied to save the Hotel Kaddatz, which opened in 1915 and brought visitors downtown for more than 50 years. Now it’s the center of a downtown arts haven that includes artist lofts, galleries, a performing-arts theater and three arts organizations. “When the center for the arts went in, nobody was open at night,” said Gordon Hydukovich, Fergus Falls’ community development director. “Suddenly four restaurants are open at night, some with live music. There are coffeehouses that weren’t there before.”
Chatfield, near Rochester, also is making an arts center from a historic structure — its former high school, which is in the middle of town. “This building was built to last hundreds of years,” said city clerk Joel Young. “It wouldn’t be right to abandon it after just 75 years.”
But the battles over these buildings can be fierce, reflecting conflicting visions amid changing demographics and economic uncertainty. In Morris in western Minnesota, residents spent years arguing about the fate of an empty school. Finally, the city decided to tear it down this summer.
And in Kasson, near Rochester, officials are trying to knock down an old school to make way for a new library, but residents have filed a challenge in court.
In Sandstone, a city of 2,800 an hour north of the Twin Cities, most people seem to want to save the school.
“It’s the only pretty building in town,” said resident Lois Langerud, who attended all 12 grades there.
“It’s a shame to have something like that be destroyed,” said Belinda Woyak. “It’s a shame to have it sitting there, too. It’s just this town. They don’t want to spend the money.”
Losing school took a toll
City administrator Sam Griffith thinks the loss of a functioning school took a toll, making town streets less busy. “As long as that building is there,” he said, “there is hope it can be reused and bring back some of that community togetherness everybody senses is missing.”
Allen still is looking for $3 million, his estimate to complete a two-year renovation of the 1901 school, which has mold on the floors, lead paint peeling from the walls, asbestos, broken windows and graffiti. The maple floor in the auditorium has buckled from heat and cold, its surface as wavy as a rumpled sheet.
Until the city sees that financial backing, it remains cautious. They’ve been down this road before with no luck.
The school board sold the old school to a Twin Cities developer whose plans didn’t work out. The Sandstone Economic Development Authority foreclosed in 2008 and has been struggling with it ever since. One idea, turning it into a new city hall and library, would have cost millions.
“All kinds of people step up to say, ‘I want the building,’ ” said Griffith. “But they have no money or no experience.”
He is reservedly optimistic about Jack Allen. “Jack had a realistic plan. It makes sense to remake part of it as a school.”
Allen is confident he can raise the money. He said approximately half the money will come from private donations and half from grants.
“This building is loved by the community,” said Allen, who also runs a Bible camp on nearby Grindstone Lake and has experience rehabbing old houses.
City Council member Phil Kester doubts the building is worth the trouble. “I don’t feel the sentiment toward it to spend money on it,” he said. “It’s a beautiful building and a humongous bill. There is mold and everything else. Lead-based paint all over. You have nothing but a bunch of work there.”
If Allen’s plan falls through, the city expects to deal with the building quickly. A few years ago, the city received a demolition estimate of more than $700,000. But letting the structure further degrade brings liability concerns.
“If we can’t find a use this summer,” Griffith said, “we will have to plan next winter to take it down.”
“Reviving Minnesota Relics” is a series that can be heard starting Monday on MPR News — 91.1 FM in the Twin Cities — or read in its entirety at MPRNews.org.