Transforming part of the old Anoka State Hospital into 33 modern apartments for veterans would have cost $11.5 million in construction costs.
That’s more than $330,000 per apartment, nearly $100,000 more per unit than a similar renovation at Fort Snelling’s historic Upper Post.
That amount, which would buy a large home nearby, has raised the eyebrows of some commissioners in Anoka County, which owns the site.
But officials with CommonBond Communities, the nonprofit group that transformed Fort Snelling’s Upper Post stables and warehouses into comfortable veterans’ homes, said they can do the same with three boarded-up state hospital buildings near the banks of the Rum River. And it won’t cost Anoka County a dime.
That’s critical because county officials sought a permit from the city of Anoka to tear down the century-old complex in 2014. The county covers the annual cost of keeping the buildings secured.
When city officials balked, citing the destruction of historical properties, the veterans’ housing plan was hatched.
“If the buildings can be salvaged and they can be used for good, I am supportive as long as it’s not borne by the taxpayers of Anoka County,” said Commissioner Scott Schulte.
The linchpin for the renovation: state and federal historic and low-income tax credits that could help secure nearly $8.5 million, according to CommonBond’s projections.
CommonBond missed out on tax credits last year, but is reapplying for the credits this year with Minnesota Housing.
CommonBond already has spent nearly $25,000 on preliminary work with a general contractor, architects and historical consultants. They’ve gone into the renovation with a full understanding of the many challenges that add zeros to the project, such as complicated roof pitches, and lead and asbestos abatement.
CommonBond Senior Project Manager Andrew Michaelson said the buildings, built in the first decade of the 1900s, can be saved and restored.
“To me, it’s a compelling project,” Michaelson said. “The city and county wanted a veterans’ use. We are taking buildings sitting vacant. We will take over the upkeep cost and bring them back on the tax rolls.”
The goal now is to obtain the tax credits, sign the lease for the property with the county and start work next summer.
History worth saving?
The property’s history, while often dark, adds another rationale to renovate.
The first 100 residents, labeled “incurables” with persistent mental illness, arrived at the Anoka Asylum in March 1900 — men who had lost their minds from hereditary causes and environment, according to newspaper accounts of the day.
Anoka was one of 13 state hospitals and institutions for mentally ill and disabled adults and children. The original campus was considered innovative at the time, and the circle of brick cottages gave it a less institutional feel.
The asylum was not built originally to provide treatment, but as a place for residents to live out their days. According to records, 86 of the first 100 patients died there and many were buried in numbered graves at the cemetery on the grounds.
Todd Mahon, former director of the Anoka County Historical Society, said the buildings at the old state hospital, built in the Jacobethan Revival style, tell an unvarnished history.
“People can see the values of time coming through those buildings,” Mahon said. “That style represented a change in attitude, how people cared for the mentally ill.”
Old buildings offer a three-dimensional history lesson that nearly everyone can learn, said Mahon.
“Preservation of historic built environments is the thing, people see quite easily,” said Mahon, now a program specialist at the Minnesota Historical Society.
Care and treatment of residents at the asylum, later renamed Anoka State Hospital, evolved as society’s perception of the mentally ill changed. For the first half of the century, residents were restrained with leather straps and straitjackets. Some patients were treated with lobotomies, electroshock therapy and immersion into ice-cold baths.
Dr. Neal Holtan, who researched the hospital in connection with the Anoka County Historical Society, told the Star Tribune in 2014 that it was “so easy to make assumptions about events in the past and place value judgments on them. That is a temptation that is hard to resist.”
The campus, once a large employer in town, evokes fierce loyalty in the community. Many people have family members and friends who worked there, and some former staffers and patients said it did become a place of healing.
The hospital closed in 1999, and the state gave the land to the county in 2000. The county today uses some of the buildings for its workhouse and offices. Stepping Stone Emergency Housing, the only homeless shelter in Anoka County, is on the site.
Michaelson said this will be a new chapter for the property.
“We talked about some of those potential concerns,” he said. “There are a lot of benefits to the site. It’s a beautiful setting. It’s along the river shore. There is good access to trails and the Northstar rail. And there is going to be brand-new, quality, dignified housing that people can afford.”