The apparent last remaining “tank house” building in Minnesota, the 118-year-old Tower Barn in Scandia, appears destined for demolition after a 3-2 vote to stop its possible restoration.
Once recognized for its windmill on top that pumped a well inside, the Tower Barn was purchased in 1969 by the Hilltop Water Co., which now supplies 21 businesses and houses with water in the vicinity of Scandia’s two-block downtown.
Directors of the water company decided in May not to put the fate of the green clapboard Tower Barn to a wider shareholder vote.
“It’s sad to think that a building that is so iconic to Scandia will someday be gone and become a parking lot,” said Susan Rodsjo, a Hilltop board member who favors saving Tower Barn as an arts center or community gathering hall.
Hilltop Water’s president, Brenda Pfeiff- er, said in a statement that the board voted to end debate over saving the building and would seek a “barn resolution” that best serves the water company. Preservation of the barn, “while laudable in concept,” presents unforeseen financial risks to a small company, she wrote to shareholders in a June 5 letter.
“At the end of the day, what everyone wants most is their utility, their water rights and the end of a long argument,” said Pfeiffer, who wouldn’t talk about when the building would be demolished.
Construction of Tower Barn was attributed to early Scandia resident Frank Lake, who operated the Scandia Farmers’ Store from about 1884 to 1909. Lake, who died in 1941, immigrated from Sweden in 1868 when he was 6 years old.
The Tower Barn originated in 1895 and might be the only surviving tank house of its kind in Minnesota, according to a report on the building completed in March by Two Pines Resource Group, LLC. Others fell to decay and demolition after gas and electric pumps became more common, enabling deeper wells.
“The building’s distinctive tower was built to support a windmill to pump the well below and most likely housed an elevated water tank to increase water pressure,” the report said. “Therefore, not only is the Scandia Tower Barn a rare surviving example of this technology, but it may be a unique structure within the state.”
Housing a water tank inside the barn prevented freezing, with animals providing sufficient heat. The barn also was a livery stable in its early years, and now houses a 280-foot well in a corner of the ground floor that serves Hilltop customers. If the Tower Barn comes down, Hilltop would build a smaller structure to house its well and equipment, Rodsjo said.
The barn’s history under private ownership sets it apart from municipal tank houses and helps strengthen an argument for a potential listing on the National Register of Historic Places, the report said. Two Pines recommended that Hilltop nominate the structure for listing and also undertake a restoration “of this unique historic building.”
Rodsjo leads a group of preservationists trying to find a use for the barn. She estimated they would need three years to raise at least $200,000 for renovation and to seek historic designation.
Pffeifer, in her letter to shareholders, said Hilltop has been patient with various proposals to save the building but said time had run out. “Without full understanding of these ongoing proposals the shareholders are facing tremendous risk of their water rights and utility,” she wrote.
One of the water users, Wayne Schmitt, said the building is important to Scandia’s heritage. He favors at least a wider vote of Hilltop’s shareholders and said he would abide by the result. “If we can get a grant to fix it back up as an icon without too much cost to the users, I’m for it,” he said.
Curt Richter, who rents half of the building and fixes up old barns for a living, said the building has no retail future without sewer connections. But he still thinks it should be saved. “I hope they will change their minds,” he said. “With some creativity and good fortune, it can be saved. It’s in a perfect commercial setting.”
But Ross Brunfeldt, a Scandia real estate agent with an office nearby, said the Tower Barn has gone unnoticed for years except for a handful of people who support or oppose its salvation. “It does kind of look worse and worse each year,” he said. “People are just tired of talking about it. It’s become a divisive issue over nothing.”
The Tower Barn sits across a gravel parking lot from the Scandia Cafe. Owner Holly Kaufhold cast one of the three votes against saving the Tower Barn. The building’s fate has been a hot topic of conversation for all of the 20 years she’s owned the cafe, she said.
“To many, over the years, there has been an unstated precaution that one does not discuss politics, religion or the Green Building,” she said. “The villainizing of anyone who has a practical or functional reason for seeing the structure down and having to endure the scrutiny of others has made it almost impossible to get straight answers from folks.”
Some people project human emotions and feelings onto “inanimate objects,” Kaufhold said, and if the building could speak, “he might express that the neglected shell that remains is too costly to keep on life support any longer, and that to let him be remembered fondly would be preservation enough for him.”
Brent Peterson, director of the Washington County Historical Society, opposes razing Tower Barn and described its fate as part of a regrettable trend up and down the county. “Unfortunately you can see probably the neglect of some of the most important buildings we have left,” he said. “The foundations of our history, our heritage, who we are, they’re being taken down without appreciation for our communities.”
Peterson said Tower Barn should be saved and put to use for the benefit of Scandia, but he said people who oppose that will wait until the time is right to make an argument that deterioration is too far advanced.
“Neglect is a great form of vandalism,” he said.