“A more beautiful site for a school could not well be found; on a rise of ground, commanding a wide view of lake valley, hill and plain, surrounded by parklike forests, and arched by the full sweep of the heavens, all the natural influences combine to elevate and instruct the mind.” — Villa Maria Center, describing a school and convent established in the late 1800s by the Ursuline Sisters on Lake Pepin.
Swap “school” for “hotel” in that blurb and you’ll understand why St. Paul developer John Rupp says he paid $2.25 million in March for the old Villa Maria Center on 63 wooded acres in Old Frontenac, about an hour’s drive south of the Twin Cities and just under an hour from Rochester.
“It’s an epochally beautiful location, so that’s why I took the risk,” said Rupp, 69.
His company, Commonwealth Properties, owns two historic St. Paul buildings that he converted to hotels — the Burbank Livingston Griggs Mansion and 340 Hotel — as well as Stout’s Island Lodge in Birchwood, Wis. It also owns restaurants, office and retail space in several historic St. Paul buildings.
Rupp said he’s admired Villa Maria in Florence Township for more than 20 years and would periodically drop in to visit the Ursuline Sisters who ran it.
The order was founded in Brescia, Italy, in 1535. It established convents and schools for girls in Europe, Canada and America. In Minnesota, the order started the Academy of Our Lady of the Lake in what is now Florence Township in 1880. It expanded in 1891 to a new building on a 124-acre site above Lake Pepin and was renamed the Villa Maria Academy, which continued until the schoolhouse was struck by lightning and burned down in 1969.
The nuns then ran a retreat center through Marian Hall, a steel and concrete structure built in the French châteaux style in 1946 as a student dormitory. That’s the building Rupp seeks to convert to a “boutique country hotel” if Goodhue County agrees to rezone the site as a commercial recreational district. Lisa Hanni, the county’s land use management director, said in an e-mail that the change would require a few public hearings. If approved, Rupp could then apply for a conditional use permit, which requires another hearing. Hanni said the County Board ultimately must sign off on the changes, and Florence Township also might require some permits.
“We have not heard of any opposition to the project, but then again, it has not been available for review yet,” Hanni said.
Rupp’s first step will be to restore Marian Hall for use as an event center for weddings, family reunions and corporate retreats. He said he hopes to be booking events next spring. A chapel would be converted to a great room with a fireplace. And preliminary plans call for a glass-enclosed dining room on the back of the building with a skating rink outside.
“It will look like an Italian winter garden,” Rupp said.
Rupp plans to reconfigure the dorms into 30 to 40 guest rooms and suites. “This is a multiyear plan,” he said, adding that he hopes to erect more guest rooms on the site.
The hotel would initially employ about 70 people, some in part-time jobs working special events, he said.
Villa Maria is surrounded by the 2,300-acre Frontenac State Park on the bluffs that front Lake Pepin. It has hiking, cross-country ski and snowmobile trails, Rupp noted. It’s also in the Mississippi Flyway, a migratory bird corridor that draws more than 300 species.
“It’s breathtaking,” Rupp said. “I went down and the day I got there a flock of white pelicans flew over the top of the Villa and kind of floated on the updrafts off the lake, and I thought, ‘This is the place!’ ”