Perched on a crumbling wall and surrounded by the dilapidated redbrick buildings that used to house one of the country’s largest breweries, Rob Clapp looked like he was on top of the world.
“There’s just something really beautiful and poetic about the disarray they are in,” said Clapp, about the former Hamm’s Brewery complex, a local landmark on St. Paul’s East Side that he wants to repurpose.
Clapp, one of the co-founders of the over-the-top Can Can Wonderland miniature golf course in St. Paul, wants to take his whimsical vision to transform the vacant buildings at the former Hamm’s Brewery into an interactive art museum, entertainment center and creative playground.
The sprawling complex, on Minnehaha Avenue not far from Payne Avenue, has about 10 structures that are still vacant with a handful of other buildings occupied by businesses.
Clapp and his partners, California-based Orton Development Inc., have already paid $550,000 for a building that once housed the Urban Organics aquaponics business. They hope to have it reoccupied by the end of the year. The plan is for leafy greens and striped bass to be grown and harvested at the site using some of the equipment left from the former business. For the aquaponics farm, Clapp is partnering with Zach Robinson, executive director of nonprofit Spark-Y, who wants to use the site to further his organization’s mission to teach young people about sustainability through hands-on learning.
Clapp also has a purchase agreement with the Gelb family of investors to buy the brewery’s old powerhouse, which has a large smokestack on top and sits across the street, that he wants to convert into artist work studios.
Clapp’s overall goal is to get city approval to obtain the rest of the buildings to convert into an amusement center for adults and children alike that could possibly include a rooftop zipline and Ferris wheel and a network of slides going from one building to another.
“This stuff seems crazy, and some of it is,” Clapp admitted as he showed renderings of colorful art installations and an observatory at the top of the smokestack.
Clapp has been enthralled with the Hamm’s complex for years. Originally from Florida, Clapp grew up as a child in St. Paul and has worked as a Twin Cities real estate broker for more than a decade.
Clapp helped John Warner, one of the owners of St. Paul Brewing (previously called Flat Earth Brewing) decide to move his brewery from the West 7th area of the city to three of the Hamm’s buildings five years ago.
“I referred to this as beautiful chaos,” Clapp said, about the former brewery buildings whose maze of crumbling walls covered in graffiti has been a paradise for urban explorers.
The Hamm’s Brewery, which officially closed in 1997 under the Stroh Brewery name, has been a staple on the East Side for years. Some of the buildings have been demolished and a handful repurposed, including St. Paul Brewing, the former Urban Organics building, and 11 Wells Spirits distillery and cocktail room.
The empty structures, including the old brewhouse, which is connected to several buildings, are in various stages of deterioration, with different floor levels and ceilings heights. Clapp sees the nonconformity as an asset to build his arts and amusement playground.
Clapp’s design inspiration is the City Museum in St. Louis, a 600,000 square-foot former shoe warehouse which bills itself as “a mixture of children’s playground, funhouse, surrealistic pavilion, and architectural marvel made out of found and repurposed objects.”
“They have a Ferris wheel on their roof and slides everywhere,” Clapp said. “It’s the coolest place ever.”
The Hamm’s buildings combined would give Clapp about 250,000 square feet to play with, he said. It’s unclear exactly how much the space would cost to renovate, but it likely wouldn’t be cheap.
Orton Development is also the owner of the industrial facility in St. Paul’s Midway area that houses Can Can Wonderland.
“We do have tremendous confidence in Rob after seeing his success at Can Can, and it would be great to partner with him on the larger Hamm’s facility,” said Nick Orton, a partner at Orton Development, in an e-mail. “We love finding interesting, new arts uses for old, bizarre, industrial buildings, and this would certainly qualify.”
Orton declined to discuss other details about the potential project saying additional comment was premature without a deal in place.
Other developers who have looked at the site for possible residential, offices or industrial uses haven’t found the buildings’ layouts, age and other quirks as ideal, Clapp said.
“Really you are left with some kind of creative reuse or demolition,” Clapp said.
The city’s Housing and Redevelopment Authority (HRA) owns the vacant buildings.
Clapp hopes to receive tentative developer status for the site from the city and gather feedback from the community about his plans.
While there are no active requests for proposals for the site, the city may receive proposals for the properties anytime, according to HRA spokeswoman Hannah Burchill. Staff will review proposals and can pass them onto the HRA to consider granting developer status.
“We are excited about the future possibilities of the Hamm’s Brewery site,” Burchill said, in an e-mail.
“We have had early conversations with Mr. Clapp about his idea, but have not received a formal offer to purchase the buildings at this time from him or any other developer.”
Clapp said the renderings he has publicized are conceptual and that the project might look dramatically different from the drawings after further studying the project’s feasibility.
Clapp has already discussed the project with St. Paul City Council Member Jane Prince, who was re-elected last week to represent the East Side’s Seventh Ward.
“I am really excited that Rob is really genuinely interested in the Hamm’s Brewery,” Prince said.
The complex is a challenging site to develop with issues like holes in the floors where tanks used to be, she said.
“[Clapp] sees those holes in the floor as ‘Wow, what can we do?’ ” Prince said.
Though there still needs to be community meetings about the project, she said based on initial conversations that she had with residents, people are excited about making the site a destination on the East Side.