After nearly a century as a resource for scholars and budding businessmen, the James J. Hill Center in downtown St. Paul has been listed for sale as the chapter likely comes to a close on the building’s life as a library.
The historic structure, located on the corner of 4th and Market streets across from Rice Park, had served as a free reference library and event center before it was shuttered to the public in early July due to financial challenges.
The 40,000-square-foot building has been put on the market for the first time, offering developers a chance to purchase the landmark property connected to one of the area’s most prominent historical figures.
Leaders of the James J. Hill Center, which is run as a privately funded nonprofit, hope the listing will ignite interest as it considers the building’s future.
“By offering it up for sale we are able to learn what the market might tell us about the value of the facility and/or we’re hoping it’s possible that other potential partners might come out of the woodwork now that we are formally listing the building,” Pat Moran, president of the center’s board said Monday.
Moran said it’s possible that the building won’t be sold, but the board is considering all options.
“It’s a beautiful building, but it’s not like you can turn it into condos very easily,” he said. “It obviously could be an event center, a restaurant theoretically. There’s a lot of things it could be.”
The James J. Hill Center listing does not include the adjacent George Latimer Central Library, which is part of the St. Paul Public Library system.
The center is clad with marble and features a grand, two-story reading room with large sandstone columns. The building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, which means developers could be eligible to receive historic tax credits for redevelopment.
The building was founded as the James J. Hill Reference Library in 1921. It was originally intended as a gift from railroad mogul James J. Hill, who wanted the building to be an authoritative source of reference books. He died before he could see it completed. In 1976, the board that supervised the library decided to have the building specialize in business reference services. In 2013, the name of the building was changed to the James J. Hill Center to reflect the additional program and services the center made available outside its library offerings.
Most recently, the center served as a space for weddings, concerts and other events like 1 Million Cups St. Paul, a weekly pitch practice and networking meetup for early stage startups. Since 2016, programming grew from serving about 1,100 people a year to close to 11,000 people a year, said Tamara Prato, the center’s executive director.
It’s not yet known what will happen to the books and other resources inside the center if the building sells, but books could potentially go to a museum, university or other organization, Prato said.
“For me and those of us on the mission side of this, it’s hard to see access to that information come to an end,” she said.
The building also contains some artwork that could be returned to the James J. Hill House, Prato said.
Despite the success of its programming, the center struggled financially to be viable especially in light of the cost of the upkeep of the historic building and the pressures of running a physical library in the digital age. In order to keep the library open, up to $5 million in repairs needed to be done over the next few years, Moran said.
“As a privately funded nonprofit, our ability to provide these services to the public for free is not sustainable,” according to a statement on the center’s website posted around when the building closed to the public on July 3. “We continue to be challenged to develop a financial model that can deliver the original intent while being fiscally responsible for the ongoing operating costs of the organization and necessary capital investments in the historic structure.”
When asked if leadership had considered donating the center, Prato said she had personally approached several different entities and possible stakeholders including the Minnesota State Historic Preservation Office and the city of St. Paul to discuss potential partnerships, but she said there had been little interest.
“When you get donated something that’s older and historic, it costs a lot of money to maintain it,” Moran said. “I think we would surely consider donating it to a municipality if we thought they wanted it but I don’t think they want it.”
Developers have expressed interest in converting it into a bed-and-breakfast or boutique hotel or perhaps a retail location, said Frank Sherwood, a real estate broker with CBRE Minneapolis, who along with broker Jerry Driessen is responsible for the sale and marketing of the property.
“It’s a very unique deal,” Sherwood said. “It’s got a lot of broad appeal.”
According to Ramsey County property records, the center’s estimated value is about $3.1 million.
In about six months, a clearer picture about the future of the center should emerge, Moran said. In September, the nonprofit obtained Ramsey County court approval to allow it to sell the property, but it also gave the organization permission to change its mission — which could create other philanthropic opportunities.
“It’s hard to know exactly how [Hill] would feel about it … but I think it’s clear that he would want us to be smart about the money and make sure it is used in the best possible way to help the citizens of St. Paul and the Twin Cities,” said Moran.