ROCHESTER – Drills whirred and hammers pounded last week deep inside the city’s historic armory, a castlelike structure that for a century has stood sentinel on a downtown corner.
The construction noise will fade away in the days ahead as the armory, no longer a military drill hall, reopens as a restaurant, arts space, bookstore and one-of-a-kind performance venue.
The vision of a group of local owners, the Castle Community project was judged the best idea to come forward when the city put the armory up for sale last year. The new owners paid $675,000 for the building, saying they want to create a vibrant arts space, open to the public, where art is made, sold and performed. Anchoring the space will be a new restaurant and bar. A coffee shop, the used bookstore, common areas and other spaces fill out the floor plan.
It will be the armory’s third act.
The armory was built for $40,000 in 1915 at 122 N. Broadway and first housed the machine gun company of the Third Minnesota National Guard Regiment. It included officers’ quarters, a dining room and a drill hall that could house 2,000 people. Rallies and fundraisers to support the troops were held there. After the war, couples met up on the hall’s wooden floors for evening dances, while on other nights art exhibitions, conventions, club meetings and even boxing matches were held, according to the History Center of Olmsted County.
The military decamped in the 1970s for a new building at the edge of town, and the city bought the armory and remade it into a senior center. A second floor was added, converting the cavernous drill hall into two floors. Offices were put on the lower floor while games of pickleball and other activities were held upstairs.
The senior center moved two years ago, and the city began a search for a new owner. City leaders said they chose the Castle Community project over four others because it offered the most flexibility for the 103-year-old armory, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
It probably helps that the project dovetails with the remake of downtown Rochester that’s been set off by the Mayo Clinic’s $5.6 billion expansion known as Destination Medical Center. The DMC vision calls for making downtown a more livable, walkable, amenity-rich city that will draw top-notch doctors and make the city a destination in its own right.
The Castle Community’s bookstore, for example, fills a gap among downtown businesses that was left when the neighborhood’s only bookstore, a Barnes and Noble, vacated its home in a historic downtown movie theater several years ago.
The new owners, Eric Deutsch, Ross Henderson, Scott Hoss and Leyzer Topel, all live and work in Rochester. Arts professional Naura Anderson, a longtime employee of the Rochester Art Center until she left in 2015, will manage the arts programming at the Castle and run an art store on its second level.
Local chef Zach Ohly will run the restaurant, Cameo at the Castle, on the building’s ground floor.
Hoss said the renovations have been mostly about uncovering the original building. The city built walls, covered up exposed brick with drywall and laid carpeting and tile on the floors. At one point, construction crews had to remove three layers of flooring to get to the original wood floors underneath.
Along the way, Hoss said, he learned that his family had a connection to the building: His father used to report to the armory for Army Reserve training in the 1960s.
Anderson said meetings with local artists helped shape the direction of the project. Already an established arts consultant in Rochester, she said she heard from the local arts community that artists wanted a place to make, show and sell their work. Some of the studio space will be available for people who want to drop in and work on something, but a few larger studios will offer monthslong residencies for artists who will work on their own trades while also engaging with the public in some way, she said.
Hoss said state and federal rehabilitation tax credits have helped fund the renovation, but it’s still been more expensive than originally anticipated. He didn’t share total costs.
The Rochester Downtown Alliance plans to hold a “Here Comes Santa Claus” event at the armory on Friday, Nov. 23, from 4 to 6 p.m. The restaurant is scheduled to open that day as well, at 3 p.m.