A thick skin of red limestone gives the Oakland apartments in downtown Minneapolis a fortresslike appearance, fitting for a building that weathered 130 years as office towers and parking lots have grown around it. But a major fire in 2016 has put its future in doubt.
Owners of what is likely downtown’s oldest surviving apartment building say the property at 213-215 S. 9th St. is beyond repair, and city code inspectors have demanded they demolish it. But another branch of the city, the Heritage Preservation Commission, voted Tuesday to deny their demolition permit, while pushing for the building to be salvaged and scolding owners for not better protecting it from the elements.
The City Council will likely make the final decision, since the vote is expected to be appealed.
The building’s architect, Harry Wild Jones, gives it added distinction. Jones is considered one of Minneapolis’ most prominent early architects, having designed the Butler Square building and Lakewood Cemetery’s chapel, among landmarks. Preservationists recently fought to save one of his churches in south Minneapolis, but it was demolished last year.
“This is a very unique resource downtown. We’ve lost so many of these small apartment buildings. We’ve lost so much of this architect’s work,” Preservation Commission Member Barbara Howard said before Tuesday’s 7-1 vote. The building contained 21 apartments with rents far below typical downtown rates.
The Oakland, built in 1889, and its neighbor, the 1904 former League of Catholic Women building, are the only properties still standing on the downtown block — one of the few still dominated by surface parking. The Preservation Alliance of Minnesota deemed the Oakland one of the “most endangered historic places” in the state in 2008, since it has no historic protection and sits in a tempting location for future development.
But the Oakland’s owner says he is hearing mixed messages from City Hall. While city planning staff opposed the demolition, the inspections department ordered in 2017 that the building be razed as a “nuisance.” Dave Gonyea, who represents a consortium that owns the building, said he regularly receives calls from inspections asking him to demolish the building.
“I’m sick of listening in this ear to the one half of the city and this [ear] the other half,” Gonyea said. “It’s getting pretty old.”
The facade of the building remains intact, including an ornate “Oakland” stone carving above its entrance. A closer look reveals evidence of the fire, which was caused by a faulty electrical outlet. Ground-floor windows are boarded and others are broken and open to the elements. The roof has been largely destroyed.
Insurance has paid out more than $500,000 for the damage. The owners are willing to sell it, but are seeking a price in line with property’s assessed $660,000 land value. One prospective buyer, Gary Brummer, says he offered to pay $60,000 — given the costs to rehab it.
“It’s salvageable. It’s just going to cost money,” Brummer said.
Meanwhile, building owners are paying about $12,000 a year in taxes and $7,000 to cover the city’s annual fee for vacant and boarded properties.
An open roof
Much of Tuesday’s discussion focused on the condition of the property. Commission members criticized building owners for not putting a tarp on the roof, leaving the building exposed to the elements for more than two years. Gonyea responded that a tarp would not be feasible.
“The roof’s burned off. It’s burned through the floor on the top floor. There’s no tarping the building,” Gonyea said. Some on the commission disagreed, saying it was possible.
Gonyea said he will likely appeal the vote to the City Council.
Tuesday’s vote also initiated a study for potential historic designation of the building, which would give it some protections from future demolition. Commissioner Sue Hunter-Weir asked that the building also be protected while it is studied. “One of the things that we see more often than we should is demolition by neglect,” Hunter-Weir said.
“I feel pretty strongly that this building is still in a savable condition and its history is still intact,” said Commission Member Madelyn Sundberg.
The Preservation Alliance and others note that the Oakland is one of the few remaining examples of the 19th century residential architecture that once dotted the downtown landscape. It is a few blocks away from the Ninth Street South Historic District, which contains many of the city’s early row houses.
“This was a very early work of [Jones],” said Liz Vandam, who wrote a book on Harry Wild Jones. “It was done in stone when they were still building a lot of stuff out of wood. So it was fairly modern for design.”
Jones claimed it was the “first apartment building in Minneapolis,” but city officials say the distinction needs some additional research. Architectural historian Larry Millett said the Oakland appears to be the oldest modern-style apartment building, meaning it has a common entrance for multiple units, remaining in downtown. Row houses, by contrast, had separate entrances. Other examples from the era include the Ozark Flats on 13th Street and Hennepin Avenue.
“I think [demolition] will be regretted, because the city is known for having torn down other buildings in the ’60s. ... And they know now that they shouldn’t have done it,” Vandam said. “This building may look like its life is over, but it is still very strong. They’ll find out if they tear it down that it’s going to take a lot to wreck it.”