The Oakland apartments weathered more than a century in downtown Minneapolis before a 2016 fire left the building in shambles. But after a close call with demolition, new buyers hope to ensure the building endures as affordable downtown apartments.

Likely downtown’s oldest surviving apartment building, the Oakland has sat vacant for years at 213-215 S. 9th St. after a fire gutted its interior and tore apart the roof — leaving it exposed to the elements. It was in such poor condition that the city ordered it to be demolished, but the City Council blocked the owner’s application for a demolition permit.

Prospective buyers could not pay what the owners wanted — close to the $600,000 assessed land value — due to the cost to restore the building. That did not deter John Kistler and Norman Kulba, who along with an unnamed partner bought it for $400,000 last week.

“Everybody has looked at it to not make a [financial] loss. But the loss is going to be if we lose the building,” Kistler said. He and Kulba are no strangers to preservation; the pair was behind the recent restoration of the Eugene J. Carpenter House in Loring Park, a historic landmark that now serves as a bed-and-breakfast.

“We just like these old places and feel like Minneapolis is a cool city because of the history and what it’s gone through,” Kistler said.

He noted that Jones was a master architect and that the Oakland is the oldest downtown example of a shared-entrance apartment complex, as opposed to row houses or townhouses more common of the era. It was constructed in 1889.

“The building itself is a really strong indicator of a different time and place,” Kistler said. “It’s a really amazing building that was built at the height of when people were needing housing right downtown that was walkable to everything — because even the streetcar system wasn’t very developed at that time.”

A multimillion-dollar restoration lies ahead. Kistler hopes to remake the Oakland into 24 units of affordable housing downtown.

His team has already been hard at work cleaning out the building to get a better look at the damage to the roof.

“We’ve got to be able to see what kind of damage has occurred before we can get the structural engineer to sign off that it’s a safe building even to put a roof back on it,” Kistler said.

They have been documenting updates — such as replacing bricks, discovering old door hardware, and removing roof tar — on the “Oaklands on 9th” Facebook page. They have also stuck a temporary orange “This Place Matters” sign atop the doorway.

The property was purchased in cash by Oakland Dreams, LLC. Kistler said the project won’t turn a profit.

“There’s ... a lot of great developers that would have done this years ago if there was any money to be made,” Kistler said.

Council Member Lisa Goodman, who represented the area, helped alert Kistler to the property. She said that further neglect would have eventually made demolition unavoidable.

“If John and Norm did not step in to purchase the building on terms that the owner wanted, further neglect would have put an end to the life of the building fast,” Goodman said.

She said the building — as well as the nearby row houses of the 9th Street Historic District — is a remnant of downtown’s long history.

“Imagine how wonderful the city would be today if all of 9th Street was lined by these low-rise, multifamily buildings?” Goodman said. “This is almost a glimpse into the past. And I think for that reason as well as others it was worth preserving.”


Correction: Previous versions of this article misspelled Norman Kulba's last name.