2 down-on-their-luck 1890s Twin Cities apartment buildings are lovingly restored
The key corner of Wabasha and 7th streets in downtown St. Paul is minus an eyesore, thanks to developer Ed Conley and his smile-inducing renovation of what is now the Fitz Flats.
The four-story Victorian Queen Anne structure dates to 1890 and was the work of developer Thomas Fitzpatrick. Its exterior is blessed with bay windows, a turreted corner, decorative arches and plenty of other good bones, and it landed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1990. By the time Conley added it to his portfolio a few years ago, the building was a vermin-infested wreck.
"It's amazing that it didn't burn to the ground, it was that bad," he said. "We brought it back to what it was. Now it's a cool piece of history."
That might qualify as the understatement of the year.Go inside Minnesota's most eye-catching homes, plus get tips on how to spruce up your own place in your inbox every Saturday.
Conley's company, CCI Properties, specializes in the rebirth of dilapidated properties; two in St. Paul are the Legacy Rose, a beauty presiding over the Selby-and-Snelling intersection, and the handsome Schurmeier Lofts on downtown's industrial northeast edge.
At the Fitz Flats, the transformation has revealed the facade's built-in beauty. Decades of drab paint was removed. Mortar was tuckpointed, oak and metal trim was meticulously restored or replaced and the shabby first-floor storefronts were painstakingly returned to their original appearance. Missing pieces of decorative sandstone were carefully retrofitted with salvaged stone. Seven brick chimneys, long gone, were replicated along the building's 7th Street roofline, once again contributing to the rhythm of the building's profile.
"I always wonder that, if Fitzpatrick came back, what would he think?" said Conley. "I'd ask him, 'Did I do all right?' I think he'd be happy."
Best of all, Conley maximizes the high-profile location with an eye-grabbing exterior flourish: a copper-clad, corner-capping cone that stretches 15 feet into the air. It's a nearly exact replica of the building's original witch's hat, which has been AWOL for more than a century. It was a big expense, especially since its only purpose is to enchant.
"It was the price of a very nice car," said Conley with a laugh. "I'm still driving my crappy truck, so you can see that the witch's hat won out."
The stylish new interior is equally unrecognizable from its flophouse past. Electrical, plumbing and heating systems were upgraded, and air conditioning, soundproofing and a sprinkler system were added.
A major fix involved removing the dropped ceilings on all four floors; what had been 8-foot heights now stretch to between 11½ and 15 feet. Another bonus: Covered-over transom windows are no longer obscured under plaster, and the added glass helps to flood the apartments with sunlight. Those tall ceilings also permit some units to have small, flexible loft spaces.
Tenants began moving into the building's 34 units in December, with monthly rents starting at $995. The compact studio and one-bedroom apartments, which follow the footprints of their predecessors, range from 270 to 440 square feet.
"They're the original micro-units," said Conley. "They're not huge, so I wanted them to be nice."
That explains all the durable, high-end finishes, including oak and marble tile floors, granite countertops and premium-grade bathroom and kitchen fixtures.
The last item on the punch list is filling the street-level space with a restaurant tenant. The project, with its seemingly endless attention to detail (for example, the lofts are accessible via custom-designed ladders fashioned from quarter-sawn oak) spanned nearly two years.
"Am I glad that I did it?" said Conley. "Ask me in five years. This isn't the get-rich-quick scheme that you see on cable TV. But I'm happy to be a steward of the building. You can become a catalyst of change. You fix up a corner, and it becomes contagious."
A Gilded Age knockout
The developer behind the recent $110 million remake of one of the region's great Art Deco landmarks into the Rand Tower Hotel was also simultaneously involved in a second, equally historic downtown Minneapolis makeover.
Nick Peterson, owner of Maven Development Group, invested $18.5 million in turning around the Laurel. When it opened in 1893, the spare-no-expense beauty near Loring Park ("The most elegant flat building yet erected in this city" chimed the Minneapolis Tribune) was the Victorian equivalent of Eleven on the River, the luxury condominium tower that's opening soon on the west bank of the Mississippi River.
The Laurel materialized off the drafting table of architect Septimus Bowler, known today for his work on several houses of worship, including the extraordinary Mikro Kodesh Synagogue (now Disciples Ministry Church) in north Minneapolis and the former (and endangered) First Church of Christ, Scientist in Elliot Park.
Sadly, after World War II, the Laurel's opulence began to fade. Its 38 cherry- and oak-lined apartments were coarsely chopped into 102 single-room rentals with communal restrooms, and it was downhill from there.
"The condition of the building was exceptionally challenging, on many levels," said Peterson. "There wasn't one good surprise. It was all, 'Oh, man.'"
The solution? Preserve the richly detailed Queen Anne brick-and-sandstone exterior (the building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2020) and start over on the interior with a top-to-bottom gut job.
"It was a shell, basically," said Peterson. "On the inside, for all intents and purposes, it's a 100 percent new construction building."
Very little was salvageable, but there was one major doozy: 50 ornate (and nonworking) fireplace hearths.
"They were in 100 percent disrepair," said Peterson. "Some are original, some have parts that were repaired, or replaced with custom tiles. Each is unique, and bringing them back to life was an incredible work of art."
There are now 66 apartments, studio and one-bedroom units that range in size from 350 to 681 square feet, with monthly rents starting at $1,100. Like the fireplace hearths, no two units are exactly the same.
The project boasts up-to-date plumbing, electrical and heating/air conditioning systems, and most units have dishwashers and washer/dryers. The charming lobbies — the Laurel is a four-building complex — have been outfitted in period-appropriate wainscoting and floor tiles, and rear fire escapes were rebuilt into decks to maximize outdoor living opportunities.
Once again, a landmark that was a blight on the neighborhood has returned to its rightful role as a treasured urban asset. Tenants began moving in last summer, and the building is fully occupied.
"It says a lot about the quality of the product that it leased really fast," said Peterson. "It was a complicated project, and these historical deals are not for the faint of heart. But I'm as proud of the Laurel as I am of the Rand Tower."
A taxing issue
Conley and Peterson took advantage of state and federal historic structure rehabilitation tax credits.
Both programs provide tax credits for 20% of the cost of restoring buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
"Could I have done this without the historic tax credits?" said Peterson. "Not a chance. That's why they're so important, because with them we're able to make these projects economically feasible, and preserve these beautiful old buildings."
There's a hitch: Minnesota's program, which has been on the books since 2010, is set to expire on July 1. State Rep. Cheryl Youakim, DFL-Hopkins-St. Louis Park, is the chief House author of a bill to extend the state's program eight more years.
"Not only is the tax credit a stabilizing force in saving the historic buildings that define the character of our communities, but it also spurs economic development and creates jobs," said Youakim. "When you build a new building, the majority of the costs are in materials, but when you rehabilitate an old building, the majority of the costs are in labor."
The numbers speak for themselves. In data compiled by University of Minnesota Extension, the state's program generated an estimated 18,600 jobs and $1.16 billion in labor income between 2011 and 2020.
"It brings in jobs, and improves local economies," said Youakim. "It really is a great bang for the buck."