"The first thing I'll do when I get the building is block this window," said Jack Allen, standing in an abandoned school near a second floor window that local kids use as a door. "They were breaking in a lot over the last summer," he said. "It was bad."
The sprawling, three-story school was built a century ago of stout blocks of sandstone from the quarry at the edge of the city. From the exterior it's an imposing building, with grand arched doorways not unlike those found in the University of Minnesota's Pillsbury Hall, which was built of rock from the same quarry.
But while the Twin Cities campus building is used and maintained, the old elementary and high school in Sandstone was decommissioned by the early 2000s, when a new, modern school was built along Highway 23 between Sandstone and Askov. Since then, the old school -- sometimes referred to as "the rock" -- has stood empty and without heat or air conditioning. It has been vandalized by kids, ransacked by copper thieves, water damaged and sold to a developer whose plans fell through and repossessed.
Explore 11 relics in 11 different communities
Allen is perhaps the best and last hope for the building, which he is in the process of buying from the city for $1. A decided optimist originally from the Cambridge area, he wants to turn the old school into the new home of Harvest Christian School, now in another part of Sandstone, where he is principal. He also envisions a thrift store, a coffee shop, doctors' offices, a commercial kitchen, events spaces and rooms for anger management classes, art and music lessons, and other public services. "We want to bring back that community feeling," he said. "I want people in the building. It's a majestic building."
Before you keep reading ...
MPR News is made by Members. Gifts from individuals fuel the programs that you and your neighbors rely on. Donate today to power news, analysis, and community conversations for all.
That's a sentiment small city residents are expressing all over the state as they struggle with old infrastructure -- schools and hotels and churches that made more sense when there were hordes of kids in town or traveling salesmen moving through. They often debate or fight for years to figure out what to do with these once iconic buildings. Sometimes they manage to find new uses for them. Often they push them over with bulldozers. Whichever way a city goes, the decisions say a lot about a community's resources, cohesiveness, self image and collective imagination.
"There are intangible benefits that come with people being connected to these places," said Erin Hanafin Berg of the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota. Often historical buildings are a community's most distinctive feature. They can help define a small city as unique. Restored, they can be tourist attractions or draws when newcomers are considering where to live.
"This is something that represents the community and it's gone. What can you point to that symbolizes the town? You start to run out of things really quick."
In Sandstone, a city of 2,800 people, approximately half of whom reside at the nearby federal prison, most people you ask would like to save the school. But it's been hard to come up with a viable, sustainable use. If the building were in a larger city, it would be full of boutiques by now or apartments or a spa. But it's here, in the woods next to the rushing Kettle River, and the decade-long saga around its reuse has tested people's pocketbooks as well as their nerves.
The city sits about an hour and half north of the Twin Cities among beautiful pine and rock-filled countryside. It has a median household income that's lower than the state average, along with its share of underused buildings. The main employers are the prison, the nearby Grand Casino Hinckley and the city's hospital, run by Essentia Health.
The difficulty in resolving what to do with "the rock" stems in part from Sandstone's sense of identity. There is a feeling among some who live here that the community is fractured, that locals have divested and don't act out of a shared vision. That's partly because those with solid incomes tend to live outside the town proper, said Sandstone city administrator Sam Griffith. "When you have income, you have more choice in where to live. You get your piece of heaven. In the '50s and '60s, everybody who owned a business lived in town. They did a lot of things together as a community. Now, the people who work at the hospital and casino are people who drive 20 miles a day to work."
Griffith thinks the loss of a functioning school in town also took a toll. No longer do kids fill the streets on their way to class or parents stop into the Ben Franklin store while waiting for basketball practice to end. "The school has been the center of the community," he said. "Now the school is in the cornfield. All of the sudden, because it's not in town anymore, people aren't communicating."
"How do you adjust as a small town to changes when you don't have a center around which the community can revolve?" asked Griffith, who graduated from the old school and helped get it listed on the National Register of Historic Places. "This is something that represents the community and it's gone. What can you point to that symbolizes the town? You start to run out of things really quick."
In other words, there is a lot at stake in refurbishing it. "As long as that building is there," he said, "there is hope it can be reused and bring back some of that community togetherness everybody senses is missing."
The old school is burdened with mold on the floors, lead paint peeling from the walls, asbestos, dangling ceiling tiles, broken windows, free ranging pigeons and graffiti. The maple floor in the vintage auditorium has buckled from the heat and cold, its surface now as wavy as a rumpled sheet. Mysteriously, the main staircase has disappeared.
"As long as that building is there," he said, "there is hope it can be reused and bring back some of that community togetherness everybody senses is missing."
But the building has upsides, like the solid exterior walls made of native stone, enormous windows that look out on the town, high tin ceilings and pristine wooden doors and trim.
"We're having a hell of a time just giving the building away," said Griffith. But something has to happen, and soon. Letting it sit and further degrade brings liability concerns. Yet tearing it down would be costly for a town where residents already think taxes are too high. A few years ago, the city received a demolition estimate of over $700,000.
"If we can't find a use this summer," he said, "we will have to plan next winter to take it down."
The building has a long, deep history in Sandstone and many people are attached to it, even if they don't quite know what to do with it.
From any table inside Kitty's Corner Cafe, the old school takes up much of the view from the windows. "We have to save it," said diner Lois Langerud, who attended for all twelve grades. "It's the only pretty building in town."
"It occurred to us that maybe Chatfield is a more livable community if this place is repurposed into an art center."
"It's just a building," said waitress Belinda Woyak, who suggested turning it into a juvenile jail. "It's a shame to have something like that be destroyed. It's a shame to have it sitting there, too." Noting that other towns have put restaurants and other businesses into their empty schools, she said, "It's just this town. They don't want to spend the money."
"All kinds of people step up to say, 'I want the building,'" said Griffith. "But they have no money or no experience... Any building like this you have to find a tenant who can keep the lights on." He is reservedly optimistic about Jack Allen. "Jack had a realistic plan. It makes sense to remake part of it as a school. It was built as a school."
The Harvest Christian principal is confident he can raise the necessary $3 million for rehabilitation, which he estimates will take two years. He said half the money will come from private donations and half from various state, federal or foundation grants.
"This building is loved by the community," said Allen, who also runs a Bible camp on nearby Grindstone Lake and has experience rehabbing old houses. "We've bought homes that were in worse shape."
Big dreams and wrong turns
"It's a beautiful building and a humungous bill. There is mold and everything else. Lead based paint all over. You have nothing but a bunch of work there."
The Sandstone school was built in 1901 and then rebuilt and doubled in size after lightning struck it in 1910. It was designed to accommodate a growing city and constructed with the best materials the area had to offer. At the time, Sandstone's very reason for being was to dig, cut and deliver sandstone to cities all over the Midwest. The high quality stone went to build the Great Northern Depot in Minneapolis, torn down in the 1970s, and libraries in St. Paul and Hibbing and on the University of Illinois campus in Urbana.
In fact, 1910 turned out to be the peak of Sandstone's growth (excluding a later influx of federal prisoners), when it reached just over 1,800 people. After that, especially after the quarry closed, the city's population stagnated. Eventually, the school district built the new building along Highway 23, which serves four cities, and "the rock" was left empty.
A version of this scenario has played out in many small cities in Minnesota -- from Milan to Kasson -- where shrinking and aging populations have led to school consolidation. When two or more towns put their kids together in one place, at least one building is typically left without a purpose.
In Morris, in western Minnesota, the city is tearing down its elementary school after years of heated debate. But other communities have had more success in saving and reusing their obsolete schools.
In Chatfield, a city near Rochester that's roughly the same size as Sandstone but wealthier, the city is gradually making an arts center from its former high school, built in 1916, and the attached auditorium, built in 1936. The building isn't as ornate as the one in Sandstone--it's made of brick -- but it has its strong points. It's in the center of town, is structurally sound and has never been unheated, so the paint is firmly stuck to the walls and the wooden floors haven't buckled. And like the school in Sandstone, it's an icon that for many residents helps define the identity of the town.
"This building was built to last hundreds of years," said Chatfield city clerk Joel Young, standing in the doorway of a classroom that's been refurbished to serve as a reception area for the auditorium. "It wouldn't be right to abandon it after just 75 years. The New Deal set us up, as long as we step up when it's time."
When Chatfield passed a referendum in 2007 to build a new school, the school board intended to tear the old one down unless the city wanted it. "It occurred to us that the buildings are probably the most prominent buildings in town," said Young. "They are tied to the hearts of many, many people." He said the community theater has performed in the auditorium every summer for decades. "You think about those things. And you think about community viability. What can you do to keep your residents and attract other residents? Not everybody plays softball. Some people like to take the stage and act or speak. And others like to be entertained."
"It occurred to us that maybe Chatfield is a more livable community if this place is repurposed into an art center," he said.
The city was crafty and asked the school board to turn over not just the school, but also the money earmarked for tearing it down, $275,000. That would be enough to keep the building heated and insured, at least for a while. "We knew it would get us through a couple of years," said Young. "We were taking on a huge operating liability. It was courageous of the city council and the mayor."
What the old school really had going for it, however, were the people of Chatfield, who have a taste for the arts. "It's the natural heritage of the community," said Young. "We've had bands active in Chatfield since the 1800s. The city pays a stipend out of the general fund for the Chatfield Brass Band every year. The heritage of this community says we are into that sort of thing."
Residents have rallied around the Chatfield Center for the Arts, donating money and labor hours. Starting with a list of "ten things we could do cheaply to make a difference," Young said, "We chipped away. We replaced the spotlights on the stage and balcony. We refinished the stage floor."
Young keeps a progress chart, which counts grants and contributions from two dozen organizations and significant volunteer hours from 11 organizations. "Valspar Paint donated 105 gallons of paint as long as we could get volunteers to splash it on the walls, which we did," said Young. "Boy and Girl Scouts, the theater group, and quite a number of volunteers helped. It was quite an impressive project."
He said the economic benefits have been significant so far, as the center has purchased goods and employed workers, from caterers to plumbers.
Jack Allen and a weary Sandstone
The situation in Sandstone was different from the beginning. The city didn't acquire the old school directly from the East Central School Board, nor did the building come with a pool of demolition money to spend. Rather, in 2004, the board sold it to Manoucher Rostamkhani, a developer from the Twin Cities, who planned to turn it into an international learning and cultural center complete with helipad.
Rostamkhani made some improvements to the building, but wasn't able to realize his vision, even after the city's economic development authority loaned him $50,000 in 2006 for engineering. Around the time the recession hit, Rostamkhani said he "went through a financial hardship." He fell behind on his property tax payments. "Every time I talk about that project it makes me depressed," he said.
In late 2008, the Sandstone EDA voted to foreclose on the old school and has been struggling to find a new use for it ever since. The city hired a couple of consulting firms to examine whether it could become the new city hall and library, now housed in a cramped, plain building nearby. But the team found that to repair damage done by years of neglect and to meet beefier modern building codes would have cost between $4 and $5 million, a price the city wasn't prepared to pay.
"We looked at what that would cost the individual property owner and how much we would have to raise the levy just to pay the heat bill, let alone everything else that would need to be done," said Griffith. "It would have been such an incredible investment... Everybody would love to see it reused, but the EDA said realistically we can't be the people to do it."
"There are always people for whom money is no object," he said. "Then there are people who don't want to spend, who say taxes are too high. The majority are in the middle looking for a reasonable answer. Money is where what you want to do and what you can do separate."
The same study determined that there was little or no demand in the city for additional commercial space or rental housing, two potential money generators for the old school. "No one surveyed believed that there is or will be a shortage of office space in the near future," read the report.
When it comes to restoring an old, empty building, finding a substantial, viable use is perhaps most important step, said Berg of the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota. It helps in the complicated task of raising money for the project. "Buildings are preserved if they are well loved and used. They need a use, preferably one that is sustainable enough to cover its own costs."
The failed efforts to find such a use for the old school have been hard on Sandstone and have jaded people a bit on the subject. "A small town has a fragile psyche," said Griffith. "People wonder, why doesn't a Target open here? When you see positive things happening, it improves everyone's attitude. It can be a spiral downward if nothing ever happens."
Irene Sandell, who lives near the school and was Sandstone's librarian for more than a decade, thinks the best use for the building would have been as city hall. "We don't have a decent city hall," she said. "It would have been nice, plenty of room for parking, centrally located. The stone in this building would stand forever."
She remembers that when Rostamkhani first bought the school, there was a lot of buzz and anticipation. "He had a public meeting and wanted public input and we got pretty excited. He talked about little shops and up on the upper floors having apartments and lofts. It sounded pretty grandiose."
Now, Sandell wonders whether Allen can pull off such a massive project. "We've been through it a couple of times and nothing happened," she said. "I wonder if energy is better spent elsewhere."
"To redo it for sentimental value, I don't feel the sentiment toward it to spend money on it," said Sandstone city council member Phil Kester, who graduated from the old school. "It's a beautiful building and a humungous bill to do anything with it. There is mold and everything else. Lead based paint all over. You have nothing but a bunch of work there."
"In the long run, I really don't see the value to it," said Kester, who has rehabbed old houses all over town. "Just to put millions into it, you would be better off starting from scratch... I'm not a sentimental person."
Matters were made to seem more hopeless recently, when a team of thieves -- Griffith calls them "the professionals" -- broke into the school in the middle of the night and stole a load of copper wires and pipes, disturbing asbestos tiles in the process. The city, responsible for the building, had to post hazard placards. But it was also able to submit an insurance claim, which strangely could prove a good thing for the city and Allen.
Griffith is being careful with the arrangement with Allen, meticulously checking the paperwork to make sure it's clear who gets what when and what is required of whom. Allen won't actually gain possession of the school until he's remediated the asbestos and completed studies on lead and mold removal, signed contracts for the work, and shown he can pay for the processes.
Once he crosses the finish line, the city is prepared to give him the bulk of the insurance settlement it will receive related to the copper theft, as much as $100,000. "We can't collect on the insurance until we demolish or have the remediation done," said Griffith.
"We are trying to create the opportunity for something to happen," he said. "We can only go so far." He acknowledged that the deal could still fall apart. "It's not done until it's done."
Given Allen's religious affiliation, Kester thinks larger forces may be on his side. "If God is in his plans, then it will be done and made worthwhile," he said. "A lot of people want to save the building. And then they have to come up with the money. But nobody wants to do that. Jack is the first one who has met the challenge and wants to do it. With the Lord on his side it can happen"
Meanwhile, inside the school, in the enormous chute where the stairway used to be, Allen spoke with a gleam in his eye. "We will sandblast all of it," he said. "We're ready. We're working with a window company to put in all new windows. We'll do the electrical and the plumbing. We're going to clean the whole building out."
"The theory is we need to do it right because we're not going to do it again," he said. "With a project of this size, as we're bringing it around and bringing people into it, we want to know the community is happy with what we've done."