A Labor of Love

June 7, 2004
Dedication and commitment turn a deteriorated St. Paul building into a Lowertown jewel
WINNER: The Great Northern Lofts, St. Paul, MNThe pigeons have been evicted. The grandeur restored. The legacy preserved. Built in 1888 to house the operations of James J. Hill’s railroad empire (the Great Northern Railway), the renovated building at 281 Kellogg Boulevard has found a new place in St. Paul’s future.When Hill asked his in-house architect, James Brodie, to construct the office building in St. Paul’s Lowertown district, he kept the massive devastation from the Great Chicago Fire in mind. Having leveled 18,000 buildings and the downtown railroad depots more than a decade earlier, Hill was well aware of the susceptibility of timber and iron-framed structures. Making the building fireproof was somewhat of an obsession. The Hill Building, as it was then referred to, was consequently constructed of solid brick with three-foot walls at its base. Although massive in scale, the exterior reflects a style befitting of the time and success of Hill’s rapidly growing railroad empire. The solid construction contains Richardsonian Romanesque elements, an architectural style distinguished by heavy masonry exteriors, arched entrances, and thick walls. The five-story building was U-shaped with a central courtyard, where it was rumored Hill would water his horses after bringing them though the building’s arched entrance.Following its completion in 1888, Hill and the Great Northern Railway occupied the building for two years before space began to get tight. During this period, the Great Northern Railway was pushing west, and by 1893, stretched from St. Paul, all the way to the Pacific Ocean.In 1900, two additional stories were added to the facility to address Hill’s expanding business needs. However, it wasn’t long before the space was once again too small. In 1914, the Hill Building was converted into records storage and a new building was built a few blocks away. A little more than half a century later, the Hill Building was vacant.Neighborhood StandardsA resurgence of interest in preserving buildings in St. Paul’s Lowertown Historic District began more than 20 years ago, and in 1983, Lowertown was added to the National Register of Historic Places. All around the Hill Building, architecture from the 1800s was not only being spared from demolition, but the original splendor of area buildings was preserved and put to new use. The District was quickly becoming one of St. Paul’s hot spots, with its galleries, entertainment, cafés, and restaurants. As the revival of the Lowertown Historic District bustled, the Hill Building remained untouched. “James J. Hill’s building was sort of like a missing tooth in a pretty smile,” explains Colleen Carey, president, The Cornerstone Group, Edina, MN.The City of St. Paul approached long-time area developer Sherman Rutzick about the property’s redevelopment potential. After a walk-through with a builder, Rutzick knew the task would be giant. “I got a hold of Colleen and when I talked to her she said, ‘You know, I looked at it awhile back, too, Sherm, and it’s bad.’ I said, ‘Maybe between the two of us we could take a really good look.’ So we did,” remembers Sherman Rutzick, president, Sherman Rutzick and Associates, St. Paul.When The Cornerstone Group and Sherman Rutzick and Associates became 50/50 partners and purchased the Hill Building in 2002, it was in such a drastic state of deterioration, people were shocked. “The initial reaction was, ‘I can’t believe you’re going to try to do that.’ Some people laughed. Some people just shook their heads,” Carey recalls. “But now, the reaction is, ‘It’s just so fabulous.’” Easier Said Than DoneTaking on such a significant project required that Carey and Rutzick build a project team as equally excited about the opportunity as they were; the St. Paul-based firms of Cermak Rhoades Architects, Frerichs Construction, and Bonestroo Rosene Anderlik and Associates responded. The goal was to transform the Hill Building into 53 upscale condominium units known as The Great Northern Lofts; preserve its architectural and historic significance; and repair the damage done by years of abandonment.“The building hadn’t been entirely sealed up. There had been lots of roof deterioration and rainwater pouring down through holes in the roof,” explains Terri Cermak, president, Cermak Rhoades Architects, St. Paul. Plaster and lead-based paint were cracked, peeling, and flaking. Pigeon droppings were knee-deep in some places. “For 30 years, it had been the home of pigeons and the homeless,” explains Rutzick. These problems, in addition to structural and financial challenges the building presented, added layer upon layer of complexity.Because of its proximity to the Mississippi River and less-than-favorable soil conditions, the building had begun to settle. “The footing under these masonry walls was built on top of timber piles that were driven into the ground – apparently as far as they could be driven in the 1880s, but apparently not down to bedrock,” explains Cermak. The timber piles (intended to remain wet) went through cycles of dryness due to a fluctuating water table, which led to accelerated deterioration.The impact this settlement had on the building’s southeast corner could be seen from the outside of the building where brick was severely cracked, and inside where marble window sills were warped. “The differential settlement between the front of the building and the back of the building was actually 21 inches,” says Carey. “From the front to the back, you could roll a marble.” Additionally, the settling caused the building to twist out of alignment, making it difficult to stack mechanical, electrical, and plumbing from one story to the next.Rectifying these problems would require a significant investment. “The financing hurdles were the thing that made it really difficult – although the building itself was enough of a challenge,” Carey notes. Early on, the City of St. Paul agreed to provide some tax increment financing (TIF). However, the legislature began making changes to tax rates, which altered the amount of TIF secured for the project. “By the time they were done, the value of the TIF had gone from $5 million to less than two-and-a-half [million dollars],” Carey says. Units had been pre-sold, financing was lined up, construction drawings were done, and project costs required the original $5 million of TIF. The project had to be re-examined, a process which delayed construction a year. More units were added, plans were changed, prices increased, and the $23.5 million project was under way once again.Challenges Require Innovative SolutionsTo stabilize the building, the old basement floor was taken up and the condition of every pile cap was checked. Rotted caps were repaired. Then engineers designed a long-term solution, which ensured that pilings were constantly immersed in water. Wall supports were strengthened by using concrete fill to underpin pile caps. Steel I-beams were placed three feet above the soil (atop granular fill), over which rest corrugated metal sheets and the new lightweight concrete basement floor. “The floor that was poured back in now is actually a structural slab that has a cavity below it so the soils can be observed. Then we have a pump system set up so if [the site] ever enters flood stage, water can be pumped outside of the building but we can also maintain that water level so it doesn’t continue to rot any of the timber underneath it,” Cermak explains.Environmental abatement professionals were hired to clear the space of any and all remnants from the building’s prior inhabitants – pigeons. Original window openings were preserved along with 20 marble fireplaces, hardwood floors, an ornate wrought-iron staircase, and the ceiling’s barrel vaults of brick and clay tile. Ceiling heights range from 11 to 16 feet. Condominium units were organized to maximize the number of windows per room. “Because it’s a U-shaped building, it’s a narrow floorplate that gives you lots of window exposure per square foot of floor space. The daylight you get in these spaces reflecting off the vaulted ceilings is really spectacular,” Cermak says.The building’s lobby was once a lavish, marble-clad common area. Today, this space has been fully restored by re-purposing marble from the building’s old bathrooms. With views overlooking the Mississippi River, 12-foot-wide hallways, arched windows, and a history just as significant as its architecture, the renovation has preserved the legacy of James J. Hill and given his building a place in St. Paul’s future for many years to come.Jana J. Madsen ([email protected]) is managing editor at Buildings magazine.Modernization Team at The Great Northern Lofts•Co-developers/Owners: The Cornerstone Group (entry submitter); Sherman Rutzick and Associates•Architect: Cermak Rhoades Architects•Contractor: Frerichs Construction•Engineer: Bonestroo Rosene Anderlik and Associates•Interior Designer: Heidi Witte Designs•Products Used•Doors: Karona; TruStile•Elevators/Escalators: Eagle•Hardware: Schlage•HVAC: Warren Technology•Paint: Diamond Vogel; Sherwin-Williams•Plumbing: American Standard; Kohler; TOTO USA•Roofing: Carlisle•Walls/Partitions: USG Corp.•Windows/Glass: MarvinLists are not all-inclusive

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