The key corner of Wabasha and 7th Street in downtown St. Paul is less of an eyesore, thanks to developer Ed Conley and his smiley renovation of what is now the Fitz Apartments.
The four-story Queen Anne Victorian structure dates from 1890 and was the work of developer Thomas Fitzpatrick. Its exterior features floor-to-ceiling windows, a turreted nook, decorative arches, and many 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 he didn’t burn to the ground, it was so bad,” he said. “We brought it back to what it was. Now it’s a cool piece of history.”
That could be considered the understatement of the year.
Conley’s Company, ICC Properties, specializes in the revival of dilapidated properties; two in Saint-Paul are the inherited rosea beauty presiding over the Selby-and-Snelling intersection, and the handsome Schurmeier Lofts on the industrial northeast edge of the city center.
At Fitz Flats, the transformation revealed the built-in beauty of the facade. Decades of dull paint have been removed. The mortar was bent back, the oak and metal fittings were meticulously restored or replaced, and the shabby first-floor display cases were painstakingly restored to their original appearance. Missing pieces of decorative sandstone have been carefully refitted with reclaimed stone. Seven long-gone brick chimneys have been 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 of it?” Conley said. “I was like, ‘Did I do the right thing?’ I think he would be happy.”
Best of all, Conley maximizes the high-level location with an eye-catching exterior: a copper-clad cone that extends 15 feet into the air. It’s an almost exact replica of the building’s original witch’s hat, which has been missing for over a century. It was a big expense, especially since its sole purpose is to enchant.
“That was the price of a really nice car,” Conley said with a laugh. “I still drive my poop truck, so you can see the witch hat won.”
The sleek new interior is also unrecognizable from its flophouse past. Electrical, plumbing, and heating systems were upgraded, and air conditioning, soundproofing, and a sprinkler system were added.
A major solution was to remove the suspended ceilings from all four floors; what had been heights of 8 feet now stretch between 11½ and 15 feet. Another benefit is that covered transom windows are no longer obscured by plaster, and the added glass helps flood apartments with sunlight. These high ceilings also allow some units to have small, flexible attic spaces.
Tenants began moving into the building’s 34 units in December, with monthly rents starting at $995. Compact studios and one-bedroom apartments, which follow in the footsteps of their predecessors, range from 270 to 440 square feet.
“These are the original micro units,” Conley said. “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 bathroom and kitchen fixtures.
The last item on the tally list is to fill space at street level with a restaurant tenant. The project, with its seemingly endless attention to detail (for example, the lofts are accessed via custom-designed quarter-sawn oak ladders) took almost two years to complete.
“Am I glad I did?” Conley said. “Ask me in five years. It’s not the get-rich-quick scheme you see on cable TV. But I’m happy to be a building steward. You can become a catalyst for change. You fix a corner, and it becomes contagious.”
A coup de grace to the golden age
The developer behind the recent $110 million remake of one of the area’s great Art Deco landmarks in the Rand Tower Hotel was also simultaneously involved in an equally historic second transformation of downtown Minneapolis.
Nick Peterson, owner of Maven Development Groupinvested $18.5 million in the turnaround of the Laurel. When it opened in 1893, the toll-free beauty near Loring Park (“The finest flat building ever erected in this city” rang the Minneapolis Tribune) was the Victorian equivalent of Eleven on the River, the tower of luxury condominiums opening soon on the west bank of the Mississippi River.
The laurel materialized on the drawing board of architect Septimus Bowler, known today for his work on several places 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.
Unfortunately, after World War II, Laurel’s opulence began to fade. Its 38 cherry-and-oak-lined apartments were roughly chopped up into 102 individual room rentals with shared toilets, and it was downhill from there.
“The condition of the building was exceptionally difficult, on many levels,” Peterson said. “There wasn’t a single good surprise. It was all, ‘Oh, man.'”
The solution? Preserve Queen Anne’s richly detailed brick and sandstone exterior (the building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2020) and start anew inside with a top-to-bottom job.
“It was a shell, basically,” Peterson said. “Inside, for all intents and purposes, it’s a 100% new construction building.”
Very little was salvageable, but there was one major doozy: 50 ornate (and non-working) fireplace hearths.
“They were 100% in bad shape,” Peterson said. “Some are original, some have parts that have been repaired or replaced with custom tiles. Each one is unique, and bringing them back to life was an incredible work of art.”
There are now 66 apartments, studios and one-bedroom units ranging in size from 350 to 681 square feet, with monthly rents starting at $1,100. Like fireplaces, no two units are exactly alike.
The project has up-to-date plumbing, electrical, and heating/air conditioning systems, and most units have dishwashers and washer/dryers. The charming halls – the Laurel is a four-building complex – have been fitted with period paneling and floor tiles, and the rear fire escapes have been rebuilt into bridges to maximize the possibilities for outdoor living.
Once again, a landmark that once blighted the neighborhood has regained its rightful role as a treasured urban asset. Tenants started moving in last summer and the building is fully occupied.
“That says a lot about the quality of the product he praised very quickly,” Peterson said. “It was a complicated project, and these historic agreements are not for the faint-hearted. But I’m as proud of the Laurel as I am of the Rand Tower.”
A tax problem
Conley and Peterson took advantage of state and federal tax credits for the rehabilitation of historic structures.
Both programs offer tax credits equal to 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 are so important, because with them we are able to make these projects economically feasible and preserve these beautiful old buildings.”
There’s a catch: Minnesota’s program, which has been on the books since 2010, is set to expire on July 1. State Representative Cheryl Youakim, DFL-Hopkins-St. Louis Park, is the lead author in the House of a bill to extend the state program for another eight 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 stimulates economic development and creates jobs,” Youakim said. “When you build a new building, the majority of the costs are materials, but when you rehabilitate an old building, the majority of the costs are labor.”
The numbers speak for themselves. In data compiled by the University of Minnesota Extensionthe state program generated approximately 18,600 jobs and $1.16 billion in labor income between 2011 and 2020.
“It creates jobs and improves local economies,” Youakim said. “It really is excellent value for money.”