Ground Level Reviving Minnesota Relics

It looms in the heart of town, perhaps an old school or a hotel, stone or brick, big and empty. Infrastructure from the past but no longer in demand, it occupies high ground, an architect-designed, iconic building made of solid local materials. It once was a town's soul. Now it's a problem.

Residents in hundreds of Minnesota towns in recent years have wrestled with what to do with prominent old buildings that no longer define the community. The efficiency of demolition weighs against an instinct to preserve. Many have struggled to find new uses, to create new souls.

Through ambition and imagination and energy, schools have turned into senior living facilities, and hotels have become art centers. Churches have become bookstores, and creameries have become coffee and quilt shops. Many others have fallen to the bulldozer.

This Ground Level project portrays the difficulties, the angst, the cost and the lessons learned by people making an effort to refresh their towns by saving an icon.

Minnesota Relics

MAP: 11 communities: 11 relics

Photos by Ann Arbor Miller - Text by Ann Arbor Miller and Jennifer Vogel

All over the state, small cities contend with historical buildings that no longer serve their original purposes. As rural populations change in Minnesota, schools become obsolete, churches close, small downtown hotels no longer draw a clientele. Sometimes, thanks to hard work and a bit of luck, these buildings are given new life, whether as an arts center, a coffee shop or senior housing.

But redevelopment money is hard to come by. Community conversations can be sticky. Alternative uses, especially those that truly mean something to a city, are hard to figure out. And because of that, sometimes old buildings fall to the wrecking ball.

Photo essays will be available starting on Sunday July 7, and more will be released in coming days.

Click the city names to start


  • B'nai Abraham was the last active synagogue on the Range, now transforming into an arts and culture center.


  • This imposing building, made of local sandstone, has been vacant and unheated for years as the community attempts to save it.

Little Falls

  • The Buckman Hotel deteriorated, until it was rundown and underutilized. Given the hotel's prominent downtown location, the city went in search of someone who could transform the building.


  • The Randall creamery served a variety of town functions before finally falling empty a decade ago, now restored, the old creamery is a coffee and quilting shop.

Fergus Falls

  • This century-old hotel in downtown Fergus Falls was vacant and falling apart when local residents stepped forward to save it.


  • For almost a decade, residents and officials in the small western Minnesota city of Morris tried to figure out a new use for the city's former elementary school.

Granite Falls

  • The K.K. Berge building was extensively renovated to become a community hub.


  • Consolidation left the old Henry Hill public school vacant and without a purpose until it was turned into a library, government building and event center.


  • A former school teacher living in Iowa bought the Pipestone school, But because of various setbacks, renovation plans haven't panned out


  • The debate over what to do with the public school in Kasson has been raging ever since the city took possession of it in the mid 2000s.


  • The rehabilitation of the former Chatfield high school represents an ideal scenario for how to save old, iconic buildings.

The Conversation on iconic buildings: Only the private sector will do

Ground Level asked: How does a community decide what to do with an old iconic building? We got back some responses from people who have wrestled with the question on a very personal basis (see some of the buildings to the right). What we heard from folks in places like Hokah, St. Paul and Little Falls is that you need a groundswell from the community to restore these old buildings. This also implies that government's role must be very limited and, yet, public assistance must help the cause.

Take these comments:

  • ►"One thing I feel very strongly about after watching it happen numerous times is that private homes should rarely if ever be gifted to cities...I do feel there needs to be more financial incentive and/or funding to help private owners rehab old buildings." - Mary Warner, Little Falls.

  • ►"Preserving the past does not always equate to saving money. Preservation / adaptation can be and will be expensive -- it is wise to be prepared about future costs." - Marie Dranttel, Saint Peter.

  • ►"(Communities strike the balance between preserving history and saving money)Through private, individual initiative. Where government must be relied upon for funding, it's much more difficult and contentious." - Tom Schroeder, St. Paul.

  • Full responses can be read by clicking here.

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We identify topics that are significant and complex and that play out uniquely at the local level. We want to explore those issues in which people taking action in their communities make a difference and can serve as guides for others.

Ground Level launched in early 2010 and shines a light on a variety of topics, from the growing complexity of Minnesota's local food system to cities preparing for new fiscal realities, from exurban growth in Baldwin Township to the quest to expand broadband access across the state.

We experiment with coverage on a variety of platforms. This includes text, audio and video online, of course - the Ground Level blog, a series of topics pages and social networking, for example. It also includes on-air coverage, public forums both virtual and real-world and collaboration with community-based media.

Our audience consists of Minnesotans interested in community life, particularly those who are taking an active part in it or helping others do the same.

Ground Level is very much an experiment -- in finding ways to learn about and tell stories, in working with other organizations, in walking up to the line between providing insight and advocating specific actions. Our goal is to inform and give people the ability and incentive to engage with their community. We invite your feedback and your ideas, via the blog, twitter at @MPRGroundLevel, phone calls, emails, whatever. Join us.

About the team:

Dave Peters

Dave Peters directs MPR's project on community journalism, looking for ways Minnesota residents are making their towns, cities and neighborhoods better places to live. He joined MPR News in 2009 after more than 30 years as a newspaper and online reporter and editor. Contact Dave

Bush Foundation

Support for Ground Level is provided
by the Bush Foundation.