Artists and others likely to lose quirky, eclectic, bohemian downtown home
By MATT PEIKEN
St. Paul Pioneer Press; June 30, 2003©
Nobody living here “lives here.”
That’s always been part of the unwritten code of the Rossmor building — if you’re bunking here, lay low, be cool, don’t cause problems. Whatever you do, don’t tell anyone this is home.
Alas, the Rossmor, seven stories of concrete and steel anchoring an entire block of Robert Street in downtown St. Paul, has never been much for codes.
There’s exposed electrical wiring and rotted pipes in the sky-high hallways. Nobody knows if the sprinkler system would work in a fire, and people say it’s a miracle they’ve never had to find out.
Then there are the people.
During the ’70s, as industry moved out of the onetime shoe factory, artists of every stripe — painters, welders, sculptors, photographers, musicians, dancers and artists only in their dreams — began filling the mammoth warehouse.
Most come here to create, then leave for their real homes. Others, compelled by dirt-cheap rents, have thrown mattresses or pads on the floor and contented themselves with hotplates in the corner, bathrooms down the hall and showers at the nearby YMCA.
Most have followed the unwritten code and stayed for years at a stretch, some for more than a decade.
Every one of them, it seems, has stories to tell, of parties and the police and the riffraff and more police, of building inspectors dodged in the nick of time, of the pyro guy who lived on the top floor, of Grant Hart, singer-drummer of legendary Minnesota rock band Husker Du, who lived here a while, of the girl evicted for cooking on a charcoal barbecue inside her studio, of the people covered in body paint who ran naked through the halls, of the arson-fueled explosion 10 years ago that blew out the windows of a gay bar on the 10th Street side of the building. The cops really had a fit over that one.
Everybody here knew this day would come.
Today, the Rossmor falls into the hands of a new owner, a young developer promising to convert industrial space now uninhabitable, in a legal sense, into loft-styled warehouse living — condominiums, townhomes and studios with new windows, bathrooms and kitchens in every unit.
This sort of redevelopment has gone on in Lowertown for a quarter-century, but no building is like the Rossmor — in character, architecture, history and, to this day, its bizarre mix of enterprise, artistry and residential life.
After years and years of false alarms, some artists moved out the moment they learned the building had really been sold. Others have followed in a steady stream over the past few months. Many are determined to stick it out, in the hope, perhaps naively, the new owner follows through on his stated desire to keep some spaces affordable to those who can’t afford much at all.
“Make no mistake,” says one such artist, Greg Kruse, “this is the end of the Rossmor.”
‘NO ROOM FOR ME’
The term for this is gentrification.
The American Heritage Dictionary defines it as “the restoration and upgrading of deteriorated urban property by middle-class or affluent people, often resulting in displacement of lower-income people.” Dave Empfield defines it as familiar territory.
“I’ve been in other buildings where it’s affordable for artists. They upgrade the neighborhood and throw you out,” he says. “It’s just my fate to land in these places.”
Empfield makes no-frills rowboats from plywood, and the enterprise takes up every inch of his 703-square-foot nook. Five boats rest semi-upright on stands, in various stages of construction.
“I call it the Armageddon boat,” Empfield says. “You could jump in the Mississippi and float down to New Orleans, to safety.”
His rent is only $410, but Empfield works off part of it for a couple hours every afternoon by running the Rossmor’s hand-operated freight elevator — one of only two still active in downtown St. Paul. A couple other tenants do the same.
“There will be no room for someone like me,” he says of his prospects for staying. “I’ll hang on, I guess, and just wait ’til someone taps on the door.”
Brook Martin first rented space in the Rossmor 12 years ago, and he returned last year so he could shoot, develop and show his photography in one place. He rented a 1,000-square-foot box on the sixth floor, for $600 per month, and built the darkroom inside, adding pipes and a sink to the existing plumbing.
When he needed a place to crash in the wake of his divorce, Martin threw a mattress on top of the darkroom and slept there for five months. Whenever word came that inspectors were on the way, he hoisted all signs of domestic life on top of the darkroom and shoved everything to the back corner. Nobody ever looked there.
“There have been close calls, but St. Paul has always had a little looser attitude about these things, sort of a history of live and let live,” Martin says with a grin, noting tales of city officials tipping off gangsters to approaching F.B.I. agents.
Martin has a mop of dark hair and a full beard of wisps and stubble. He just bought a house in Lake St. Croix Beach, where today he’s moving his photography studio, darkroom and all. He plans keeping an eye on the Rossmor, to see if he can afford to live and work here after the renovation and inevitable price hike.
“This is more like the Wild West, just the amount of craziness that’s been allowed to happen,” he says. “But this is a landmark of the local counter-culture and the artistic community. It’s truly the end of an era. I’m sad to leave.”
Brian Jeans, a percussionist and media artist, rents 600 square feet on the top floor for $350 per month (he remembers paying just $250 when he moved in 10 years ago).
Thirty-two years old with sun-bleached hair, Jeans has never hid his living conditions — a bed in the back corner, a refrigerator near the door and a small kitchen table and chairs. A dam of hand percussion and digital music instruments, video and sound equipment and a computer springs up from the floor, an artificial wall in the center of a space marked by real walls and concrete columns painted yellow and orange.
When he needs money, Jeans finds freelance work in mineral exploration and geo-physical mapping, jobs that have taken him from the Arctic to South America. As it is, he only spends about half a given year in St. Paul. He plans to stay until forced to do otherwise.
“From day one, we all knew this was a very unique situation and, at any point, the city could have shut this place down,” Jeans says. “I welcome having a little stability here. We do run the risk of being priced out of this market, but that’s what’s happening all over downtown. If that happens here, it’ll just be the end of an interesting chapter in St. Paul.”
A STORIED HISTORY
The Rossmor sits on the northwest fringe of Lowertown, once home to a cluster of manufacturers whose discarded husks of brick, concrete and thick wooden beams have been converted over the past quarter-century into offices, apartments, artist studios and live-work spaces.
Artists live and work in a handful of other former warehouses in Lowertown. Some had the foresight and savvy during the early ’80s to form co-op associations that purchased two such buildings – the Tilsner and what is now the Lowertown Lofts – immunizing them from the gentrification about to befall the Rossmor.
Built in 1916 by the architectural firm Kees and Colburn, the building was conceived as a munitions factory, but World War I ended before weapons assembly could begin. The first tenant was Foot-Schulze and Co., a shoe manufacturer.
Old photos from inside show workers and machinery stretching a block long, interrupted only by white cylinders of concrete, each a few feet wide, which run vertically from the basement to the roof. Natural light pours in from the wall-to-wall fold-out windows that, along with the columns, still distinguish the building.
It isn’t clear how the building took on the Rossmor name, but for a window into the past, hike up to the fourth floor, where Miracle Paint Co. has held the same 6,000-square-foot space since 1932.
Fred A. Schletz, who owned three paint stores at the time, started Miracle when, inspired by how electric washing machines operated, devised machines to shake lead-based paint so it wouldn’t spoil on store shelves. Demand for the “Miracle Paint Rejuvenator” boomed, and Schletz gave up his paint stores to devote his attention to making the shakers.
Charles Schletz, the founder’s grandson, started working at the shop parttime when he was 14 and fulltime at 19. Now 47, with thick shoulders and hands, a boyish face and light red hair, he’s the third in the Schletz line to run Miracle Paint.
The business hasn’t changed. Paint shakers are still the exclusive product (two models now), assembled by hand with the help of machinery his grandfather invented. A green patina matching the pigment of faded copper coats the factory floor and walls.
Charles Schletz remembers when the building was home to a range of industry, when he could look onto the loading dock and see seven or eight trucks lined up behind it. The building’s age and constraints pushed companies out of the Rossmor and downtown, Schletz says, and into modern industrial facilities.
“Some companies were almost embarrassed to be here. The companies that did stay went bankrupt,” he says. “But nobody comes here for us. Our business is over the phone, a lot out of state. For all they know, we’re in a nice, modern building.”
As industry moved out, artists moved in.
“The owners turned a blind eye to it because at least they were getting rent,” Schletz says.
Schletz’s father never understood or embraced his new neighbors, but Charles Schletz came to appreciate them.
“You have everything and everyone imaginable in here. It’s fun and interesting,” he says. “There’s more character now than there ever was, but people have started to leave since the building sold.”
Miracle Paint Co. will soon follow. The new owner plans turning floors 3-7 into residential units, and Schletz has his eye on a place in Inver Grove Heights. He’s already removed some of the oldest machinery, which hasn’t been used in more than a half-century, caked with the dust of neglect.
“This place doesn’t really inspire me — I grew up here, you know — but everybody who comes in is in awe of the place,” he says. “We’ll move to a real modern facility, everything you could want, but it won’t have these windows, won’t have these doors. I don’t care, but who knows — maybe I’ll miss it once we’re gone.”
HOPING FOR THE BEST
The Rossmor’s new owner is Rich Pakonen, a 34-year-old developer who recently bought and renovated the Produce Exchange Co. building on 10th Street, across from the Rossmor. Pakonen envisions the Rossmor retaining its mix of artist living, small-business entrepreneurship and street-level retail.
Ground floor tenants now include two diners and a new coffee lounge, a gay bar, a temporary employment agency and Calvary Baptist Church.
“I think people are nervous about what we’re going to do,” Pakonen says. “Will everybody be able to stay? No, not even in the best-case scenario. But we’re going to take great care to communicate with the tenants there now and come up with a solution that’s financially responsible but also takes in the historical (presence) of the arts there.”
Pakonen says he spent $5 million for the building and estimates he will spend between $4 to 7 million bringing it up to residential code. He hasn’t decided whether to sell individual units, as he has at the Produce Exchange, or rent them, and he won’t say how much money he’ll ask for in either case. Lofts at the Produce Exchange, he says, range between $80,000 and $220,000.
Pakonen has met with some Rossmor artists and expects to meet with every tenant after today, when the deed transfers to him.
“I’m not looking to do harm to anybody,” he says. “If we lost somebody like Key’s Café, I would be crushed. I hope I can sign a 20-year lease with Keys. I know this is going to be dramatic and difficult, because I know people are using the space for the arts. So I’m hoping as we do this, we can work together to keep the arts in the building. I know that’s a loose statement, because of the uncertainty right now, but my arms are out.”
One thing is certain, Pakonen says — the vintage fold-out windows are coming out, clearing the way for double-paned, energy-efficient glass. Others foresee more changes.
“They’re going to come in here like the black plague through a slum,” says Dave Empfield, the boat-maker.
Another bracing for the push is Greg Kruse, a fourth-floor artist who still grabs meals at the Dorothy Day Center and relies on loaves of bread left by the church.
Kruse is balding, with a puffy bag under one eye and a long and bushy salt-and-pepper beard. He’s had a studio here for nine years, paying $348 for 400 square feet. It looks like a big storage room, filled with easels and canvas and sculpture. There’s little room to maneuver.
Standing at the center of the room is Kruse, wearing a white, coat-length, button-up smock flecked with dried paint. His thumb pokes through the handle of a pallet rimmed with dabs of brown, blue, green and rust oil paints, a half-dozen brushes sprouting from his palm like flowers in a vase. A gray poodle-terrier mix, Sam, lays at his feet, next to a bowl of kibble.
“Perhaps people think we like living like this. My goal, and that of a lot of artists, has always been to get out,” Kruse says. “Maybe I’ll take out an ad that says ‘Free Spirit Looking for a Home’ and put a picture of me and Sam on there. But I have a lease until September, and that’s when the movie ends.”