The annual state legislative session kicked off this month. You can tell because the loop of underground tunnels beneath the government buildings is now bursting with lobbyists, politicians, staffers, journalists, and the always underappreciated pages, scrambling down the long sloping hallways with reams of paper in hand. The tunnels lead in a circle underground, and they link most of state government’s key destinations: State Office Building, the Centennial Building, MnDOT, and of course the 1904 State Capitol.
But there’s one door that’s never used, never open, and beckons silently toward something abandoned like the site of a great murder mystery novel: the Ford Building.
This portal to the unknown might not be long for this world if demolition is funded by this year’s Legislature. There’s currently an official request from the Department of Administration for $1.7 million to tear down the historic Ford Building, which sits on University Avenue across the street from the statue of Leif Erikson. A December decision [PDF] by the National Park Service (NPS), which controls the National Register of Historic Buildings, sent back an application for the Ford Building as being “on hold.” It’s not approved, not rejected, but in limbo, and the decision makes the demolition all the more likely.
If you ask around, however, this is precisely the kind of demolition proposal that makes historic preservationists irate.
“If there was ever a slam dunk, this is it,” said Brian McMahon, a preservationist and historian who helped write the Ford Building’s application for the National Register [PDF]. McMahon is one of the people saddened by the lack of protection for the 1914 factory.
“I’ve expressed my displeasure that it’s been put in the ‘on hold’ category … which is really quite extraordinary and is not the way things are done in my 50 years of experience as a historic preservationist.”
Awaiting the wrecking ball
Behind the tunnel door, the Ford Building rises three large stories over University Avenue. It’s an old car factory, one of the two dozen “branch factories” that Henry Ford built to produce the Model T. It ran as a car plant for the next 21 years, before eventually being bought by the state in the early 1970s. It was used for government office space until 2004, and has been vacant ever since.
According to the Department of Administration, the state agency that plans office space, parking policy, and a host of other logistical issues involved with the thousands of state workers, the state of the Ford Building is mixed. On the one hand, it’s officially “structurally sound.”
On the other hand, there’s this:
“The building has been vacant for about 15 years and all the major building systems would need to be replaced,” said Wayne Waslaski, the real estate and construction services director for the department. “They’re all at the end or beyond their useful life. When you’re thinking of heating and cooling, ventilation systems, ADA accessibly, the building skin, the building is rough.”
Thus the application for demolition, which is part of the agency’s budget request for the coming year.
“Essentially [demolition] would give us the opportunity to maximize the development on that site,” explained Waslaski. “We have the L-shaped [surface] parking lot that surrounds the Ford Building, and so we have very limited development capacity on the Capitol campus. Looking out long term, it makes a great deal of sense to maximize that site. We could get a building that could accommodate 900 employees plus parking.”
In addition to the demolition, the Department of Administration has requested money for a strategic planning process that would help shape how to use the land. According to Waslaski, the last document that lays out how the Capitol area might grow dates back to the early 1990s, and is “completely outdated.”
The case for saving Ford
It’s certainly true that the red brick walls of the Ford Building seem out of place in today’s Capitol area. Compared to the monument-scattered grass, and the beige walls of the quiet government buildings, the sidewalk windows of the Ford Building offer a stark contrast. But if you went back in time a hundred years, the whole area would have looked a lot different.
“Yes, it is a nationally significant building, but in the context of the complete obliteration of a thriving developed neighborhood around the Capitol, it is the last surviving remnant of what was there,” explained Brian McMahon, who has written a history of the Ford Motor Company’s presence in the Twin Cities. “It takes on an additional significance in that respect.”
Looking at old pictures of St. Paul’s Capitol area offers a time warp. In all directions, the Capitol was once surrounded by buildings that included apartments, churches, bars, and (yes) even car factories. These days, there’s hardly anything left of that old built environment, other than the similarly aged Christ Lutheran Church next door.
“Let’s not rush to knock this thing down,” said McMahon. “Don’t knock it down in the absence of some alternative that is here and present and is better. Perhaps we can say enough, and maybe save the one thing that is left.”
The risk of demolition by neglect
“We’re at an interesting time right now with reference to how preservation is perceived and viewed in the larger sphere of planning and development in St. Paul,” said Carol Carey, the executive director of Historic Saint Paul. “I do think some of these conversations are really important to have in a thoughtful way.”
Carey would love to see buildings like the Ford Building stick around in the urban fabric, to offer other stories about what a place means to people — stories that reflect the city’s rich history.
“The point of preservation isn’t to preserve every stick, but it is to understand the variety of stories that add to the development and history of St. Paul, and to try to find a way to acknowledge and highlight those where possible.”
Carey is particularly concerned about what she calls “demolition by neglect,” when disregard of an older building — in the jargon of preservation, called a “historic resource” — lets it run down to the point where it’s all but impossible to save.
“Letting a resource deteriorate to the point where it’s no longer viable,” explained Carey. “Sometimes that happens as a result of more limited resources or just unintentional inattention to basic maintenance items, and sometimes it’s more willful, in that if an owner simply doesn’t want to renovate a building, they simply let it deteriorate until there’s no option. I don’t know that that’s what the state is doing here but the property has been vacant for such a long time, and there clearly hasn’t been any effort to explore and advance reuse options in a significant way.”
The Ford potential
It’s not quite true that there’s no desire to save the building within state government. As you’d expect any time you invoke bureaucracy, things begin to get complicated, and it’s certainly true in this case. The large area around the Capitol is technically outside the jurisdiction of the City of St. Paul, and instead is shaped by a legislative body called the Capital Area Architectural and Planning Board (CAAPB), which works with the Department of Administration on how to manage the area.
When it comes to Ford, the two institutions don’t quite see eye-to-eye about what the future might hold, and the CAAPB has been doing some official planning recently. This includes an update to its Comprehensive Plan, which calls for saving the Ford building, if possible, in the name of preservation and an active, diverse streetscape.
The latest draft of the comprehensive plan chapter includes a policy that reads:
Strongly encourage[s] full or partial re-use of the Ford Building, recognizing the existing embodied energy and sustainability of re-using a solid structure, the benefit to the urban fabric of a historic building, and to take advantage of existing tunnel connection.
According to the vision, a rehabbed and reused Ford Building could be part of a revitalized district around the Rice and University area, along with developing the acres of asphalt that sit on the former Sears site. The plan draws on other examples around the country of nearly identical Ford Buildings being reused and repurposed in a variety of ways. Many are, in fact, on the National Register already; meanwhile, the old Minneapolis Ford plant is now a fancy office building right next to Target Field.
Earlier last year, the CAAPB commissioned a study that would look at the possibility of reusing the building. The study was completed, but has not yet been officially adopted. Nevertheless, it contains a strong affirmation for preserving Ford, including the following summary statement from its authors:
It is the author’s professional opinion, based on a career of over 35 years of rehabilitating, restoring, adapting and preserving significant historic structures, that the Ford Building at 117 University Avenue is, at the present time, a highly desirable structure for adapting reuse integrated into a larger redevelopment of the block’s surface parking lots.
But following the noncommittal decision from the NPS, at a recent December meeting [PDF], the CAAPB softened its stance, which had previously been “opposed to the idea of demolition of this historic building.”
Instead, the CAAPB position on the recent demolition request now states:
“While CAAPB policy does not require but supports re-use of the Ford Building, the CAAPB is open to the budget request for demolition of the Ford Building, given the understanding from the Administration Department, that the actual demolition would not occur until such time as they have an actual use for the site in the form of a planned building.”
In other words, the board would like to see some official agency plans before anything gets knocked down.
Up in the air
That leaves the future of the Ford Building as up in the air as ever before, a frustrating position for those who are trying to save it. The Department Administration cites the “lifecycle cost analysis” and sees a key plot of land that might become available. The CAAPB planning documents outline a vision for a more walkable University Avenue. And St. Paul historians see the last remnant of a lost neighborhood.
Meanwhile the building itself sits vacant, its tunnel door closed, bricks fading in the weak February sun. As things sit, the odds are not great that the building will ever be used for anything again, other than a future site for a new state office building and parking lot.
If that happens, the last sign of the once-diverse turn-of-the-century neighborhood would be gone, part of a demolition process dating back to the 1930s. For McMahon and other preservationists, the loss of the building would be a sad fate for the state.
“The real bottom line here is that the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) needs to set a positive example,” said Brian McMahon, who is still hoping to get the building on the Historic Register. “[Let’s] not create a bad precedent for others who are custodians of our historic heritage.”