Hope for the Historic—Helping Ramsey Honor Its Roots

Photo of Ramsey Town Hall

Photo by Steve Schneider © 2017

By Katriona Filipovitch Molasky, a second-year graduate student in the Master of Urban and Regional Planning Program at the Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota.

When I entered the Master of Urban and Regional Planning (MURP) program at the Humphrey School last fall, I was excited to dig into coursework and to start designing my own program concentration in Historic Preservation. During the first few weeks of class, I learned that one of my classes—Land Use Planning, taught by Dr. Fernando Burga—would be working with the Resilient Communities Project on a slate of projects with their partner, the City of Ramsey. Imagine my surprise when Ramsey staff were presenting projects to our class during the second week of the semester, and came to a project about the “Old Ramsey Town Hall”—a historic building on the outskirts of the city that needed a little love and a new life. I jumped at the opportunity to start working on historic preservation and selected this project as the focus for my semester-long team assignment in the class.

My three-person team included Mary Cutrufello, a fellow student in the MURP program, and Amy Van Gessel, a graduate student in Architecture. As we discussed our assignment and the project, it became clear we each were drawn to a different aspect of the Old Ramsey Town Hall: Mary was interested in the history of the building, Amy in the building itself, and I was interested in how the community interacted with the building. Our diverse interests and the City of Ramsey’s openness to exploration let each of us approach the work in a different way and, in the end, produce a stronger project for the City.

From the beginning, the importance of the Old Ramsey Town Hall to the community was clear. It’s the only building in Ramsey on the National Register of Historic Places and one of the few remaining buildings in the city that links the community to its rural roots. The building sits on the southeast edge of town, near the border with the City of Anoka. Built in 1892 as a one-room schoolhouse, it replaced a smaller wood schoolhouse building formerly on the site. The schoolhouse served the community for 54 years, until it closed its doors in 1946 and the building and land were given to Ramsey Township. Ramsey renovated the building to serve as the town hall (hence the name) and eventually City Hall once the township incorporated, but by 1977, the city had outgrown the space and built a new facility in a more central location in the community. Since then, the Old Ramsey Town Hall has largely remained empty and unused.  

In 1979, the community rallied around the building and submitted an application to place it on the National Register of Historic Places—a list of more than 80,000 properties of national, regional, or local significance maintained by the U.S. Department of the Interior. Properties are deemed historically significant for many reasons, from architectural design and engineering to cultural and historical significance. Placement on the National Register makes a property eligible for federal rehabilitation grants and tax credits, as well as a 20% state tax credit in Minnesota.

Today, the Old Ramsey Town Hall is still a topic of discussion and debate among community members. The building’s location is both a benefit and a drawback. It occupies a prime location in the middle of a commercial development, and is highly visible from well-traveled St. Francis Boulevard. Surrounding the building are several century-old oak trees that contribute to the historic setting and provide valuable shade for the property and surrounding buildings. But as the City of Ramsey has grown and developed around the site, the property has become hemmed in. Currently, the building is nestled between businesses to the north and south, a high-traffic roadway to the east, and an expansive wetland and residential development to the west. Although it is located in an area designated for commercial, the site lacks off-street parking and there is no room for expansion.

Although evaluating the structural integrity of the building was not the primary focus of our project, we capitalized on Amy’s architectural knowledge to assess the Old Ramsey Town Hall. Amy noted that the brick and timbers used to construct the building would have been obtained from the surrounding area, making the building a representation of local industry in the late 19th century. An effort was made in the 1990s to remodel the building’s interior, but the work was left unfinished and the remodeling effort left the entire inside of the structure stripped of historical integrity.

Kurt Ulrich, Ramsey’s City Administrator and our staff contact for the project, had mentioned during his initial presentation in our class the possibility of moving the Old Ramsey Town Hall to a new location somewhere in the Center of Ramsey (COR), the community’s mixed-use downtown development. When the Northstar Commuter Rail Line was being built, there had been some discussion about moving the building, but ultimately nothing happened and Kurt was interested in having our group explore the prospect again.

Ultimately, our team decided to evaluate the pros and cons of leaving the building in its current location, moving it to two other locations in the city, and possible adaptive reuses of the building in any of these locations.

Leaving the Old Town Hall in its current location has many benefits. The building can remain on the National Register and benefit from the tax incentives that come with that designation. Once repurposed, the building would provide prime access to clientele given its location near Highway 10 and in an established commercial district. By avoiding relocation costs, the City could allocate money to restore the historic property to a usable condition. In addition, historic properties are often repurposed for use by nonprofits, start-up businesses, and arts organizations, providing some economic development benefit.

Of course, this option is not without its drawbacks. Leaving the building where it is, with no obvious way to address the lack of onsite parking, limits future uses of the property. Keeping the building on the National Register means that there are constraints on repairs to the exterior of the building, as no outward changes of appearance would be allowed. And there is no space for expansion. Any use of the building would be significantly constrained by the site.

Our team also explored two possible sites for relocating the building to the COR. The first site, near the new Ramsey Municipal Building and City Hall, would place the buliding in a “then and now” context and show how much Ramsey has changed and grown. The second location would provide a more pastoral setting akin to the original location of the building before Ramsey began to develop. There are potential benefits to moving the Old Town Hall. A new site in the COR offers flexibility for the city to choose the ideal context for the building depending on its proposed use. In addition, it connects Ramsey with its history as a rural, agricultural community.

However, moving the structure has significant drawbacks as well. The building could no longer be listed on the National Register, and Ramsey would lose access to the funding and tax benefits that comes with that designation. The scale of other buildings in the COR would dwarf the one-story building, making it appear less prominent and out of place. Most importantly, the structural state of the Old Town Hall is such that moving it would be both risky and costly.

In considering adaptive reuses of the Old Town Hall, our team suggested uses that would bring the building to life—a café, a retail store, an interpretive learning or museum space, or even using the space as a business incubator to draw on Ramsey’s entrepreneurial spirit. What was most exciting to me and my teammates was the fact that community members had already come up with ideas of their own. Kurt put us in touch with two community members who had come to the city with proposals for using the Old Town Hall, including business plans. Shannon Potter proposed turning the space into a School of the Arts for Ramsey. When I met with her and asked her why she was interested in the space, she said, “I just want to see that space used again and I want to bring more artists to Ramsey.” Tara Gattner, who runs Braven Music Anoka, has hopes of expanding her well-established music school into the building. As she noted, “We love history and a good story; we think that it is great that the building started out as a school and could again be one.”

And that is what makes Ramsey’s Old Town Hall so interesting. The building has been left, somewhat abandoned, for the better part of four decades, and still the community identifies with it and cares for it as a symbol of how Ramsey started. The idea that old buildings are just eyesores that should be torn down and the property redeveloped ignores the human element of how people connect with spaces and the stories about them. Old buildings help us learn about and share our history, reusing historical spaces helps us remember that we are connected to and a part of something bigger than we are.

Over the summer, I learned that the City of Ramsey had decided—based on both our recommendations and the work of another RCP class in the School of Architecture on “Historic Building Conservation”—that they would not move forward with plans to relocate the building, and are instead exploring options for adaptive reuses once renovations to the building can be completed. Could a graduate student ask for a better result? Not only did RCP provide me and my teammates an opportunity to work side-by-side with City staff on a real project, it gave us the experience of seeing our work influence the way staff and elected officials approach an historic city asset. As an emerging young professional hoping to pursue a career in Historic Preservation, it has been an amazing and gratifying experience!

*****

To learn more about the work of U of MN students referenced in this story, view the students’ final RCP reports:

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