Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Award-Winning Rehab at Garden of Gethsemane Church

Post and photos by the Hawthorne Hawkman

Last week I was asked at the last minute if I was going to attend a session of Happy Hour with a Preservationist, this time at the Garden of Gethsemane church in Jordan's Cottage Park. The name of the event was something of a misnomer, however, as there were no drinks served that one would typically associate with the phrase "happy hour." We didn't even get a nip of communion wine.

But the preservation and rehab work done at this church made the evening well worth our time. The site has won several prestigious architectural awards, such as...

the "Best in Real Estate Award" by the Minneapolis-St. Paul Business Journal, the "Neighborhood Preservation Award" by the Minnesota AIA and the Minneapolis HPC, and the "MN Preservation Award" by the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota.

The Ackerberg Group was instrumental in making sure this was successful, so we thank them profusely for everything they do in NoMi. Here is their website detailing the rehab, including amazing "before" and "after" shots and a terrific narrative. I really encourage readers to check that out, because it'll save me the time of re-typing much of the history of this redevelopment. The website also has a comprehensive list of partners and links to their websites. The lead architect and structural engineer were integral to this process.

The Garden of Gethsemane is an extraordinarily appropriate name for this church given the colossal amount of work the church needed. The name comes from the site where Jesus and his disciples prayed the night before his crucifixion. It is said that Jesus' anguish was so deep that "his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling unto the ground." (Luke 22:43-44) That's the kind of effort I'm sure went into the restoration here.

The walls and roof were literally bowing in. Lead paint and asbestos needed to be abated. Water damage was extensive throughout the structure. The interior had been open to the elements for an extended period of time. Does this sound familiar? It's the condition of so many vacant properties throughout NoMi. And instead of a checklist of needed repairs, this too often is used as the criteria justifying demolition.

Pictured below is an interesting tidbit that the architect shared with us. Notice how the shingles curve away from the structure ever so slightly? Well, the phrase "they just don't make 'em like that anymore" really applies here. Shingles nowadays are frequently sold as sheets already attached to each other, saving workers the time of nailing down each individual shingle. So there are really only a handful of roofers and builders who do this kind of work. Yet the partners here went out of their way to find the ones who could and would do so.

I was also quite impressed with the stairwell. Not only did it look beautiful...

...but apparently it was so bent out of shape that it had to be readjusted in a fashion similar to a chiropractor realigning a patient's spinal column. The structural engineer also inserted a metal rod in the middle of the staircase, going from the foundation to the top of the building.

This blog has celebrated a fair amount of demolitions, and I could take you to a dozen properties in Hawthorne alone that clearly need to come down. But seeing what can be done and what has been done here certainly calls into question many of the demolitions we've seen and will see in Minneapolis. If this building can be saved, then virtually any structure could be salvageable. The key components that this structure had going for it was a desire to save it and partners who came together to make that desire a reality. Here's hoping we see more of that throughout NoMi.


Anonymous said...

Dyna asks: Pretty impressive, but how much did the rehab cost?

The Hawthorne Hawkman said...


I didn't get answers to that question, but I am indeed curious about it as well. In some ways though, I see cost as a distant third in terms of whether and how to save buildings. The first two items needed are a vision for what the structure can and will be, and the second necessary item is the will to make that happen. If those two things are strong enough, the money can be found somewhere.

M. Clinton said...

In addition to assisting this Liberian Congregation with completion of their space to worship, the church also is so key to the "charm" and aesthetic of Cottage Park. I've always felt there is a feeling that the church "presides" and "watches" over the park. I've always found Cottage Park to be such a quaint little spot. I also just had to add that the original architects of the church were Downs and Eads, also the architects of a church in Linden Hills and the Linden Hills Fire Station that are designated historic landmarks. I previously owned a Downs and Eads designed home in South Minneapolis and am a huge fan of their bungalow era aesthetic.

Anonymous said...

It's only money. What difference does it make? I applaude the preservation effort!

Anonymous said...

Dyna replies:

I see your points, but when I'm paying the bills myself cost becomes the first priority.

Gary said...


So money is only a distant third on the list of most important thing in building rehab? Can you get me the phone numbers of contractors that accept "vision" and "will" as payment?

No wonder the efforts to revitalize NoMi aren't going very well.

The Hawthorne Hawkman said...


I fundamentally disagree with you about whether revitalization in NoMi is going well. I furthermore have no inclination to educate you on why you're wrong there.

In terms of the money vs. vision issue, here's a few thoughts:

First, let's say that there's a house in need of rehab (or demolition) and the city claims it will cost $300,000 to fix. There's a lot of reasons why that dollar amount is inflated, and I expect to have a JNS post about those specifics in the near future. So let's assume the rehab costs are "only" $200,000, the house is selling for $20,000 and it would cost $5,000 to secure it during and post-rehab until it sells.

Now, that property, once rehabbed, has only a market value of $125,000. So we're looking at $100,000 that needs to be sunk into the place in order to make rehab viable. So let's tear it down, right?

Not so fast. First off, acquisition will still cost $20,000 of taxpayer money, plus another $20-30,000 in demolition costs that will not be recouped. A city-owned vacant lot has at least some holding costs as it needs to be mowed and have litter picked up. Plus, it generates no tax revenue, while a property in good repair pulls in maybe $1,500 a year in taxes.

Some city-owned lots in NoMi have sat vacant for over twenty years, so that's another $30,000 in lost tax revenue right there (not even accounting for inflation or tax increases). Over the long haul, renovation costs the neighborhood less than demolition.

(This isn't a blanket argument against ANY demolition, but should be a framework for understanding why demolition is frequently not the best option for my neighborhood.)

That's compounded by the fact that many 100-year-old houses that are getting demolished could, with the right rehab, be a viable and very desirable structure for another 100 years. Even if the time the property spends as a vacant, non-income-generating lot is rather minimal, we're still looking at $50k in taxpayer funds used plus whatever costs are involved in new construction.

And guess what? The housing market is depressed enough that building new homes STILL doesn't generate a profit. So that shortfall has to be paid by someone.

THAT'S why I say "find me someone with a vision" as a first step towards rehab. The money will have to come from somewhere, but that happens no matter which way you go. Demolitions are too frequently done NOT out of financial reasons but because a better alternative is not being articulated and put into action.

The Hawthorne Hawkman said...

Two comments rejected due to spam content.

Anonymous said...

Dyna replies:

Got a chance to research this building a bit today. The rehab cost nearly a million dollars and would have been a lot more had not a lot of services and labor been donated. The building has about 8000 square feet, but that's spread over three levels and may not all be usable.

So they've spent about $100/square foot and the congregation is stuck with a huge loan to pay off. I wish them luck, but I suspect they could have built new for about the same cost. For half what they paid or less they could have probably bought another church in better shape or bought and remodeled one of the northside's numerous commercial buildings.

Anonymous said...

It looks nice but it is certainly not the best use of money in NoMi. There's a lot of better things that money could be spent on.

I wonder what will happen with the property when the bank forecloses?