What's the future look like for one of Rochester's most iconic buildings?
Sure, the Chateau Theatre may get all the headlines. But there's another historic, city-owned building downtown with an uncertain future. The Rochester Armory Building, commonly referred to as the "Castle," will soon be left vacant once the senior center makes its move to a new facility now under construction.
Several groups, including a children's museum, have expressed interest in the building. The city is accepting proposals for the space through the end of March. Local leaders have made it clear, however, that any group seeking to occupy the armory will need to prove that it can be financially sustainable.
The downtown castle, located at 121 N. Broadway, was built in 1915 as an armory for the Minnesota National Guard. It is now one of 25 properties in the county on the National Register of Historic Places.
According to historical archives, the armory used to host dances on the weekends, making it a hot spot for local teens in the middle of the 20th century. For the past 36 years, the building has been home to the Rochester Senior Center.
The building, which resembles a medieval fortress, is made up of three floors above ground plus a finished-off basement. There is a small performance space on the third floor; office and classroom space on the second floor; and a commercial kitchen and large gathering area on the first floor.
The city anticipates the building will be available for reuse by spring 2017.
According to City Clerk Aaron Reeves, no formal proposals have been submitted. However, at least two local organizations have publicly expressed strong interest in moving into the armory.
Both the Rochester Arts and Culture Collaborative, a grassroots arts advocacy group that formed last year, and the Minnesota Children's Museum of Rochester confirmed to the Med City Beat that they are developing plans to submit to the city.
"We have been gathering information on various needs of individuals and organizations across all genres for over a year, as far as usage, both ongoing and periodic," said Debi Neville, a member of the RACC. The group consists of representatives from a number of local arts groups, including Words Players Theatre and C4, both of which lost downtown locations in the past year.
For the children's museum, the armory would provide five times as much space as its current strip-mall location. A survey released last spring found that 88 percent of its visitors thought the museum's current home is too small.
"The [armory] building would create more options, new programming and partnerships that can respond to the needs of the community and economy," said Heidi Mestad, who recently took over as director of the museum.
The museum is still evaluating what kind of work would need to be done to renovate the building. But Mestad said moving the museum downtown would bring more families to the city core by creating a "lively, year-round experience."
"There are not many venues that are focused on playful learning and innovation for kids — and also adults," she said. "This would help to fill the niche that we have heard repeatedly that is in need."
Regardless of its future tenant, the city plans to maintain ownership of the armory. The council is not expected to discuss the building's future until after the March 31st deadline.
About Sean Baker: Sean is the founder and editor of the Med City Beat. Under his direction, the site has transitioned from a small news blog to one of the most widely-read publications in the city. Prior to launching the site in 2014, Sean spent about two years producing television news in Green Bay and Rochester. His office is above a brewery, so please excuse any typos. Twitter.
(Cover photo: The Med City Beat)