The Free Press, Mankato, MN

State, national news

July 8, 2013

To revive or raze: Sandstone grapples with empty icon

SANDSTONE -- "The first thing I'll do when I get the building is block this window," said Jack Allen, standing in an abandoned school near a second floor window that local kids use as a door. "They were breaking in a lot over the last summer," he said. "It was bad."

The sprawling, three-story school was built a century ago of stout blocks of sandstone from the quarry at the edge of the city. From the exterior it's an imposing building, with grand arched doorways not unlike those found in the University of Minnesota's Pillsbury Hall, which was built of rock from the same quarry.

But while the Twin Cities campus building is used and maintained, the old elementary and high school in Sandstone was decommissioned by the early 2000s, when a new, modern school was built along Highway 23 between Sandstone and Askov. Since then, the old school -- sometimes referred to as "the rock" -- has stood empty and without heat or air conditioning. It has been vandalized by kids, ransacked by copper thieves, water damaged and sold to a developer whose plans fell through and repossessed.

Allen is perhaps the best and last hope for the building, which he is in the process of buying from the city for $1. A decided optimist originally from the Cambridge area, he wants to turn the old school into the new home of Harvest Christian School, now in another part of Sandstone, where he is principal. He also envisions a thrift store, a coffee shop, doctors' offices, a commercial kitchen, events spaces and rooms for anger management classes, art and music lessons, and other public services. "We want to bring back that community feeling," he said. "I want people in the building. It's a majestic building."

That's a sentiment small city residents are expressing all over the state as they struggle with old infrastructure -- schools and hotels and churches that made more sense when there were hordes of kids in town or traveling salesmen moving through. They often debate or fight for years to figure out what to do with these once iconic buildings. Sometimes they manage to find new uses for them. Often they push them over with bulldozers. Whichever way a city goes, the decisions say a lot about a community's resources, cohesiveness, self image and collective imagination.

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