By Dan Greenwood

Once it was a high school classroom. Soon it will be an apartment.

And the people touring the repurposed high school in New Ulm were clearly impressed by the unit. Large windows overlooked the Minnesota River Valley, with refurbished hardwood floors, and the freshly painted new kitchen and bathroom indicated someone would soon be living here.

But rather than expensive condos, which was the original plan for the building, the 49 converted apartments are being set aside for individuals and families who earn slightly over half the area median income, which hovers between $31,000 and $49,000 depending on household size.

The $15 million affordable housing project here has been in the works since the Community Housing Development Corporation purchased the building from a developer in 2017. For a decade, the building stood vacant, save for the theater, which served as a venue for locally produced plays.

“In general, schools really lend themselves to that type of repurpose, and make really nice units,” said Elizabeth Flannery, President of CHDC. “It’s a great re-use if you can put the finances together.”

Built in 1915 with additions made in 1939 and 1956, the old school was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2015. The CDHC, a non-profit focused on purchasing properties to provide affordable housing, is based in Minneapolis, but say there is a growing need for affordable housing in smaller towns like New Ulm.

Heidi Rathmann, senior vice-president for CDHC, grew up in New Ulm and spent her middle school years in this very building. She still refers to the rooms by the names of the teachers she had in the late 1980s. A historic consultant reached out to the non-profit to let them know it was for sale, and they immediately saw a need.

“It became very evident that the units that are affordable in town are full,” Rathmann said. “People are driving 20, 30 miles outside of town and working in New Ulm and commuting in order to find an affordable place. That is definitely true of the incomes that we will be focusing on here.”

At Thursday’s open house, about 50 curious locals were given guided tours. Signs of the school are still obvious, from lockers, to a painting of the school mascot — even chalkboards in many of the units.

Architect Mary Barnett said the renovation has been a balancing act between preserving the historic nature of the building while making additions to convert those classrooms into one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments.

She said that while her architecture firm Urban Works, based in Minneapolis, had done a couple historic rehabilitation projects involving warehouses converted into apartments, but this was her first experience with a historic school.

“It’s a big undertaking. It took a few site visits. The first one was just wandering around, seeing what we had to work with, looking at the bones, seeing if we could fit the units within the classroom spaces,” Barnett said.

She said while there are similar concepts in all of the 49 apartments, each unit is unique, based on where the windows and casework were located. Some of the larger spaces, such as the cafeteria, will become four apartments. The library will become a community room with refinished hardwood floors and a lounge area. A second smaller theater is being converted to a recreation room, and a secondary gym and another space in the lower level will become a common laundry area and a fitness room.

New residents will still have the big gymnasium to play in.

“We’re going to clean that up and give it a facelift, but it will stay a gymnasium,” Barnett said.

New Ulm Mayor Robert Beussman’s wife and father-in-law went to school there. He said the demolition of other historic buildings had been hard to stomach, and the community was determined to preserve the old high school.

“Everyone was on board that they did not want to see this building deteriorate,” Beussman said. “It was too important. The city got behind it, local banking got behind it. Somebody else was interested in the building, but as soon as people found out what the charge was going to be to live there, they pulled away.”

He said the location will make it easy for residents to walk downtown, and expects it will attract people from nearby small towns who may not have been able to afford living in New Ulm.

Rathmann said the renovation and additions should be completed by the end of the year, with the first residents slated to move in as early as January 2020.

Dan Greenwood is a Free Press staff writer. Contact him at dangreenwoodreporter@gmail.com

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