A historic building

Updated: May 25, 2007 - 3:49 pm

Once a bustling urban center in the heart of Minneapolis and the host of everything from professional basketball games to heavy metal concerts, the only sounds emanating from the cavernous and historic Downtown Armory today are those of beeping locks and people parking cars.

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Armory was scheduled to be demolished nearly 20 years ago but was saved by a court ruling. Still standing at 6th Street and 5th Avenue, it has served the city as a parking garage since 1998, a role that comes with much less fanfare than the events that took place at the Armory from the 1930s to 1970s.

Doug Hoskin oversaw the conversion of the then-vacant structure into a parking garage at a cost of approximately $2.9 million while working with Armory Development II LLC. He purchased the building in 1999 and said since then various pitches to redevelop or redesign the building have been put on the table, but none of them has been financially feasible.

“There have been thoughts and ideas of office space, event centers, hotels and housing over the years,” he said. “Unfortunately, because of the architecture and structure of the building, any type of development would be extremely costly.”

Constructed in the midst of the Great Depression, the Armory was completed in 1936 thanks to a Public Works Administration grant, an initiative spearheaded by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. More than 400 workers were employed during the construction of the Armory, while all building materials were produced locally as stipulated by the PWA.

Soon after completion, the Minnesota National Guard moved into the Armory and drills were performed that included rolling 40-ton tanks across the large floor. During its use of the building, which ended in 1980, the military found itself splitting time with a variety of civic events, most notably professional basketball games of the Minneapolis Lakers, who left for Los Angeles in 1960, and Golden Glove boxing matches. The facility also hosted political conventions, trade shows, concerts and sporting events.

Hennepin County purchased the Armory for $4.7 million in 1989 with plans to use it as the site for a new jail. But after the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled in 1993 that the building could not be razed because of its historical status, the county sold the Armory in 1998.

Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin, who has been involved in proposals to redevelop the Armory, said the eventual goal is to once again make the building a vital part of the city’s Downtown core.

“It’s at the center of our county campus,” he said. “But until the right project comes along, its purpose is simply to pay taxes and provide parking space.”

McLaughlin added that one of his specific goals is to use the Armory for an important skyway connection among Downtown offices, residential buildings and the Hennepin County Medical Center, along with providing better access to the light rail station from its 6th Street location.

As it currently stands, Hoskin said the Armory is in its highest use since its conversion. Yet it is still just marginally profitable as a parking facility, he said, because funding for stabilization and preservation has become difficult to maintain in a market economy.

“A government subsidy is perhaps needed if anything is going to get done,” he said. “Ideally, I want some sort of development that will involve the community and bring the Armory back to the people of Minneapolis, but there is no preconceived notion about what the ultimate development should be.”

Tim Nolan, a Minneapolis attorney who has been involved in numerous Armory development proposals in recent years, said the historic building has far more potential to add to the city than its current use.

“It has such a diverse history of giving back to the community,” he said. “I think it is time for a resuscitation of such a beautiful building. Hopefully, it can be a vibrant and vital part of Minneapolis again once it’s up and running.”

For now, the building that once hosted military marches, a wailing Janis Joplin and professional wrestling body slams sits with busted windows, rusted bars, and locked doors, waiting for a possible rebirth.

McLaughlin said his purpose, along with many others throughout the county, is to work on finding a feasible and appropriate development for the 70-plus-year-old structure.

“It’s important to not only preserve the Armory but develop it so that we can start it off on another 70 years of productive service to the city,” he said. “We’ll continue to talk, negotiate and develop ideas until something right comes along.”