Minnesota is not exactly exploding with historic architecture.

Don’t get me wrong – we’ve got some excellent stuff, much of it lovingly illustrated in countless Twin Cities PBS documentaries and shorts. But our North Star State just can’t compete with the likes of, say, continental Europe, where centuries-old, ivy-laced chateaus and moss-adorned villas abound, absolutely spewing forth rustic charm. So charming that it’s downright disgusting.

Author’s note: I am a diehard history enthusiast. It was my college major, and still my favorite genre of fiction and non-fiction books, feature films, documentaries and television shows. I also recently took my family on an amazing driving trip through western Europe, and the rustic charm factor is no joke. Okay, on with the story.

An example of the almost nausea-inducing Euro charm.

So, Minnesota is not exactly drowning in historic architecture. And that’s not all bad. After all, the very problem with historic architecture is that it’s, well, historic. It’s already old, which means it’s already harder to maintain than brand-new, modern structures. And once such structures fall into disrepair, all the rustic charm in the world can’t stop the inexorable progress of decay, unless humans intervene with great effort and expense. We’ve all seen those “can’t believe it” news articles of an entire charm-spewing Italian village for sale for some absurdly low price. Or closer to home, look at what it took for ambitious Saint Paulites to buy back and restore what is now the Historic Hill district.

The latest chapter in Minnesota’s historic architecture salvation story? The Upper Post at Fort Snelling. If you’ve been to Minneapolis–St. Paul International Airport in the last 50 years, you’ve probably noticed rows of blond brick buildings sitting empty nearby. The entire Fort Snelling site at Bdote has a long and often painful history, most notably its complex and violent relationship with the Dakota people, and as the place where humans were legally kept enslaved in Minnesota. But for our purposes, the officers’ housing is the focus. Long ago decommissioned and given to the State of Minnesota to manage, the Upper Post has been something of an unwelcome gift. Buildings crumbling from neglect and tough Minnesota winters, they look a bit like that Italian village for sale: charming, but hopeless.

Officers’ Barracks. Photo courtesy of Dominium.

Several years ago, the nonprofit affordable housing developer CommonBond partnered with the Veterans Administration to convert some Fort Snelling buildings into affordable housing with a preference for veterans experiencing homelessness. But there are dozens more buildings sitting forlorn and neglected – and with the state’s mandate to look after these listed historical buildings, more work was needed.

Enter for-profit affordable housing developer Dominium, which is partnering with Minnesota’s Department of Natural Resources to similarly salvage and repurpose these decrepit officers’ homes into affordable housing with a preference for veterans. According to project lead Owen Metz, it’s completely unlike any of Dominium’s normal affordable housing efforts. And that might be part of its appeal for people like this author. If Minnesota desperately needs more affordable housing, AND you’ve got dozens of listed historic buildings sitting around which you must—by law—fix up anyway, AND because of the site’s long history as military housing, it seems especially apt for our underserved veterans. So it seems like a project solving three important issues all at once.

And, if successful, Minnesota will have a little more historic architecture that can live into the future.

P.S. Don’t buy that charm-spewing Italian village, and go clean out your gutters.


This story is part of the collection, Under One Roof: Stories on Minnesota’s Housing Crisis, which is funded by a grant from the Pohlad Family Foundation.


Almanac reporter Mary Lahammer takes a look at the work that organizations such as Habitat for Humanity and state legislators are doing to make home ownership a reality for more Minnesotans.

Visit the former historic state hospital known as the “Anoka Asylum” that’s now housing homeless vets after lots of quickly-coordinated volunteer efforts. The critics said it couldn’t be done. Experts said it would take years and millions of dollars, they were wrong. But the people behind Eagle’s Healing Nest made it happen.