Custom House Historic Photo

photo by: Minnesota Historical Society

February 12, 2016

The Adaptive Reuse of St. Paul's Custom House

The city of St. Paul, Minnesota, is sometimes overshadowed on the national scene by its neighbor, Minneapolis. But when it comes to adaptive reuse projects, St. Paul has moved into the limelight.

In the spring of 2016, the city's 1934 Custom House came to life again when it opened its doors as a 740,000-square-foot mixed-use mecca of apartments, dining, and a hotel. The 17-story building has ties to the earliest days of St. Paul. It’s located on the site of the old steamboat landing on the north bank of the Mississippi River and on the very block where Henry Jackson, the city’s first American settler, set up shop as postmaster in the 1840s.

The current Art Deco building was the brainchild of Charles Moose, who served as postmaster in the 1920s, as a combined space for regional post office and customs operations, as well as a base for other federal agencies and offices.

The project was finally green lighted by the Public Buildings Act of 1926 under the presidency of Calvin Coolidge and completed with only 13 stories in 1934. Four more floors were tacked on by 1939, and an annex was attached in 1961 due to increased demand for post office service.

At one point, the building, which sits next to St. Paul’s historic Union Depot, managed mail going as far west as Seattle, making it the third busiest United States Post Office depot behind Chicago and New York.

But by the 1990s, the USPS was shifting its operations away from its historic facilities and towards single-story industrial buildings. The Custom House went up for sale but found no buyers.

Then, in August of 2013, Exeter Group LLC came through with a purchase of the building. The developer spent roughly 18 months planning their restoration and reuse project, and after closing on the property in February of 2015, got to work.

Custom House Dedication

photo by: Minnesota Historical Society

The dedication of the Custom House in 1934.

In May 2016, the building opened with 202 apartments and a rooftop terrace, with 149 Hyatt Place hotel rooms and a restaurant to follow. According to Exeter Chairman Jim Stolpestad, the $120 million project wouldn’t have happened without roughly $40 million in state and federal historic tax credits. The result is impressive.

Roughly 1,200 windows from the 1980s were replaced with windows designed after the building’s originals. The grand staircase, complete with brass railings running from the basement all the way to the 17th floor, has been preserved and the city-block-wide lobby has been restored. Original brass elevator doors complete with USPS insignia also remain.

On the upper floors, the project removed more than 10,000 tons of brick, concrete, and steel from interior walls, but original hallways, doors, and terrazzo floors have been preserved.When all is said and done, overshadowing this historic masterpiece will be a tall order.

David Weible is the content specialist at the National Trust, previously with Preservation and Outside magazines. His interest in historic preservation was inspired by the ‘20s-era architecture, streetcar neighborhoods, and bars of his hometown of Cleveland.

Urge your members of Congress to support the federal historic tax credit by co-sponsoring the Historic Tax Credit Improvement Act.

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