An adaptive reuse of an historic St. Paul brewery by BKV Group transforms a 15-acre industrial site into affordable housing for artists

By Joel Hoekstra

St. Paul was just a pioneer town in 1855 when Jacob Schmidt began brewing beer on Dayton’s Bluff. He kept his kegs cool in several underground caves. It was the start of a successful business that eventually moved to West Seventh Street and sprawled over 15 acres with crenellated red-brick towers, gothic arch windows, and a soaring smokestack. For more than 100 years, the Schmidt Brewery was one of the city’s most recognizable landmarks. But it closed in 2002, and it sat mostly vacant for the next decade.

Today, the brew house and bottling house hum again with activity, but it’s the ferment of creative ideas, rather than aging barley, that fuels the operation. In 2012, Plymouth-based developer Dominium purchased the site and announced plans to convert the brewery into affordable housing for artists. Two years later, the Schmidt Artist Lofts—including 247 lofts and 13 new townhouses, as well as workspaces dedicated to clay, painting, performance, video, and sound—officially opened for business. This past spring, AIA Minnesota and the McKnight Foundation honored the property with the prestigious Affordable Housing Design Award.

“At first, it was hard to know what we had to work with,” says Michael Krych, AIA, a partner with Minneapolis-based BKV Group, which developed the design for the project. “It was mostly dark inside, rain had leaked in, and there was clearly damage where ice dams had formed.” In addition, the complex was, well, complex: The 27 additions to the brew house were interconnected to a degree, but their floor levels rarely matched up. BKV’s first task was to map the complex, taking stock of historical details as they went along.

“Initially, we acquired the bottling house, and we didn’t think changing the brew house into living units was feasible,” says Patrick Ostrom, a senior development associate with Dominium. “It really took creativity and vision on BKV’s part to see it all come together.”

Preserving elements of the buildings’ colorful past was a priority. In addition to securing federal Historic Tax Credits to help finance the adaptive reuse, Dominium wanted the end result to appeal to artists: Retaining elements like old machinery, mash tubs, signage, and even light fixtures, they reasoned, would surely boost the project’s appeal with creative types. Such efforts would also address the concerns of preservationists and neighborhood activists who cherished the Schmidt Brewing history.

Transforming a neglected industrial facility into housing units and studios was a challenge, says Krych, given the complex’s massive size and oddly configured floor plans. The architects began by segmenting the collection of buildings into three areas, revamping existing circulation shafts and creating a new one for each area, and creating horizontal circulation between the three areas via surgical cuts through limestone and brick walls. Historic elements such as steel beams were painted charcoal, while stairways and other circulation elements were painted an orange-brown—visual cues that help residents and visitors appreciate and navigate the building. “Essentially, we had to develop a basic language for the building that told people what was new and what was old, what led up and what led down,” says Krych.

The floor plan for nearly every apartment in both the brew house and the bottling house is one of a kind. The two-story loft units, which range in size from studio to three-bedroom, were designed to maximize studio space and the kind of natural light that visual artists prize. Brick walls and beams were left exposed wherever possible, and doorways were oversized to allow large artworks to pass through. Artists who wish to work in collective spaces have their pick of a black-box theater, a dance studio, a painting and drawing space, and a ceramics area. A clubroom and deck on the top of the brew house boasts magnificent views of the downtown skyline.

BKV also hardscaped and landscaped the exterior in accordance with historic preservation guidelines, and it styled the new townhomes along the property’s northern edge to recall the home that Jacob Schmidt built for himself a few blocks away.

“The buildings sat vacant for a long time,” says Ostrom, “so the fact that we were able to revitalize the complex was very satisfying.”

Krych agrees: “It was a complex and challenging project for us. But it was also great to be able to preserve a pivotal part of St. Paul’s past.”

Location: St. Paul, Minnesota
Client: Dominium Development
Architect: BKV Group
Principal-in-charge: Gary Vogel, AIA
Project lead designer: Mike Krych, AIA
Energy modeling: BKV Group; The Weidt Group
Interior designer: BKV Group
Landscape architect: BKV Group
General contractor: Weis Builders
Size: 395,000 square feet
Cost: $90.7 million
Completion: June 2014