by ZACH KAYSER
Two redevelopment projects that will turn abandoned 1930s-vintage schools into apartments are finally germinating.
The former Madison Elementary School at 515 West Wabasha Street has already transformed classrooms into 21 residential units which are in the process of being rented out to seniors. Developer and Winona native Andrew Brenner has kept the fixtures of the old historic building, from the drop-down maps to the pencil sharpeners. In fact, a tenant who served as a teacher for 28 years before she retired, Mary Weber, can let her grandchildren do math problems and doodle on the blackboard in her apartment. “It was just love at first sight, really,” she said of the new apartment complex, dubbed Madison Place.
Weber, who recently downsized with her husband from their home in Janesville, Wis., said they were hesitant about purchasing a new home, so they looked at renting, but they had qualms about that too. “Most of the rentals, understandably, are geared toward college students,” she said. “And we just weren’t ready to step back in time to our college days, as fun as they were. We wanted something different.”
The process of getting the space ready for senior tenants like the Webers was indeed like stepping back in time for Brenner, although quite a bit further than college. He said he found a love note on the wall in the basement, an early 1900s-era fire hose nozzle, and a 50-year-old, unopened carton of milk, just to name a few of the historical items recovered. Some of them now reside in display cases in the hallway.
“It’s a museum for Winona,” Brenner said of the building. “It’s going to be here for a long time. The bones are so strong, but the maintenance that needed to go into it was pretty astronomical.”
How astronomical? Well, Brenner said the cost of heating the building before he replaced the two antique boilers was $9,000 a month — during a bitterly cold month a couple years ago. Now that he replaced the old behemoths with five new super-efficient boilers, the cost should be tamped down somewhat.
Asked whether the city planned to do anything with the adjacent park space, Brenner said officials had stressed to him that there was limited funding available for new parks in the city and that he didn’t expect them to develop a new park in the short term.
As of Monday, the building was slightly more than half occupied. An open house is scheduled this Sunday. More information is available at madisonplacewinona.com.
Nearby, the old Central Elementary School building at 317 Market Street is also being turned into apartments.
Shawn Beier, one of the partners redeveloping the property, said they plan to be done with renovations by Oct. 1, and house 15 residential units. In 2019, Beier, together with Dan Nisbit, pushed to get the area rezoned from residential to mixed use, which would allow for commercial businesses together with the apartments. However, Beier said Monday the new plan is that the building will be entirely residential. Designing the apartments around the existing features of the school posed a challenge, but that difficulty was balanced by the unique character of the Central building. In addition to interior features like the hardwood maple floors and the gymnasium, the thick walls of the old school are excellent, Beier said. The Central building will stand for hundreds of years, he said. “It’s like a fortress,” Beier said. “It’s really, really well-built.”
As for the adjacent schoolyard, which was split off as a different parcel, Beier said they may turn it into townhomes, another apartment building, or condominiums, but the specific use isn’t yet determined. “We’re just trying to get through phase one first before we start working on phase two on the other half of the property,” he said.
Post Editor Chris Rogers contributed to this story.