Committee: Rex Hardware not a historic landmark

The City Council’s Zoning and Planning Committee voted against giving the 26th & Lyndale building a historic designation

The empty, crumbling, graffiti-covered Rex Hardware building at 26th Street & Nicollet Avenue is a big step closer to demolition.

The City Council’s Zoning and Planning Committee voted 4-2 May 20 against making the building a historic landmark, despite a recommendation from the Heritage Preservation Commission (HPC) to do so. A landmark designation would have preserved the exterior of the building, built in 1914 and designed by architect John V. Koester of Dinkydome fame.   

A 16-unit condominium and retail development was approved for the site in 2007, but the housing market imploded and developer SMJ Partners couldn’t secure financing. A wrecking permit was submitted in December 2008, at which time the city conducted its standard historic review of the property and declared it a historic resource.

That finding required the developer to get approval from the HPC to raze the property. SMJ sought approval in March 2009 and city staff recommended allowing the demolition, but the HPC voted against it and placed the building under historic protection for a year. During that time, a designation study was done and the outcome led the HPC to recommend the landmark designation.

The study found the building to be the longest operating hardware store in the city that was built as a hardware store. It opened as Clark J. Allen Hardware and became Rex Hardware in 1944. It closed in 2005 after 91 years of business.

“The Rex Hardware store, likely more than any other hardware store in the city, tells the tale of the neighborhood hardware stores in the city of Minneapolis,” Senior City Planner Aaron Hanauer. “They were abundant in the early part of the 20th century and then were closing their doors in the later 20th century and early 21st century due to the popularity of big box stores.”

Hanauer said at the zoning committee meeting that the building is also a prime example of a streetcar development and is positioned at a corner that retains all of its original buildings from the era.    

But that wasn’t enough for the committee.

“Hardware stores are all over the country, so are pharmacies, so are paper supply stores,” said City Council Member Gary Schiff (9th Ward), who is also chairman of the zoning committee. “I’m not familiar with this type of designation where something that happened in every city across the country gets designated here. It seems like it has to be unique to our city.”

Schiff also argued that the building’s “utilitarian style” outlined in the study was not a style at all, but a type of building.   

SMJ representative Machelle Norling spoke briefly at the meeting and said there was no possibility of repurposing the property, which sits gutted and in severe disrepair.

“There’s no financial road to fix it up,” she said. “No bank in the world is going to give me money for a building that I can’t pay back.”

Norling said she still hopes to move forward with the development when the market rebounds. She also wants to include neighbor French Meadow Bakery in the plans. The restaurant was initially slated to open a new business in the project’s retail space.

But there is no timeline for any work on the site, which infuriated City Council Member Meg Tuthill (10th Ward), who serves on the zoning committee.  

“That building has sat there vacant, you have done nothing to market it, the brick is falling off it, you’ve done nothing to maintain it, but yet you come to us and ask us for permission to tear it down, so you can then leave us with a vacant lot that is going to be littered, have weeds and a fence around it that’s not going to work,” she said during the meeting. “I don’t know if that’s any better than what’s there.”

Tuthill voted against the motion to deny the landmark designation.  

For the neighborhood, the committee’s decision only raises more questions about what will happen on the property. The Whittier Alliance initially rejected plans for a condo project there, but gave a “lukewarm” OK after design changes were made, said Marian Biehn, executive director of the organization.

When the HPC found the property to be historic, the neighborhood group voted to support its designation as a landmark. Biehn was upset with the zoning committee’s vote, but hopeful that there still might be a chance to work with the property owner to save the building in part, or to create something that maintained the character of the corner.

The full City Council planned to take up the issue May 28, after this issue of the Southwest Journal went to press.

Reach Jake Weyer at 436-4367 or jweyer@mnpubs.com.