With its battlements, ribbed walls, arched windows and fanciful Gothic turret, the 104-year-old Armory building in downtown Rochester could be a movie set for “Ivanhoe,” or maybe “Monty Python.”
It was home to the National Guard for more than 50 years, and then was a senior center. Now it’s a castle for the arts, and one of the more unusual arts and cultural projects in Southern Minnesota.
The city sold the building in 2017 to four local investors who promised to create what they called the “Castle Community” — a place with many missions but first of all to connect artists with the larger community. The venture opened in full in February, with studios and galleries, food, drink, live music, yoga and lots of ambition.
“The concept seems to be working,” said Scott Hoss, one of the partners in the limited liability corporation that owns the building. Hoss also owns, somewhat inadvertently, the Collective bookstore and record shop in the Castle. “People are coming here and finding something to gravitate to.”
They may be gravitating to the tuna poke tostada at Cameo restaurant on the first floor, or the home-brewed kombucha at Queen City Coffee on the second. Maybe they’re interested in the canvases and photographs being worked out by artists in their glass-walled studios, or they’re coming for the live music upstairs.
“We just want everyone to have fun” and discover the space, said Breanna Holtan, who owns the coffeehouse and also is an instructor for Yoga Tribe, a collective that meets at the Castle. “We’re activating a new part of Broadway.”
The building dates from 1915 and was home to the Minnesota National Guard’s Machine Gun
Company, 3rd Infantry. The drill hall, as originally configured with a balcony, was said to seat
2,000 people, and it hosted events ranging from John Philip Sousa’s band to high school basketball.
The National Guard moved out in the 1970s and the Rochester Senior Center moved in, leasing it from the city and adding a floor that halved the height of the drill hall. The seniors moved out three years ago, and the City Council debated whether to retain the building and control its destiny — it’s on the National Register of Historic Places — or sell it.
After a tangled process, the city chose the latter, and the new owners have embraced the role of the castle’s protectors.
“From the outside, it’s a beautiful building, unique and relatively well-cared for,” said Hoss, 45, who was born and raised in Rochester. “On the inside, when it was renovated about 40 years ago they largely covered up almost everything of a historic nature. We didn’t know what we’d find and we’ve been pleasantly surprised.”
They’ve uncovered decorative pressed tin on the first floor and exposed the brick walls and steel columns. On the second floor, “we pulled up two layers of tile and a layer of carpet and uncovered the original basketball court,” he said. The refinished hardwood, with basketball court lines (not including a three-point arc), is one of the distinctive features of the “commons” area.
They also removed a drop ceiling and found the access to the top of the turret. They’re planning to make that available for art installations.
All told, they’ve spent far more on renovations than the $675,000 they paid for the building, and the meter’s still running. “We pledged to the city that we’d invest $1.2 million in the renovation and we have exceeded that significantly. We’re in no danger of not hitting that number,” Hoss said.
Not that it’s a bad investment in downtown Rochester, where commercial real estate prices are going up, thanks to the Destination Medical Center initiative. There are restrictions in the purchase agreement that keep the LLC from flipping it in less than five years, and there are obligations with the low-interest historic preservation tax credits they received.
“Absolutely, the goal has been for it to be a good financial investment, and I believe it will be,” Hoss said.
For now, the project is a labor of love. Hoss didn’t intend to become a bookstore owner, but a planned tenant pulled out, so he stepped up and opened one, with help from friends who provided thousands of books and records. All proceeds going to the nonprofit.
Hoss is a commercial real estate advisor and manages other properties, but this castle thing is something else.
“The project kind of morphed as we started putting it together and realized it could be something special that adds to the vibrancy of the community,” he said. He told a friend at the time of the purchase, “We just bought a zoo, and there’s some truth to that.”
Artists at the center
Their proposal was one of five the city considered in 2017. Among the others was a pitch for a multi-purpose entertainment venue proposed by Minneapolis-based Fine Line Music Cafe and Entourage Events Group. Another called for 24 units of residential housing, though that was linked to acquisition of the city-owned parking lots nearby.
The others may have had more flash and financial backing, but the Castle project prevailed in part because it was local and arts-based. They took possession in December 2017 and by late last year, the renovations were mostly complete. Cameo at the Castle, with an open kitchen, chef’s counter, wine cooler and an eclectic, international menu, opened on Thanksgiving weekend.
“The restaurant is the anchor tenant and is really the economic engine of the building,” Hoss said.
All the pieces are interrelated, but if the restaurant is the financial engine, the artists studios are the creative soul. Four micro-studios on the second floor are rented on a short-term basis to members of Threshold Arts, a nonprofit set up to run the building. A 1,000-square-foot studio is rented by Eric Anderson, a Rochester artist who’s all about collaboration and making art out of disparate ideas and media.
The Castle is a natural place for him to be. “It’s an agglomeration of things, and the combination is making things happen,” said Anderson, 40, who moved to Rochester from Boston seven
years ago. “People are being inspired by each other. It reminds me a lot of the experiences you have on a college campus.” The environment is “directing a lot of my own work and making it more collaborative.”
All five studios have great natural light and glass walls, so visitors can check out what they’re working on and watch them work. There’s plenty of space for art in the public areas, as well as in the Turret Gallery, where regular exhibitions are planned.
“There’s no shortage of artists in Rochester looking for space and who need places to share their work with the community,” said Naura Anderson, who directs the nonprofit. Studio and gallery space are scarce in Rochester, especially as the few buildings that are suitable for studios have been gobbled up by DMC-related development.
Anderson, 36, is from Dodge Center and worked for the Rochester Art Center for nine years, leaving there as marketing and community engagement director in 2015. The art center has been through a financial shakeout since then, which has only made organizations such as Threshold Arts and the Castle more important.
The response so far has been “overwhelming,” she said. “People are thankful for the building being saved,” first of all, and they appreciate the community-oriented arts focus of what she and the others are trying to do. Threshold is working with regional organizations to make artists around the area aware of the opportunities here.
Also on the second floor are the coffeehouse and bookstore, games, free Wi-Fi, and the aroma of fresh coffee, varnish and new carpet. Reba Landers, 19, and Nikola Hamilton, 22, were playing chess and doing a crossword in the commons area one day last month and they’re already fans of the project.
“I really like the space,” said Landers, a student at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis who’s originally from Grand Meadow. “It’s a cool addition to Rochester, and a sign of the times for where Rochester is headed.”
Hamilton, 22, works at a coffeehouse down the street and played in the Rochester Thaw Music Festival at the Castle in March. “I love that the building has been repurposed for working artists,” he said. “People are ready for this kind of space.”
A welcoming place for Mayo patients
The room in the Castle that has the most potential for lighting up Rochester is the concert space on the top floor, right under the barrel-vaulted roof. Rochester has only a few bars downtown with live music; for a city of 115,000, it’s deadly quiet most nights, with no other mid-sized venues of this kind.
“Our commitment to live music is huge,” Hoss said. “We made a significant investment in sound and lighting so we could fill the void and become the premiere live music venue in Rochester.” The room can accommodate up to 450 people, depending on the setup, and already has hosted artists as varied as Austin-born folkie Charlie Parr to the Suburbs. Threshold Arts is in charge of booking, working with My Town My Music, a local music events organizer that has a strong online presence.
All told, the Castle aims to be a lot of things, including a welcoming place for the million or so people who come to Mayo Clinic every year. For Mayo patients who “don’t know what to do with two or three hours of time between appointments,” Hoss said. “we want this to be a place where they can just unwind, read, have a cup of coffee, and maybe watch someone make art.”
It’s the kind of place, in other words, that people say Rochester has needed for a while: a place for artists and for people who like art and live music, with good food, coffee, books and vinyl mixed in for good measure. It all depends on the programming, and there are some skeptics.
But there are plenty of believers as well. Eric Anderson, who has lived in Rochester for seven years and is making a go of it as an artist — he recently participated in a collaborative
arts-related conference in Paris — is among them.
“I can’t really imagine why this wouldn’t work,” he said.
ABOUT THE CASTLE
The Castle Community is an amalgam of artists studios, an art gallery, a restaurant and bar, a coffeehouse, a nonprofit bookstore and record shop, an events center for live music, and community meeting space.
It’s in the former National Guard Armory building at 121 N. Broadway. The building is open
when tenants are, and their hours range from a 7:30 a.m. weekday opening for the coffeehouse to a 10 p.m. close at Cameo Monday-Thursday, 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. And then there are event nights, when hours are later.
For information on the Castle and the nonprofit Threshold Arts organization, call 507-218-7214 or go to www.castlecommunity.org. For information on Cameo at the Castle restaurant, call
507-361-2070 or go online to cameoatthecastle.com.
Photos and Text By Jay Furst