Many hurdles ahead to save historic cottages in Anoka

The clock is ticking on the future of several historic buildings along the Rum River.

Cottage Number 2 is one of three similar buildings on Anoka County property that have been vacant and fallen into serious disrepair. Photo by Mandy Moran Froemming
Cottage Number 2 is one of three similar buildings on Anoka County property that have been vacant and fallen into serious disrepair. Photo by Mandy Moran Froemming

Three vacant cottages and the shuttered auditorium, all once used in the housing and treatment of the mentally ill at the former Anoka State Hospital, are disintegrating by the day.

The city of Anoka and Anoka County, the buildings’ owner, have been at odds over the future of the buildings. But after a joint meeting between city and county officials, Anoka now has a two-year deadline to get a preservation project underway.

There will also be a check-in after the first year. If no progress has been made, the fate of the buildings will be up to the county board.

“From a distance they look  like great, historical buildings,” said Anoka County Commissioner Scott Schulte. “But when you get closer and look inside they are a disaster.”

The roofs leak, there is water damage and mold and the exterior brick needs major repair.

“Just about anything that could be wrong with them is,” Schulte said.

The county has been told it will cost $1 million for roof replacement on each building. Schulte estimates it would cost millions more for each cottage to become usable again.

The county is to the point where it would consider demolishing the buildings and reseeding the area to grass to stop the financial drain of even the most minimal maintenance.

According to Schulte, the cottages are costing the county $22,000 a piece, just to keep them minimally heated, the electricity on and secure.

“We’ve been spending quite a bit as a county to keep them in a reasonable condition and we don’t know why,” Schulte said.

But at the same time, he supports Anoka’s bid to try to find a solution.

“I’m just not sure where the funding is going to come from,” he said. Time is not on the cottages’ side. “They’re crumbling monthly.”

Options for revival

Anoka City Councilmember Jeff Weaver has been a vocal proponent of saving the cottages, bringing their future to the attention of the council more than a year ago.

At the joint meeting between the city and the county last month, Weaver cited a project to rehab historic buildings at Fort Snelling, repurposing them as housing for homeless veterans, which has caught Anoka’s interest.

The $17.2 million, 58-unit affordable housing community is the result of a private and public partnership.

City Manager Tim Cruikshank said the recent meeting between city and county officials helped get them over the hurdle of the city getting permission to pursue some options.

“While we’ve had some ideas, it isn’t our property,” Cruikshank said.

With the green light, Planning Director Carolyn Braun will be heading up research into what might work on the campus.

The city will have to find a formula that includes both funding and a compatible use – a major concern for the county.

Since the state gave Anoka County the Fourth Avenue property almost 15 years ago when the treatment center moved into a new facility nearby in 1999, the county now operates some of its social services on the Rum River campus, along with the Anoka County Department of Corrections workhouse and Stepping Stone Emergency Housing. This complicates what would make an acceptable new neighbor, something the county has given plenty of consideration, Schulte said.

“Nothing works well up there with inmates coming and going from the workhouse,,” he said.

On behalf of the city, Braun is also looking into the possibility of having the cottages included on the National Register of Historic Places, which could open the door to funding opportunities, she said.

The state did all the legwork of completing an application in 1988, but never followed through with filing.

At this point, Schulte said he does not support putting the buildings on the registry.

“We recognize that they are historical buildings, but we’re not sure the costs outweigh the historical value,” Schulte said.


Originally known as the First State Asylum for the Insane, the campus, which eventually grew to 15 buildings, opened in 1900 with 100 male patients institutionalized in Anoka. It was established by the state legislature in 1999 as one of two “custodial hospitals” in Minnesota, according to the state’s 1988 paperwork for the National Register.

These institutions were often built in rural settings, but not far from an urban center. The style was modeled after plans developed by Pennsylvanian Dr. Thomas Kirkbride, who advocated that each hospital should have at least 100 acres of land to provide space for farming, gardening, exercise, labor and isolation – all considered important in the treatment of the mentally ill.

On a 648-acre parcel along the Rum River, eventually as many as 1,225 patients were being housed and treated at the asylum, where 15 cottages had been added to the original building, most designed by state architect Clarence H. Johnson. By the early 1960s the farm and acreage was being eliminated from the asylum and by the late 1980s, the Anoka State Asylum was treating 300 of the “least affluent and most severely disabled mental patients in the Twin Cities,” according to state records.

All buildings were vacated with the 1999 move to the Anoka Metro Regional Treatment Center, which continues to operate today.

Mandy Moran Froemming is at [email protected]

  • Roxy Orcutt

    Would it be out of the realm of possibility to hand these buildings over to the city of Anoka? And then let Anoka take on the financial burden? I don’t know if the city can handle the financial burden but at least the city itself doesn’t want to see a piece of history destroyed. The city is trying to come up with ideas and funding opportunities. What has the county done? I’m honestly asking-has Anoka County done anything to help produce funds or come up with ideas for for these cottages or have they just sat on their hands and told the city of Anoka “You figure it out.” There has to be avenues to save these buildings. Fundraising, etc. I just know I personally would be devastated to see these buildings destroyed.