It's not every day that affordable housing meets historic preservation. In Little Falls, Minn., however, some residents are enjoying early 1900s architecture, turn-of-the-century masonry, brand-new apartment interiors—and government-subsidized rent.

But the marriage didn't happen overnight.

“The financing part was a huge challenge,” says LaVerne Hanson Jr., executive vice president of St. Paul, Minn.-based MetroPlains Development. The firm embarked on a year-long process to secure funding for Little Falls' Riverwood Pines Apartments in parts: low-income housing tax credits of $2.2 million; a $722,250 USDA Rural Development low-interest loan; $650,000 in historic tax credits; and $285,000 in state funding.

Riverwood Pines, formerly Our Lady of Angels Academy, has a nearly century-long presence in Little Falls, a town of about 8,000 residents located 100 miles northwest of Minneapolis on the Mississippi River. Built in 1911, the three-story, yellow-brick building first served as an orphanage and boarding school run by the Franciscan Sisters of Belle Prairie, and later as a Little Falls alternative high school location. It was ultimately left vacant in 1974. The history of the property—as well as that of the town, which is one of the oldest in the state—made it increasingly important to preserve the historic integrity of the building.

The renovation of Our Lady of Angels Academy hinged on multiple funding sources.
The renovation of Our Lady of Angels Academy hinged on multiple funding sources.

When the property's owner sold it to the town, it was, in turn, donated to MetroPlains for rehabilitation. It soon became clear that the intentions of developer, architect, city, and state would have to align for the project to move forward. That meant, in part, pushing for the building to make its way onto the National Register of Historic Places, while maintaining the building's nearly 100-year-old appearance. The historic registry charge, led by MetroPlains, was essential in gaining historic tax credits. Ultimately, it was valued for its historic character on both the state and national levels, and the project obtained the tax credits it needed.

CREATIVE SOLUTIONS “It would take a lot to scare us,” says Michelle Mongoen Allen, the principal architect on the project, of her first site visit. Despite its 30-year-plus vacancy, the owner had taken good care of the building. Allen and her firm, Grand Forks, N.D.-based JLG Architects, have decades of experience with historic preservation, but Allen says this building came with its own quirks. “The layout was conducive to housing units ... without too many kooky, crazy floor plans,” she says. But “the challenge was with the window locations.” Because of strict preservation requirements, there was zero flexibility in window replacement, despite efforts to improve energy efficiency.

“We did an exhaustive window study, and it was not approved,” Allen says. “We weren't able to replace them.” As a result, the windows on the front elevation are the originals, with some preservation efforts such as re-glazing. “ Windows on the other façades were changed,” Allen explains.

To make matters worse, Allen had access to only one remaining photo of the building—one taken in the early 1900s after initial changes had been made to the footprint via the addition of wings. For the interior, Allen's team worked around the steadfast design components such as trim, putting drywall and other basics around the existing décor.

In order to meet current fire codes, the renovation replaced the decades-old doors with newer ones that mimic the style and rail sizing of their predecessors. The exterior walls were furred out to make way for new electrical conduit boxes and plumbing pipes that provide a more insulated exterior. The resulting building houses 24 one- and two-bedroom units ranging from 650 square feet to 800 square feet. The lobby features an original fireplace, exposed brick, and freshly painted walls in earth tones. Outside detailing includes red trim for the many preserved windows.

The single most challenging part of the project was actually an attachment to the housing structure. It was a 1950s gymnasium that the National Park Service mandated must be preserved. The nature of the space didn't lend itself to housing units, so instead, Riverwood Pines residents now have access to 22 indoor parking spots where the gym used to be.