Today, condos at Grove Street Flats, an elegant building on Minneapolis's Nicollet Island, sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars. And why not? The lovingly restored 1877 structure sits footsteps away from downtown Minneapolis and the reviving Mississippi waterfront, where a newfound interest in the city's history (Pillsbury flour, anyone?) has finally resulted in the redevelopment of long-vacant mill buildings and more.

But Grove Street Flats wasn't always so posh. In the 1980s, when my parents would take my sister and me for a Sunday drive after church, we'd beg and plead to visit "The Mattress Building."

Yes, we called it The Mattress Building. Not because it had been a mattress factory–Grove Street Flats was developed as rowhomes by 19th century Minneapolis businessman William Eastman, who created a fashionable little neighborhood for himself and his relatives after he bought Nicollet Island with a partner in 1865. No, we called it The Mattress Building because of the actual mattress that stuck out–for years–from a broken window on the building's third floor. It was a crazy sight that my sister and I never tired of seeing; children rarely encounter such preposterous things outside of books or television, and our grade-school selves found it highly entertaining.

Alison Rice
Katherine Lambert Alison Rice
Alison Rice Katherine Lambert But at the same time, it made each of us in the car sad. A century after it was built, the three-story building with its green mansard roof, decorative ironwork, arched windows, and limestone exterior clearly had gone from being a hot property to an eyesore. The chipped paint, cracked windows, and battered architectural details demonstrated that, even to a fourth-grader.

I've thought of The Mattress Building and its upscale reincarnation, Grove Street Flats, often as we've created this first-ever special renovations issue. (We're grateful to Whirlpool Corp. for sponsoring this issue while leaving the editorial decision-making to us.) I'm an old buildings junkie, to be sure, but as land and construction costs spiral ever higher, even hard-nosed financial types are reconsidering the potential value of existing buildings. This is particularly true for properties located in great locations, where the comparable replacement costs could become truly frightening, financially.

Given that equation, many multifamily firms are opting for renovation to keep their properties competitive. In 2004, more than $55 billion was spent on the upkeep and improvement of rental housing, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That's an undeniably large sum, and as you'll read in these pages, those dollars have been going everywhere from the leasing office to the laundry room.

When it comes to rental buildings, apartment executives are opting for the quick return on investment produced by upgraded kitchens and baths, which can result in higher rents almost immediately. Condo converters are focusing their efforts on similar spaces, hoping to capture customers with all those upgrades–granite, hardwood floors, stainless steel appliances–that have been tempting them in newspaper ads for months. Finally, apartment and condo firms alike have been turning to adaptive reuse projects, transforming offices, warehouses, and more into distinctive residential properties.

Whether these makeovers are simple or elaborate, though, they all represent a second chance for the buildings involved, giving them the opportunity to shed their rundown reputation and reclaim their intended architectural allure.

Anyone up for a trip to Grove Street Flats?