Relics photo essay: “the Rock” in Sandstone

Maybe it’s the old school that’s been empty on Main Street. Perhaps it’s the vacant creamery building or hotel or former church. Small towns across Minnesota are grappling with what to do with these iconic buildings that no longer serve their original purposes, thanks to population and other changes.

The choices between tearing them down and spending millions to fix them are often the source of extreme community angst. The battles can last years and sometimes, as with a former school in Morris in western Minnesota, the buildings meet the wrecking ball anyway.

Today, we launch a project called “Reviving Minnesota Relics” about the fates of 11 old buildings in outstate Minnesota.


Our first story focuses on a stately old school made of sandstone in the city of Sandstone, about an hour north of the Twin Cities.

In coming days, we’ll range from Fergus Falls, where an empty hotel became artist lofts, to Chatfield, where a former school is being transformed into a center for the arts. Each project says a lot about a community’s self image, cohesiveness and resources.

One story will focus on the battle over a former school in Kasson, reported by MPR News’ Elizabeth Baier. Another, by MPR News’ Dan Kraker, shines a light on a revived synagogue building in Virginia.  We’ll also run a series of photo essays by photographer Ann Arbor Miller that document the state of additional old buildings over the next couple of weeks. You’ll find them here as blog posts.

In Sandstone, the city and residents have been struggling for almost a decade to redevelop the building, which was closed when a new school was built outside of town.

It was originally sold to a Twin Cities developer who failed to follow through on his plan to transform it into an international cultural and learning center, complete with helipad. The city foreclosed on the developer and has struggled since to figure out what to do with it.

Meanwhile, the empty school has been vandalized by kids, ravaged by cold and ransacked by copper thieves. It’s full of mold, asbestos and peeling lead paint. The hardwood floors in the gymnasium have buckled from temperature extremes.

Now, another developer has come forward and hopes to buy the school for $1 and turn it into classrooms, a coffee shop, a thrift store, doctors’ offices and community space. “As long as that building is there,” said Sandstone city administrator Sam Griffith, “there is hope it can be reused and bring back some of that community togetherness everybody senses is missing.”

Location: Corner of 5th St. and Commercial Avenue N.