The Depot in Minneapolis is closing in on its latest transformation

October 10, 2018

Gary Holmes has had a 20-year love affair with the old Milwaukee Road Depot.

The once abandoned train terminal has been a labor of love for Holmes, president and chief executive of development company CSM Corp., which has poured millions into renovations of the complex over the last two decades.

The former train hub is in the middle of a long-awaited final phase of its transformation as a hospitality and event center, scheduled to be finished by early next year.

I had a fascination with old buildings and loved old buildings, Holmes said. [At times] we had so many different people working [on The Depot], there was no way to know what the costs even were, but we just kept going. Every time we did something, we found a way to make it more splendid.

New renderings revealed this week show the event space in the former train shed expanded 24,000 feet with posh boardrooms, a large glass-encased ballroom, and outdoor eating space complete with colored tile and carpeting that highlights the depots original train rails.

As of this week, the foundation system has been constructed and workers have started masonry and window frame installation. Bookings are already underway for the complex, though it isnt scheduled to be complete until January 2019.

The Milwaukee Road Depot was constructed in 1899 and designed by Charles Frost, who was the architect behind several other train terminals across the country including the Union Depot in St. Paul. The Depot served as the end of the line for the Chicago, Milwaukee, Saint Paul and Pacific Railroad Co. At its peak in the 1920s, the Depot had 29 trains departing daily. In 1971, the last train left The Depot, and some of the building was converted into office space. Years later, The Depot and the nearby freight house were placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Several developers had shown interest in possibly converting the Depot to other uses including Holmes but the Resolution Trust Corp., the government agency formed in the 1980s charged with liquidating assets of failed financial institutions, eventually sold the Depot and the seven blocks around it to the city of Minneapolis for $2 million.

The complex decayed for years with much of the surrounding area serving as surface parking lots. However, Holmes was later approached by Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton about redeveloping The Depot, which at first he was not interested in. I dont know why she picked on me, he said.

But Holmes eventually agreed and CSM bought the building and land in 1999 and began a massive renovation that would take until 2001 and result in the creation of the Renaissance Minneapolis Hotel, The Depot event space, the Residence Inn, and nearby office center, where CSM would move its offices.

To say the Depot was a mess when CSM took hold of it was to put it lightly, Holmes described.

The city had done some environmental remediation work to help cleanup the oil and grease from the trains, but the land was still polluted.

Workers went through the building with flashlights and found a communities of homeless people and pigeons living in the upper floors and underground caverns.

All of this area was risky and was very challenging, Holmes said. It had lots of homeless people, but besides homeless there was a lot of crime there all together. Where there arent a lot of people, people can do whatever crime there was.

No expense was spared for the renovations. Workers had to lie on their backs on top of scaffolding to repair the ceiling. A local father and son duo honed the stone floor more than a dozen times to get the surface as smooth as possible though there are still worn areas where people had waited in line for train tickets.

Obviously that wasnt called for nor was it to spend all of the money that we did to restore the ceiling, but if you are going to go for it, you are going to go all the way, Holmes said.

The Depot helped pave the way for future development along Washington Avenue S., which has seen a surge of new construction proposals for the corridors last remaining surface lots in recent months.

Nobody would even consider doing anything down here. Everybody said we changed all of that, and we did. We really did. It wasnt without challenges, but we did.

CSM installed an ice rink in the truss-roofed train shed which was covered for special events. On some nights, Holmes would bring friends to skate in the dark with just the city lights for illumination.

It was just magical, he said.

While Holmes liked having the ice rink, it was a costly amenity that lost the company about $400,000 a year to keep it open and maintain.

As many ice rinks operators have had to assess how to pay to retrofit their cooling systems due to the phaseout of the commonly used refrigerant Freon, Holmes decided to close the rink last year instead of renovating it for about $2 million. With the rink closed, it opened up possibilities to do other things with the space.

The current $7 million renovation, which follows improvements made in 2016 when 110 hotel rooms were added to the complex and a water park removed, will incorporate artifacts from the Milwaukee Road Depot along with bronze, life-size characters of rail workers.

Asked if all the money and time was worth it, Holmes laughed and said to ask him in three years.

Its something more to give back to the city, he said.

Nicole Norfleet 612-673-4495 Twitter: @nicolenorfleet

Update hourly