LITTLE FALLS — A small oval sign is displayed outside the doors of Hurrle Hall. It reads: Built 1891, Historic Landmark.
It's only one of a handful in Little Falls outside the downtown area to have such a designation. Yet the building is slated to be razed this month unless a group of dedicated residents can convince the city or the building's owners otherwise.
"I don't like to see history destroyed and that's what's going to happen if Hurrle Hall goes down. History will be destroyed," said Lois Maciej, a Little Falls resident and organizer of the group Friends of Hurrle Hall, which has been working to save the building for the last six years.
The four-story brick structure sits behind the chapel on the Franciscan Sisters campus near St. Gabriel's Hospital. The building, named after a nun who came to the convent as a child in the 1890s and later became a nurse, was the congregation's first convent, housing sisters as well as orphans and elderly folks in need. It also served as a hospital at a time when the government didn't provide them. Later, students from the nursing school and Catholic high school also used the building. And a handful of nuns lived in upper-floor apartments until about a decade ago.
It was designated a historical landmark two decades ago.
"It's not a dilapidated building. It would be different if the ceilings were falling in and everything was broken, and the bricks were falling out," Maciej said. "That's not the case. This is a great building and we're just hoping and praying that they will see that it should be repurposed."
A change in plans seems unlikely. The Little Falls Heritage Preservation Commission approved the request for a demolition permit in early June, a move preservation advocates called a "dereliction of duty" that violates city code. Later that month, the Little Falls City Council heard an appeal of the decision — submitted by Maciej and others — and voted unanimously to uphold the commission's decision.
"There is a presumption of conservation as a matter of public policy when something is landmarked — there's an agreement it should be preserved," said Erin Hanafin Berg, deputy director of Rethos, a nonprofit that works to preserve historic buildings in Minnesota. "The [Heritage] Preservation Commission exists to do preservation so it should be a pretty high bar to approve demolition."
The question of who is responsible for preservation has long been the sticking point.
City Administrator Jon Radermacher said the city simply doesn't have the means to rehab the building, which was estimated to cost upwards of $6 million a decade ago. Radermacher said he's had conversations with developers in the past six years but nothing has come to fruition. And because it's a privately owned building, city leaders "respect the interests of the owners and their decision for what to do with it," Radermacher said.
The Heritage Preservation Commission's president, Gary Block, did not return calls for comment on the decision.
At the June City Council meeting, Maciej testified at least two developers showed interest in possible rehabilitation of the building in recent weeks.
For the sisters' attorney, the news was too little, too late.
"This is a decision that was arrived at by the sisters only after a significant process," said Marc Manderscheid of the Midwest law firm Taft Stettinius & Hollister. "They have listened. They have considered a variety of things. There does come a point in time when decisions have to be made."
The sisters' leadership team started looking at the congregation's assets, properties and future costs two decades ago, he said, and identified a need for about 80 residents to live on the Little Falls campus in independent or assisted living.
The sisters decided to renovate Mary Hall — a building just south of Hurrle Hall, also built in the 1890s — for $3.6 million. The sisters preferred the layout of that building, Manderscheid said.
A decade ago, a consulting firm told the sisters maintaining unneeded physical assets such as Hurrle Hall threatened their financial ability to care for members for the remainder of their lives, Manderscheid said. The firm told the sisters it would be unlikely an outside party would be interested in purchasing Hurrle because renovation costs could be high and because the building is in the middle of the campus with no public road access.
In May 2016, the sisters had a "goodbye ritual" to memorialize the building's 125 years of service. That same spring, Friends of Hurrle Hall filed a lawsuit to prohibit the sisters from razing the building. That fall, the sisters agreed to pause the demolition for three years and consider development proposals. But a formal proposal never came.
The developers mentioned at the July meeting indicated their interest would be contingent on historic tax credits — a program the Legislature did not renew this session — and possibly some financial assistance from the owners.
"There's a huge problem with having a charitable organization such as the sisters giving [money] to a private development business," Manderscheid said. "The number of members of the sisters' order has declined significantly over the course of the last 20 years." In the last six years, membership has declined by nearly one-third.
The sisters plan to salvage the stained-glass windows from the Hurrle Hall chapel, as well as the brick and maple flooring, if possible. They are planning a memorial for the site that will include the building's corner stone bricks, timbers and steeple cross.
Crews set up fencing around the building in late July and workers have started to prepare the building for demolition by testing for asbestos.
A number of residents are sad about the building's demise.
"I don't think it should be torn down," said Diane Balaski, a lifelong Little Falls resident who works at a gas station near downtown. "I just think it's a really cool old building."
Scott Ploof, a resident who just opened a coffee shop in town, agreed.
"Yes, maybe it is cheaper to just knock it down and create something new but I think they should preserve it," he said.
Maciej said she's still trying to speak to the sisters and hoping they have a change of heart.