Northfield's historic Archer House River Inn, which has anchored downtown since 1877, likely will be torn down by the end of the year after the city's Historic Preservation Commission signed off on the demolition.
The rambling, red-brick structure was heavily damaged last year after a fire broke out in one of several restaurants housed in the building. By a 5-2 vote last week, the commission agreed with an engineering report submitted by the owners that said saving the building wasn't feasible. The commission's vote clears the way for the city to issue a demolition permit.
"It's bittersweet. It's sad; 144 years of history coming down," said Brett Reese, a prominent Northfield developer who's part of the ownership group. Rebuilding the structure while maintaining its historic authenticity would be difficult and expensive, he said, because of the level of damage to the building.
In addition, he added, any rebuilding would require the structure to be brought up to modern standards, including making it accessible to people with disabilities.
Reese submitted an estimate to the commission showing that it could cost nearly $15 million to rebuild the property.
The commission voted for demolition despite criticism of the plan from the state Historic Preservation Office. In a letter to the city, historic preservation specialist Michael Koop called the engineering report "cursory, nontechnical, and lacking sufficient information to determine if the building could feasibly be repaired or not."
Koop added that the report appeared to be based on "limited familiarity with historic buildings ... [T]he demolition of largely the entire building is an excessive and surprising approach."
Mikayla Schmidt, Northfield's city planner, and Barbara Evans, the preservation commission chair, did not respond to requests for comment.
The Archer House is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It was built just a year after Northfield residents famously repelled a robbery attempt by the Jesse James gang, an event that's celebrated with a city festival every year.
It was expanded several times during its life, eventually housing 36 hotel rooms, three restaurants and a retail shop. What's likely to replace it, Reese said, is another multiuse structure that will incorporate nods to its historic predecessor.
The new development likely will contain 20 to 30 upscale hotel rooms, along with apartments or condos, restaurants and retail. It will have covered parking and could include a rooftop deck.
The new development, he said, will take better advantage of its proximity to the Cannon River, which flows behind the property, and is likely to have an even larger footprint on the block than the Archer House did.
"We're going to do it strategically, planfully," Reese said. "We will be planning something pretty special, hopefully for the next 150 years.
"I take history very seriously," he said. "I love history and architecture." Reese said he'll assemble a task force from the community to seek ideas about the new development.