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Will proposals save the Biermann House?

April 6, 2018 GMT

With two weeks until the latest deadline for proposals to renovate the historic Biermann House, Joe Powers said he might put an option on the table.

“At this point, we’re just getting information, but nothing has suggested that we should quit the process,” said the prominent Rochester business owner, who is considering a proposal for the county-owned property.

Powers said he’d like to create two housing units in the building commonly referred to as the Mayowood Gatehouse.

Located at 3730 Mayowood Road SW, the house once was home to Adolph Biermann, a Norwegian immigrant who acquired it and the related farm in the final decades of the 1800s. It became known for progressive farming methods during that time.

Olmsted County originally sought proposals for the house last year, and Powers said he considered doing something at the time but saw others were interested.

“I really thought somebody would do this if I decided not to do it,” he said, noting other commitments led him to step away.

When no proposals were submitted, county commissioners started talking about demolishing the property, which led Powers to ask for 30 days.

Last month, county commissioners said they’d take proposals until April 19. At least two potential plans are being discussed.

This week, the Rochester Park Board authorized park staff to submit a proposal with an unnamed benefactor, who would be expected to cover the costs of renovations, which the county estimates at about $500,000.

Mike Nigbur, Rochester’s park and forestry division head, said the proposal offers the city benefits if the property can be obtained and renovated without spending public dollars.

The city already operates about 80 acres of parkland near the Biermann House for the county. Known as the Mayowood Corridor, the county bought the property in 1979 with the Biermann House. It largely is undeveloped with a trail as its primary use.

Nigbur said the proposal being discussed likely would create a waystop or coffeehouse at the site, along with some historic exhibits. While he said he remains neutral on whether the city would take ownership of the Mayowood Corridor parkland, he said it could become part of a larger heritage park.

The Biermann House, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, is part of the Mayowood Historic District, along with the Mayowood residence, Mayowood barn and other properties.

Mayo Clinic owns and operates the Mayowood residence, but Powers bought the barn last year, along with 12.3 acres that includes a farmhouse and stables.

Jane Bisel and Steve Williams, of Rochester’s Blue Planet Museum Consulting, have voiced concerns that the district’s status could be lost without the Biermann House. Blue Planet volunteered services to prepare a Historic Structure Report on the Biermann House for the county in 2011, which suggested dealing with damage to the property at that time.

Now, they have offered some insights for the city’s potential proposal, and Williams said they would be willing to help anyone who steps forward to save the property.

Powers said he’s not worried about the district’s status since other historic buildings exist, but he does put a priority on keeping the Biermann House in the district.

At the same time, he said uncertainties remain regarding his proposal, which will rely on soil testing and a report from a structural engineer.

“If I have a structural engineer come in and say, ‘This can’t be done.’ I mean if it’s literally dangerous … at that point, I’m going to step away,” he said. “If there’s nothing I can do, I’m not going to be the guy who’s going to wreck that thing.”

Powers said zoning and cost issues also are being reviewed to get a better understanding of the potential options.

Nigbur said the park proposal isn’t set in stone, either. The city doesn’t have the money needed to do what is proposed, so if the unnamed partner doesn’t put up the needed funds, the proposal likely won’t happen.

County commissioners who have been preparing for possible demolition of the house said they are anxious to hear a proposal.

Commissioner Jim Bier, who has voiced a desire to not let proposals delay county plans, said he’d be willing to reconsider if the right plan comes forward and needs more time.

“I just don’t want to see a delaying tactic,” Powers said.

Powers and Nigbur said they believe the April 19 deadline gives them enough time to determine whether their plans are viable.

“I think I can get my due diligence done by then,” Powers said.

Nigbur said if a proposal is made, details will be presented to the Park Board during its regular May meeting.

If plans are submitted to the county — or if they are not — commissioners could discuss their next steps as soon as their May 1 meeting.