The Lowertown Historic District in downtown St. Paul has been undergoing a new wave of redevelopment lately. This summer, the restored Union Depot re-opened as a multi-model transit hub, including a new light rail line connecting St. Paul to Minneapolis. One block away, a new stadium for the St. Paul Saints baseball club (designed by Snow Kreilich Architects) is under construction next to the St. Paul Farmers Market. In addition, numerous restaurants, art galleries, and coffee and retail shops are cropping up in Lowertown.
“What a great time to rehabilitate a historic warehouse into a modern apartment building,” said Amy H. Spong, Historic Preservation Specialist for Planning and Economic Development, City of St. Paul. She is referring to the Rayette Building, now Rayette Lofts, across the street from the Farmers Market.
In the early 1900s, the seven-story, 145,600-square-foot structure was a wholesale millinery business, then a laboratory for women’s hair products—specifically, the Rayette Wave. By 1971, Rayette Laboratories, which also developed the hairspray Aqua Net and grew to acquire Faberge’s cosmetics division, had vacated the building. Most recently, the concrete structure was used as a parking garage.
The recently opened Rayette Lofts contains 88 market-rate apartments, an exercise room with a yoga studio, and a community gathering space with pool tables, a large flat-screen television and a kitchen. A roof deck with grilling station overlooks the Farmers Market, new stadium, and Mississippi River.
The developer used federal and state historic tax credits for the adaptive reuse, so Kaas Wilson Architects of Bloomington, Minnesota, worked with the State Historic Preservation Office and the National Park Service to ensure modifications were done in a historically appropriate manner. Because the Rayette building sits within an established landmarked district, the St. Paul Heritage Preservation Commission reviewed and approved changes to the exterior.
Kaas Wilson had the building’s limestone exterior cleaned and reinforced. Inside the development, a ramp that wound from the first to the top floors was removed, and the cavernous opening filled with elevator shafts, egress stairs, and vertical ductwork for new mechanicals. The original windows had either been removed or badly damaged. So the architects studied historic photos, and sought out “whatever we could salvage to recreate the historic window openings and arrangements, and mullion patterns,” said Ryan DuPuis, project designer, Kaas Wilson.
Since Lowertown is on a hill that slopes down to the Mississippi River, and the former warehouse sits on top of a raised basement, finding an opening for ADA accessibility was a challenge. The firm used a former window that had been enlarged into a garage door during an earlier alteration for a new accessible entrance with elevator.
Inside, the units have floor-to-ceiling windows with great views of Lowertown, polished gypsum concrete floors, and corrugated concrete ceilings and brick walls original to the building. The structure’s columns were also left exposed.
“We didn’t have much time left to rescue the building,” said Spong. Open to the elements, the concrete structure was quickly deteriorating. “But we got to it just in time,” added DuPuis. “We could have lost that corner of history in Lowertown. By protecting and converting the structure to a new use as Rayette Lofts, we’ve reinforced the street for another 100 years.”