Transforming a legacy: Mayo announces plans to take down heritage building with deep historical ties

Published 6:03 pm Friday, April 28, 2023

After 112 years standing as a symbol of health care history in Albert Lea, the former Naeve Hospital building will be demolished, likely sometime this summer, a Mayo Clinic Health System in Albert Lea official said Friday.

Sumit Bhagra, site lead physician for Mayo Clinic Health System in Albert Lea and Austin, said leaders with the hospital began discussions about the building and the adjacent building along Fountain Street, which together are now known as the South Annex, during planning for renovations on the rest of the campus. He said they have looked at what to do to strengthen the health system’s core operations.

The Naeve Hospital building, constructed in 1911, has not been used for patient care since 2016 due to concerns with the building’s age, and during the COVID-19 pandemic, the building became unoccupied as employees started working from home, he said.

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The assessment of the building showed it was no longer safe for occupation, and it is presently closed due to asbestos removal.

“We haven’t been able to use the building due to safety concerns, and look forward to creating a new space that can be used by patients and staff and commemorates the history of the building,” Bhagra said.

Health system leaders considered whether to renovate the space, but he said it was cost prohibitive.

“The cost would be high enough to take away funding from patient care,” Bhagra said. “Our goal with our resources is to focus on the best care possible for today’s patients based on needs outlined in our community health needs assessment. Removing the building will enable us to continue to deliver that service to the community.”

He also noted that the main building on the campus supports the health system’s needed clinical space.

Following the demolition of the building, Mayo plans to install a commemorative garden in the footprint of the building with a small parking lot to the north of the garden to accommodate more handicapped accessible parking stalls.

“We recognize the emotional attachment because many people living in Albert Lea were born there or had family members born there,” Bhagra said. “We are working and plan to work with stakeholders to figure out how to recognize that.”

Albert Lea Mayor Rich Murray said he was informed of the health system’s plans for the space on Thursday and hadn’t had a lot of time to digest the information or talk to others in the community about their thoughts on the decision.

“Tearing down an old building in town is never easy, especially if the building has the historical significance that this one does,” Murray said. “I think there’s a lot of emotion in the decision, and I’m sure it wasn’t reached easily.”

In talking with Mayo leaders, he said it seemed that in the end the decision came down to the fact that the cost to renovate the building was going to be so high that it was not going to be easily done, and they felt like the funds could be better used in other patient areas.

Murray said he appreciated the thought that was put into what they wanted to do with the area and in trying to keep a few pieces to tie in the historical significance.

Plans call for the majority of the gardens to be turned into green space where patients, families and staff can enjoy the outdoors, along with other plants, flowers and trees.

Bhagra said they have considered having blocks installed talking about the history of the building.

“Even though the building might not exist, we will memorialize the building,” he said. “We’re really looking for ideas for how to best recognize the importance of the building in ways that are meaningful to the community.”

Mary Carstens, who started at the Naeve Hospital School of Nursing in 1956 and graduated in1959 with a class of 12 students, said she met a lot of her forever friends while there — between other employees and patients.

In those days, she said, they had medical on one floor, surgical on another, and obstetrics on another, and she worked on the surgical floor.

“I just have so many happy memories of going to my training there and working there,” Carstens said.

She ultimately worked at Albert Lea’s hospital for more than 50 years.

With the close connection she had to the building and to the people she met there, she was sad to hear the news that the building would be taken down.

“It’s very upsetting to anyone that’s spent half their life there,” Carstens said. “It’s like they’re tearing down a part of Albert Lea history.”

The nursing school ran from 1912 to 1974 and during the time it was opened trained almost 700 nurses. She said alumni continue to get together twice a year and give out scholarships every year to students going to school to become registered nurses.

Bhagra said there is also a time capsule that will likely be discovered on the property, and crews will be looking out for that as they plan to “delicately” take the building down.

He encouraged people who have ideas about how to recognize the history of the building to reach out with their ideas. A contact email is being set up to take suggestions.

Albert Lea City Manager Ian Rigg said the city had not yet seen any official site plans, project designs or permits for the demolition and site improvement, but when they do, staff will review them for code compliance.

He said it was not unusual for a project this size and public to have a general plan announced before the final design.

Mayo looks to sell other properties

In evaluating its footprint post-pandemic and as the need for future office spaces and projections have changed, the health system’s need for real estate has gone down, Bhagra said. It is seeking to consolidate its footprint, while it strengthens what it has and focuses on clinical operations.

With that in mind, it is seeking to sell the large parking lot at the site of the former Albert Lea High School between Water and Clark streets, as well as the former Bonnerup Building on Clark Street.

The Bonnerup Building had been used for some employee training a number of years ago but has not been used recently, and he noted that only a handful of vehicles have utilized the large parking lot recently.

He said it would be nice to have a vibrant business or dwelling bring more vitality to the area in place of the parking lot.