During pandemic, downtown St. Paul Degree of Honor building reinvented itself as upscale studios

Once upon a time in America, the wives and daughters of the men who laid the literal tracks for interstate commerce united to take up collections for injured and out-of-work railroad workers. By 1910, the women’s auxiliary to the Ancient Order of United Workmen had built up enough membership and projects that the women were able to split off on their own.

The Degree of Honor Protective Association was born, with a national headquarters later to be erected in downtown St. Paul.

In 1962, the Degree of Honor’s 10-story, granite exterior “skyscraper” opened at Fourth and Cedar streets, just a block or so from the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River.

The mid-century modernist structure, designed by noted architectural firm of the era Bergstedt, Hirsch, Wahlberg & Wold, was once home to the association’s all-female insurance company, and until about 18 months ago, some 40 different employers.

RESIDENTS MOVING IN

Workmen and maintenance crews have all but wrapped up the finishing touches on the Degree Apartments, a $25 million, top-to-bottom conversion of the storied former office building, and a trickle of residents have begun moving in. Boosted by state and federal historic tax credits, the Degree now offers 78 upscale units, mostly studios and roughly 20 one- to two-bedroom apartments.

Monthly rents start at $1,010 for a studio, $1,325 for a one-bedroom and $1,710 for a two-bedroom apartment, with the priciest two-bedroom topping out at $2,845.

What has it been like trying to rent out 10 stories of downtown apartments during both a recession and a pandemic?

“My very first FaceTime showing was last week,” said executive property manager Andrea De Bleeckere on a recent Monday morning, days after discovering she did not have the video-meeting application on her work phone.

She still managed to take a resident through a cell phone tour of what could be his future home. “I had to use my personal phone.”

For De Bleeckere, who has been managing properties for 21 years, the past few months have been a challenge like few others. Heavy marketing got underway in December, but only three tenants have moved into the Degree Apartments to date, with a couple more in the wings. She’s now offering prospective tenants two months free rent.

OX CART TO REOPEN ROOFTOP OVER SAINTS STADIUM

Led by principal Jim Crockarell, Madison Equities is the largest property owner in downtown St. Paul, and the company hasn’t been immune to the almost grim quiet that has taken over downtown streets.

Key partners such as celebrity chef Justin Sutherland remain on board, though Sutherland has moved his Handsome Hog restaurant from Lowertown to Cathedral Hill’s Western Avenue.

Tom Stevens, Madison Equities’ leading maintenance supervisor for the past two years, is intimately tied to the fate of each of the company’s 20 or so downtown office and residential buildings.

Stevens foresees good things once widespread vaccinations kick in, starting with the reopening of the Ox Cart Arcade’s rooftop “within a month, and hopefully in the next two weeks,” he said.

The Ox Cart’s Lowertown rooftop overlooks CHS Field, the St. Paul Saints’ stadium, offering a key vantage point to the team that coined the phrase “Fun is Good” and recently announced it would become a Triple-A affiliate feeder team to the Minnesota Twins.

Some sports writers have likened the move to an underground band signing with a major label. The Saints have been discovered, and so, said Stevens, has downtown St. Paul, even if bizarrely quiet streets seem to whisper just the opposite.

He’s among those keeping his fingers crossed for a comeback in line with that of the roaring ’20s, when post-pandemic crowds hit the jazz clubs in flapper dresses and “Great Gatsby”-esque men’s wear.

A VIEW OF DOWNTOWN ST. PAUL

From the rooftop balcony of the Degree Apartments, Stevens points down to the Lowry Building at 345 Wabasha St., the home of the now-shuttered Gray Duck Tavern. Once the Xcel Energy Center is pumping out sports games and concerts, Gray Duck will again pour its signature martinis, Stevens and De Bleeckere predicted.

A few blocks in the other direction, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers last August committed itself to a $10 million office build-out in the First National Bank building, Madison Equities’ iconic downtown holding.

The Greater St. Paul Building Owners and Managers Association has chronicled similar energy in other parts of downtown, with office occupancy rates ticking upward to 91 percent, up from 89.85 percent in 2019, despite the remote-work office trend that has dominated headlines throughout the pandemic.

At PAK Properties’ Osborn 370 building on Wabasha Street, real and prospective new tenants such as the YMCA are gravitating toward modern office layouts, while Unilev Management Corp.’s Wells Fargo Place recently confirmed a series of long-term lease renewals.

Still, the era of downtown lawyers, bankers and advertising executives brokering big deals in button-up suits or fedora hats has gone the way of disco, and many storied downtown office buildings are now renting out vacant spaces as apartments.

The Degree of Honor building is case in point, and there’s no getting around the facts. Business has been slow.

Apartment listing agencies in St. Paul and Minneapolis have found year-over-year rents last December stayed flat at best, or fell as much as 7 percent, a sign that unemployment, economic uncertainty and limited new supply in the home ownership market have made sticking with existing leases the preferred choice for many renters, if not the only possible choice for those who have lost work.

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