Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Appreciating historic downtown Owatonna March 2, 2022

National Farmer’s Bank of Owatonna rates as particularly important architecturally. Designed by Louis Sullivan in the Prairie Architecture School style, it features stained glass windows, gold leaf arches, nouveau baroque art designs and more. This “jewel box of the prairie” was built between 1906-1908. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo February 2022)

STRIPPING IMAGES OF COLOR lends an historic context to several aged buildings I recently photographed near Central Park in downtown Owatonna. It’s easier for me to see the past, to appreciate these long-standing structures through the lens of time when I view them in black-and-white.

Love this corner historic building which houses A Taste of the Big Apple, serving pizza, soup, sandwiches and more, including a Tater Tot Hot Dish special on March 3. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo February 2022)

First, I feel such gratitude that these buildings still stand. A time existed when the thought was that new is better. Out with the old, in with the new. I’m not of that camp and I’m thankful for the shift in attitudes.

Firemen’s Hall, constructed 1906-1907 for $19,643, sits just across the street from Central Park. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo February 2022)

Twelve city blocks in Owatonna’s downtown define the community’s designation as a National Register Historic District. Three of the 75 “contributing buildings” within that district are on the National Register of Historic Places: the National Farmer’s Bank, the Steele County Courthouse and the Firemen’s Hall.

This home-grown bookstore anchors a downtown corner, directly across from Central Park. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo February 2022)

On a recent visit to Owatonna’s Central Park, I pivoted to observe those key historic buildings and others in a downtown of multiple core business streets.

A sign in Central Park provides information about the community stage. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo February 2022)

The park, with a replica of the 1899 community stage, serves as the “town square,” the physically identifiable point of focus and gatherings. Here folks gather for concerts, the farmers’ market and other events. Music and the undeniable human need to socialize connect the past to the present.

The replica community stage/bandshell. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo February 2022)

I feel inspired now, via my recent stop in Central Park, to return to downtown Owatonna and further explore its history and architecture. Sure I’ve been here before, but not in awhile and not with a focused purpose of intentional appreciation for and photographic documentation of this historic district.

Strip away the color and appreciate the stark beauty. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo February 2022)

I encourage each of you, wherever you live, to pause. Strip away the color to black-and-white. See the basics, uncolored by time or attitudes or that which detracts. Observe how the past and present connect. Value the “good” in your community. Appreciate the place you call home.

TELL ME: What do you appreciate about your community?

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

In the heart of historic Cannon Falls November 1, 2021

Signage on the building housing Antiques on 4th, a bright, uncluttered shop with artfully-displayed merchandise and friendly shopkeepers. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021)

YOU CAN LEARN much about a small town by simply walking. And looking, really looking.

Two historic buildings in downtown Cannon Falls. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021)

On a recent day trip to Cannon Falls, I explored part of the downtown business district. Now on the National Register of Historic Places, the Cannon Falls Historic District includes 22 historically-significant structures.

Bold art on the side of the building identifies the local hardware store. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021)

Given my love of historic architecture, and art, this Goodhue County community of 4,220 within a 40-minute drive of Minneapolis and St. Paul rates as a favorite regional destination.

Signage marks the popular winery in Cannon Falls. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021)

Cannon Falls thrives with a well-known winery and bakery and an assortment of shops from antique to gift to hardware store. Toss in a mix of eateries, bars and a brewery and, well, there’s lots to see and do here. Plus, the town attracts outdoor enthusiasts who canoe the Cannon River and/or bike/hike the Cannon Valley Trail and Mill Towns Trail.

A mural at Cannon River Winery provides a backdrop for an outdoor space. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021)

During my mid-October visit, I popped into a few shops (including the bakery), discovered the lovely library and admired a new downtown mural. Because of COVID concerns, I skipped dining and imbibing. It was too early in the day and too cool to enjoy either outdoors.

Cannon Falls’ newest mural, a 2021 Youth Mural Arts Community Project, highlights geography, history and local interests. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021)

Still, I found plenty to take in from the colorful new mural to the art inside the library to ghost signage.

Showing some love for Cannon Falls. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021)

I noticed, too, hometown pride in the I LOVE CANNON FALLS! tees in a storefront window.

I learn so much about communities by reading signs in windows. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021)

I noticed also notices taped in a display window, one of which alerted me to Mailbox Mysteries, which led me to the library around the corner which led me to sign up for this challenging endeavor. Now I’m trying to solve the “Gangster’s Gold” mystery with weekly clues snail mailed to me by the library.

Inside the library, I found this vivid “Once Upon a Time” mural. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021)

Had I not done this walk-about through downtown Cannon Falls, I likely would have missed these nuances. The details which help define this community.

A scene in the center of downtown Cannon Falls reminds me of the town’s rural roots. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021)

As I meandered, I paused to watch a John Deere tractor roll through downtown pulling a wagon heaped with golden kernels of corn. This is, after all, an agricultural region.

A grain complex in Cannon Falls. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021)

Later, Randy and I picnicked at Hannah’s Bend Park, the local grain elevator complex defining the nearby skyline. As we finished our lunch, a bald eagle soared overhead, wings spread wide. I expect the Cannon River drew the majestic bird here, to this small southeastern Minnesota town, this Cannon Falls.

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FYI: Please check back for more posts from Cannon Falls and the surrounding area, including the Sogn Valley. Also enjoy my earlier post on Hi Quality Bakery by clicking here.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

In Deerwood: Water tower on the range August 30, 2021

An historic 1914 water tower in Deerwood, Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo July 2021.

A TIME EXISTED WHEN I PAID minimal attention to water towers. They all looked the same. Simple silver metal structures rising on leggy supports above prairie towns, dwarfed only by grain elevators.

Through the decades, those standard water towers have mostly vanished, replaced by more modern holding tanks. I understand the need to upgrade, to improve, to advance. Communities grow. Needs change. My city of Faribault is currently planning a new water tower, which will be visible from Interstate 35. If Faribault ever housed a simple metal tower, it was long before I moved here.

Community identifier. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo July 2021.

But in the small town of Deerwood in Crow Wing County, a vintage water tower still stands, by a city park with picnic shelter and splash pad, near an apartment complex, next to the fire station and across the street from the historic Deerwood Auditorium (city hall and police department).

Randy and I discovered the 1914 water tower when we stopped for a picnic lunch en route to a family lake cabin on a Saturday afternoon in July. Previous drives north, we drove right through Deerwood without pause. In a hurry to get to our destination.

That’s problematic. That word, hurry. By hurrying, we too often miss simple delights. Like the historic Deerwood water tower.

Looking up at the tower offers artistic and architectural angles. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo July 2021.

I grabbed my camera to photograph the tower, attempting to document it from multiple perspectives. Architecturally. Artistically. Historically.

Identifying construction information at the base of the Deerwood water tower. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo July 2021.

Upon later researching the Deerwood water tower, built by the Des Moines Bridge & Iron Co., I learned it is one of five such Cuyuna Iron Range water towers on the National Register of Historic Places. Added in 1980, the other towers are located in Crosby, Cuyuna, Ironton and Trommaid. They are known collectively as the “Cuyuna Range Municipally-Owned Elevated Metal Water Tanks.”

Just another underneath view. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo July 2021.

The towers, erected between 1912-1918, were of historical importance in development of the Cuyuna Iron Range. Tax revenue generated from the iron ore mines funded their construction.

Posted on a street corner by the water tower, a positive message. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo July 2021.

I appreciate that these five towns on the iron range valued their aged water towers enough to pursue and acquire historical designation. The water towers represent a time in Minnesota history. They represent, too, the architecture and art of yesteryear.

TELL ME: I’d like to hear of vintage water towers you’ve noticed and appreciate. Tell me, too, why you value them.

Please click here to read my previous post about the historic Deerwood Auditorium. And click here to read my post about the town’s deer sculpture in Elmer Park.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Why I love Decorah, Part I November 26, 2018

Vesterheim Norwegian American Museum in downtown Decorah draws many visitors interested in learning about their heritage.

 

TWICE I’VE VISITED DECORAH in northeastern Iowa. It’s one of those towns that feels comfortable, inviting, an ideal destination for someone who prefers rural to urban.

 

Decorah is named after Ho-Chunk Chief Waukon Decorah. I spotted this portrait by noted artist Charles Philip Hexom on a stairway wall at the public library.

 

What makes Decorah so appealing to me?

 

 

 

 

The architecture.

 

“Doe and Fawn” sculptures by Victoria Reed stand in a public plaza near a downtown co-op.

 

Love this mural of “Irene” painted by Valerie Miller of Steel Cow.

 

A stone sculpture on the Nelson & Co. building.

 

The art.

One of my favorite spots in Decorah, the waterfall at Dunning’s Spring Park, site of a former grist mill and gifted to the city in 1946.

 

The natural beauty.

 

Valdres House, one of many authentic Norwegian rooted buildings at Vesterheim. This is a typical Norwegian landowner’s house, dismantled and shipped from Norway to Decorad in the mid 1970s.

 

The downtown shops and eateries. The city’s appreciation of its strong Norwegian heritage, even if I’m of German heritage.

And the people. While at Pulpit Rock Brewing, Randy and I shared a picnic table with a young couple and their daughter (and her grandpa). They were quick to answer our questions about places to eat, sleep and explore.

Upon their recommendation, we stayed at a new hotel on the edge of town and met a trio of college friends together for their annual girlfriends’ reunion. They welcomed us into their circle at a gas-fired campfire on a perfect early autumn evening. When did hotels start adding this amenity? I loved it. There’s something about fire…

 

The Upper Iowa River runs through the 34-acre Decorah Community Prairie and Butterfly Garden. This view is from a scenic overlook in Phelps Park.

 

And water. Water is part of the draw for me to this river town.

 

Magnificent stone work at Phelps Park, which also includes a fountain (not on at the time of my visit) crafted from stone.

 

Upon the recommendation of the family at the brewery, we sought out Phelps Park. There we found extensive stonework done by the Civilian Conservation Corps. I often wonder when I see such work, “How did they build this without modern equipment?”

Outside an historic downtown building with a corner tower, I chatted it up with an elderly man on a bench. He drives in from the farm every morning to meet friends for coffee and to sit and people-watch. He lives out by the supper club, he said, which meant nothing to me. But I pretended like it did. He’ll never see me again.

That’s the thing about travel. If you engage with the locals, you’ll learn a thing or ten about the place you’re visiting. Stuff you won’t find on a website, stuff best learned in conversation.

TELL ME: Do you chat it up with locals when you’re traveling? I’d like to hear your stories.

PLEASE CHECK BACK for more photos from Decorah. Have you ever visited Decorah and, if so, what appeals to you there?

NOTE: I took these photos during a mid-September visit to Decorah. The landscape obviously looks much different today. So if you’re not inclined to visit this Iowa city now, think ahead to next spring or summer.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

First impressions of downtown Madison, Wisconsin June 11, 2018

 

 

AS SOMEONE WHO DOESN’T particularly like big cities, and I realize that term is relative, I like Madison. That surprised me.

 

The modernistic entrance to the U.S. Federal Courthouse.

 

The Wisconsin Historical Society.

 

The Madison Museum of Contemporary Art.

 

But on my recent first visit to Wisconsin’s capital city of 252,000-plus, I discovered a downtown that mixes historic and contemporary to create an energetic, yet small town inviting, vibe. Granted, I only spent an hour downtown and popped into only one shop on a Sunday morning. But that was enough for me to grasp a sense of place, a place I want to explore further.

 

 

Looking toward the capitol.

 

 

This is a foot-friendly city with State Street, a pedestrian mall, stretching for blocks from the University of Wisconsin—Madison to the state capitol building. This is also a bike-friendly city. I noted, too, many restaurants with outdoor dining along tree-hugged streets. Madison visually impresses with its greenery seemingly everywhere.

 

 

With the exception of homeless people I observed alongside a building near the capitol, I never felt like I was in an overpowering-to-my-senses urban area.

 

 

 

 

I felt, instead, like I was in greater Boston, which has the same smallish within a large metro area feel. Pie-slice street corners and angled buildings remind me of Porter and Davis Squares on the East Coast. Just less busy with pedestrians actually respectful of motor vehicle traffic.

 

 

Likewise, the packed, porch-fronted old houses of the downtown Madison area neighborhoods remind me of the old neighborhoods around Tufts University (where my son attended college) in Somerville and Cambridge, Massachusetts. I expect had UW-Madison been in session, I would have seen lots of college students in the heart of this city given the university’s downtown location.

 

 

 

 

I found plenty to focus my attention. Architecture and signage always draw my interest and Madison offers visual variety in both.

 

 

After an hour-long tour through downtown with family, I determined that I need to return, to step inside the buildings, the places, that define the center of this capital city.

 

TELL ME: If you’ve been to Madison, what would you suggest I see on my next visit? Please check back for two more posts from Madison, including one on Bucky Badger craziness.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Part III, outside the Paine: More from the gardens June 21, 2017

A lawn sweeps to the majestic front entry of The Paine.

A lawn sweeps to the majestic front entry of The Paine buffeted by the Evening Terrace. The public entry to the art center is to the left.

WHEN I TOUR an estate like The Paine Art Center and Gardens in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, my eyes lock on details. The heft of a door. The hue of a flower. The curve of a sculpture.

Massive doors define the entry.

Massive doors and architectural details define the entry.

The Paine presents many opportunities to embrace art. Natural and man-made. All connect to showcase an historic late 1920s mansion designed by Ithaca, New York architect Bryant Fleming. The English country house reflects three centuries of Tudor and Gothic styles all complemented by  beautiful gardens.

 

Details in architecture atop tne Kasota limestone walls.

Details in architecture and construction include the use of Kasota limestone.

Also noteworthy is the Minnesota connection to this Wisconsin site on the National Register of Historic Places. The home’s stonework is mostly Kasota limestone from southern Minnesota.

One of many garden "rooms."

One of many garden “rooms.”

 

A majestic native oak graces the front yard.

A majestic native oak graces the front yard.

 

Lucious planters frame a path to the patio.

Stately planters and lush plantings frame a path to the Morning Terrace.

The gardens, likewise, mimic perennials, trees and shrubs hardy to Minnesota. Given the climate similarities between the two states, this is logical. Annuals and bulbs are also incorporated into The Paine gardens.

Lilies bloomed during my July 2016 visit.

Lilies bloomed during my July 2016 visit.

Flowers in bloom during my mid-summer 2016 visit differ from those blooming earlier or later. The estate landscape is like an evolving art gallery. There’s a certain visual appeal in that, in observing nature’s art always changing.

BONUS PHOTOS:

The public entry to The Paine Art Center.

The public entry to The Paine Art Center.

 

The first sculpture I spotted, near the entry.

The first sculpture I spotted, near the entry.

 

My husband, Randy, plays a xylophone in a garden.

My husband, Randy, plays a xylophone in The Children’s Field Station.

 

One of many graceful sculptures.

One of many graceful sculptures.

FYI: For more information about The Paine Art Center and Gardens, click here. Then click here to read my first post from inside The Paine. Next, click here to read Part I and then Part II of my gardens series.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Part V from La Crosse: A final look at downtown March 29, 2017

 

IN ONE FINAL PHOTO sweep through downtown La Crosse, I present a collage of images.

 

 

I am drawn to signs and architecture, to distinct characteristics which define a town’s personality.

 

 

 

 

La Crosse is a river town, storied in history. You can see that in the aged buildings which flank streets that bend, like the Mississippi River. History holds a place of honor within this downtown.

 

 

 

 

Yet, this Wisconsin city is not stodgy, existing only in the past. Rather, La Crosse is like a sometimes flamboyant relative claiming attention with loud colors and signs and messages. I doubt I’ve ever seen more vivid and unique signage in a small Midwestern city.

 

 

 

But that does not surprise given La Crosse’s considerable number of downtown drinking establishments. Wisconsinites love their booze. And this is a college town. Visit in the daytime or early evening and you can avoid that whole bar scene, although remnants of night life may linger the morning after with beer in a glass outside a bar door. (True sighting.)

 

 

 

 

La Crosse seems, too, part big city urban yet rooted in rural. Somehow the blend works in a downtown that draws all ages.

 

 

FYI: Please check back for one more post in this “From La Crosse” series as I take you to one of the city’s most notable natural landmarks.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Part IV from La Crosse: Applauding this city’s entertaining visuals March 27, 2017

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DOWNTOWN LA CROSSE, WISCONSIN presents a visual delight that requires spotlight focus to view every detail.

 

 

 

 

Colorful signs compete for attention along storefronts that are themselves architectural attractions.

 

Stained glass art displayed in the front window at Vision of Light Stained Glass, 129 S. Fourth Street.

 

A vintage department store box showcased in a window display.

 

Shoppers enter Antique Center, which presents an inviting window display.

 

Creative window displays draw more interest.

 

 

From almost any place, you hold a ring-side seat to pedestrians and vehicles performing should I cross/should I stop theatrics.

 

Buzzard Billys serves fantastic Cajun-Creole food. Be forewarned that it’s a busy place.

 

This riverside town rates as a must-see destination for anyone who delights in entertainment. Actual entertainment and the kind of entertainment that comes from being a watcher, an observer, an appreciator of a city with a visual character all its own.

 

The Starlite Lounge, a 1950s style cocktail lounge, is located on the second floor of Buzzard Billys. It was closed during the time frame I visited La Crosse. But I saw the lounge on a previous visit and hope to photograph it next time I’m in town.

 

La Crosse performs well under the scrutiny of my camera lens, earning my applause for a place that draws my photographic and personal interest.

TELL ME: Have you visited La Crosse? If, yes, what do you like about the city? If not, would you visit and why?

FYI: Please check back as I continue my “From La Crosse” series.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Part I from La Crosse: The historic downtown through my camera lens March 22, 2017

Crossing the Mississippi River from La Crescent, Minnesota, into La Crosse, Wisconsin.

 

WITH MY APPRECIATION of historic buildings, La Crosse, Wisconsin, has become a favorite occasional destination. This Mississippi River town bordering Minnesota is about a half-way meeting point between my Faribault home and my second daughter’s home in eastern Wisconsin. We recently met there for a Saturday afternoon of dining and exploring.

 

Nearing downtown La Crosse.

 

I love shopping in La Crosse. Mostly photoshopping. While the rest of the family focuses on getting from one shop to the next, I am constantly distracted by the endless photo opportunities. “Go ahead, I’ll catch up,” I repeat.

 

Entering the historic downtown.

 

Signage painted on buildings draws my eye.

 

Some communities restrict signage on historic buildings. But in downtown La Crosse, anything seems to go, creating a visually diverse landscape of signs that pop color and interest into the streetscape. It works, adding character to this downtown.

 

Then I stand and swing my camera lens upward to photograph architectural details, vintage lettering on buildings and the many colorful and creative signs that landmark downtown businesses.

 

Downtown La Crosse is one busy place. On-street parking is a challenge to secure. However, four parking ramps are situated in the downtown and offer free parking on weekends. Same goes for street parking. The downtown features lots of one-way streets.

 

Everywhere you look, there’s something to catch a photographer’s eye.

 

Bridesmaids head for an ice cream treat at The Pearl Ice Cream Parlor, a must-stop ice cream shop and more along historic Pearl Street. Love The Pearl’s homemade ice cream.

 

Or I keep my camera at street level, capturing streetscapes. This downtown pulses with people and traffic.

 

Outside Kroner True Value Hardware store.

 

The day after St. Patrick’s Day, I spotted this cup of green beer on a window ledge in a bar. I also saw a glass of beer outside a bar entrance. Downtown La Crosse is packed with bars, I believe the highest per capita of any U.S. city, according to numerous online sources. (Google it.)

 

The ultimate (in my opinion) “I’m from Wisconsin” t-shirt showcased in the window of The Cheddarhead Store on Pearl Street.

 

Occasionally I direct my lens down to at-my-feet details or toward window scenes.

 

This colorful signage welcomes downtown visitors to Historic Pearl Street West.

 

I photographed this barge on the Mississippi River which edges downtown La Crosse.

 

The dining options in La Crosse are many, including Big Boar Barbecue. No, I haven’t eaten there. Yet.

 

Downtown La Crosse truly rates as a photographer’s/visitor’s dream—if you love historic river towns with aged, detailed architecture; colorful signage; character; diverse dining and drinking options; and a variety of unique shops.

FYI: Please check back for more posts from La Crosse.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Part I: Discovering Albert Lea’s strongest asset, in my opinion October 27, 2015

EXITING INTERSTATE 35 in southeastern Minnesota into Albert Lea, I saw the usual hotels, fast food places, a Big Box retailer and gas stations that could have made this Anywhere, USA. Nothing special. Just another place to fill up with food or gas, turn around and continue onto a destination.

But Albert Lea was my destination on a recent day trip to explore this city of some 18,000.

I knew little of this community, only that it hosts the annual Big Island Rendezvous and Eddie Cochran Days and is home to a chemical dependency treatment center.

 

Historic buildings in Albert Lea, 89 interchange to furniture store

 

It’s strongest asset, as I was about to discover, lies in the heart of downtown. Albert Lea boasts a Commercial Historic District with some incredible architecture. You would never know that, though, driving into town from the first exit on the north. You would never know that by skimming the tourism website or reading the Experience Albert Lea brochure (which mentions the district but features no photos of old buildings).

 

Historic buildings in Albert Lea, 57 tops of buildings

 

An informational kiosk in the downtown shares info about historic buildings.

A kiosk in the downtown shares info about historic buildings.

 

Historic buildings in Albert Lea, 56 furniture store

 

I discovered this treasure of historic buildings simply by driving into the downtown. One hundred and fifteen buildings comprise the Albert Lea Commercial Historic District, according to information I later found on the Minnesota Historical Society website. Wow.

Architectural details on the bank.

Architectural details on the former Albert Lea State Bank building.

This stunning old bank building, if all goes as hoped, will provide housing and serve as an art center.

The former bank building, one of the most impressive buildings downtown.

Sculpted lady above the bank building entry.

Sculpted lady above the bank building entry.

If you appreciate aged buildings that are architecturally stunning, then you must tour Albert Lea. Especially impressive is the massive former Albert Lea State Bank building anchoring a corner of South Broadway. Built in 1922 for $200,000, the structure features a marble facade and is decorated with cream hued terra cotta art. The City of Albert Lea invested about $2 million in its exterior restoration in 2007. Millions more, perhaps three times as much, are needed for additional interior (electrical, plumbing, heating/cooling, etc.) improvements.

Plans are to house the Art Center in the historic bank.

Plans are to house the Art Center in the historic bank.

The Art Center is currently in a building across the street from the bank.

The Art Center is currently in a building across the street from the bank.

A sign above the door labels the old bank as the future home of the Albert Lea Art Center. Online research also reveals that a Kansas developer plans to convert the upper floors into income-limited apartments.  However, that was contingent on securing housing tax credits, which the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency recently failed to award to the proposed project. Albert Lea officials and the developer must now decide whether to reapply for the tax credits (for the third time) or pursue other options.

A local whom I met downtown (prior to the MHFA decision) said I could probably buy the building for $10. Through November, the first floor of the old bank houses a Des Moines based West End Architectural Salvage pop-up shop, next open from 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. October 30 – November 1.

So much potential exists in Albert Lea's downtown given the volume of historic buildings.

So much potential exists in Albert Lea’s downtown given the volume of historic buildings.

Many empty storefronts occupy downtown Albert Lea. I don’t know why this surprises me. But it does. In recent years, I’ve visited all too many mid-sized Minnesota cities expecting to find bustling downtowns. Instead, I find many gaps between businesses.

A view of a side street in the downtown.

A view of a side street in the downtown.

In all fairness to Albert Lea, plenty of businesses still exist. It’s just that to a first-time visitor, multiple vacant storefronts present an impression of a struggling downtown. Correct assessment or not, visual impressions count.

Even though a sign flashed open in this antique shop, we could not figure out a way to gain entry to the business around newly-poured sidewalks.

Even though a sign flashed open in this antique shop, I could not figure out a way to gain entry to the business around newly-poured sidewalks on the day I was in town.

And, in all fairness to Albert Lea, I visited on a particularly blustery day, less than ideal conditions for fully exploring this community. The city lies between two lakes. But the weather was too blasted cold, grey and windy to even consider much time outdoors. As it was, I struggled to hold my camera steady against the wind for downtown photos. Road and sidewalk construction created additional obstacles.

 

Historic buildings in Albert Lea, 71 jeweler building

 

Will I return to Albert Lea? Perhaps.

Another former bank building in the downtown.

Another former bank building in the downtown.

I see the potential in this community for a destination downtown. That requires a strong mission/vision, money and a marketing plan that fully embraces and promotes Albert Lea’s Commercial Historic District as its greatest asset.

Tomorrow I'll take you inside the second building from the left in this image.

Tomorrow I’ll take you inside the third building from the corner in this image.

FYI: Return tomorrow to read the second part in this series from Albert Lea. I will take you inside a business that’s truly one-of-a-kind.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling