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New owners plan to renovate one of downtown Rochester's oldest buildings

New owners plan to renovate one of downtown Rochester's oldest buildings

(THE MED CITY BEAT) - A Rochester couple is leading an effort to preserve one of the oldest standing commercial structures in the city.

Hunter and Traci Downs, who moved to the area in 2012 from Hawaii, have agreed to purchase the historic Conley-Maass building at 14 Fourth Street in downtown Rochester.

Work on the project — known currently as Fourteen on Four — could begin as early as this summer. The couple intends to completely renovate the late 19th century building, which has housed everything from a camera manufacturer to a theater company.

"It's just a beautiful, historic building that needs a new life," said Traci Downs. "It is going to be at the nexus of everything happening downtown."

Graphic courtesy developer

The 15,000-square-foot building will include an incubation laboratory that will offer high-tech entrepreneurs a space for collaboration. Area 10 Labs, a company owned by the Downs, is expected to be the building's first tenant.

The couple is now in the process of submitting an application for the property to be listed on the National Registry of Historic Places. When the designation is received, they will apply for historic tax credits — putting them in line to be the first developer in Rochester to ever utilize the program.

"Tying Rochester to the roots of where it came from, and at the same time looking toward where it's going, can all be embodied in a place," said Downs. "And that's our hope for this building."

The Downs are working with 9.Square, a local architecture and urban design firm that focuses on finding new ways to use existing buildings. The company is behind several downtown projects including Limb Lab, The Doggery and the recently-opened Grand Rounds Brewpub.

Preliminary plans call for two main tenants and a large co-working space on the second floor, with room for a cafe or restaurant on the ground level. There is also room in the basement for additional workspace.

The property — which is now home to Words Players Theatre — is located in the Destination Medical Center's Discovery Square district. The development plan calls for the area south of Second Street to be transformed into a world-class place for science, education and technology.

Graphic courtesy developer

history of innovation

Originally constructed in the 1890s as a wool and clothing manufacturer, the Conley-Maass building would actually get its name from its second and third tenants: the Conley Camera Company and Maass Plumbing.

Conley built cameras that were sold across the country through the Sears catalog. Ernst Maass was a plumber and inventor who worked with the Mayo Clinic on a number of inventions, including an aspirator for doctors.

The Downs family plans to keep that spirit of innovation alive by recreating the building as a hub for research and collaboration

"I think there's just tremendous potential in these buildings to have a new life and carry on something far beyond what they've done," said Adam Ferrari, the project's architect. "The story is just way better and the narrative is so much stronger." 

Historic preservation has been a top concern for many Rochester residents as DMC moves into the implementation phase. Recently, preservation advocates have been scrambling to put together a list of historical sites before the upcoming development boom.

Graphic courtesy developer

Erin Dorbin, the southeast partnership coordinator for Preservation Alliance of Minnesota, said it's important that Rochester strikes a balance between building for the future and maintaining its sense of place, character and distinction.

"We hope that this example of reinvesting and adapting a historic property — to foster the growth of industry and community collaboration in our downtown core — will inspire others to see opportunity in the current landscape," said Dorbin.

Because the building has been in operation for more than 100 years, a number of upgrades will need to be made to bring it up to code. However, the core of the building will remain in tact.

"The bones of it are super strong," said Downs. "It's got thick brick walls, 13-inch wood beams — so the infrastructure of the building is very good."

Journey to Rochester

Hunter and Traci Downs, along with their son Aidan, moved to Rochester almost three years ago to be closer to the Mayo Clinic, where Traci has been a patient since 2003. 

"There just came a point when going back and forth was not going to work for our son, or really any of us," she said. "So, we just decided to come and make Rochester our home, and we've just fallen in love with it."

Photo courtesy the Downs family

Traci suffers from primary sclerosing cholangitis, a chronic inflammatory disease of the bile ducts that can lead to liver damage. While her condition has stabilized in recent years, she said her entire family finds comfort in being near Mayo, the world leader in treating the rare disease.

Before coming to Rochester, the Downs were involved in Honolulu's emerging tech scene. Together they helped create several successful startup companies, including Archinoetics and Fatigue Science.

They are also part owners of Cafe Steam in downtown Rochester.


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(Cover graphic courtesy developer)

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