In November 2015, the Ramsey County Historical Society published Custom House: Restoring a St. Paul Landmark in Lowertown by James A. Stolpestad, the founder and a principal of the Exeter Group. Custom House is the name given to the former U.S. Post Office and Custom House in St. Paul, which the Exeter Group is restoring and transforming into luxury apartments, a first-class hotel, restaurant, and other amenities.
A primary goal of Custom House was to document thoroughly the history of an iconic landmark in St. Paul as well as the preservation and revitalization process. This is particularly important because the building is located in the heart of Lowertown, an area of the city that is undergoing extensive change from a landscape of neglected warehouses and manufacturing facilities to thriving residential properties, small businesses, and artists’ lofts. The historic photos and previously unpublished maps and architectural drawings allow readers unprecedented access to the history of the site. Another goal was to provide a more nuanced portrait of life in St. Paul in the 1930s beyond the stories of gangsters, violence, and kidnappings that have been ably documented by other historians. Custom House exceeded these expectations with its impressive original research and clarity in explaining what the process of historic preservation entails and how it played out in this particular building.
Custom House makes a valuable contribution to not only Minnesota’s Great Depression era scholarship and architectural history, but also the ongoing conversations about the preservation, restoration, and re-imagining of endangered urban spaces. The decision to restore the Custom House and comprehensively document its part in St. Paul history instead of demolishing the building is an incredible case of preservation and re-use that will inspire other cities and sites around the country.