The elevator is out — again — at the six-story Tilsner Artist Lofts in Lowertown

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With its striking red brick facade and Victorian Romanesque architecture, the 1890s-era Tilsner Artist Lofts in St. Paul’s Lowertown has drawn a community of creative residents, many of them seniors. The six-story building at Broadway Street and Kellogg Boulevard offers pine floors, exposed brick walls and high ceilings well-suited for 66 income-restricted units of artists to both live and work.

What it’s lacked though, for about a week, is a working elevator.

The Tilsner Building in St. Paul’s Lowertown on Tuesday, May 28, 2024. (John Autey / Pioneer Press)

An “elevator outage” notice posted May 22 on the outer elevator doors on each floor indicates the lift would be out of service until May 28. By the end of the workday on Tuesday, however, there had been no visible sign that a vendor or repair crew had paid a visit.

“It will get worked out,” said Barbara McQuillan, executive director of the Twin Cities Housing Development Corporation, the building’s managing general partner, who was hopeful the elevator vendor would have a reprogrammed motherboard installed by early next week. “We’ve ordered the part. We’re looking for an update.”

In interviews, a group of eight disabled residents said it was at least the fourth elevator breakdown in the past year. They pointed to incidents over the past decade where they or loved ones had been trapped, sometimes for hours, or even gotten fingers stuck, excruciatingly, in the malfunctioning door.

“We aren’t being told what’s going on here,” said Lisa Mathieson, a glass blower who has rented a motel room for days because she can’t make it up the stairs to her fifth-floor unit with her walker. “I’m wearing the same clothes I left here with a week ago.”

Barb Rose, a former floral designer who lives on the Tilsner’s top floor, has used a wheelchair or walker since a scooter accident left her with a spinal cord injury in 2022. It takes her 20 minutes to get up all 12 flights of steps with two canes, “and that’s rushing it,” she said. She asked a building manager Tuesday when the Tilsner’s notorious elevator finally would be fixed.

“‘They’re looking for a part, it’s an old elevator,’” Rose said the building manager responded. “This thing has been down since Wednesday. This is more (exercise) than my physical therapist would ever want.”

Rose said she has managed, with much trouble, to make it downstairs for physical therapy appointments, but other disabled residents in the building who rely on wheelchairs and walkers can’t do the same. Olivia Wertheimer, a multi-media artist who uses a cane and suffers from fibromyalgia, said her roommate, who has even less mobility, has not left the apartment in a week.

A reporter’s calls to the building’s management company, MetroPlains Management, were not immediately returned Tuesday. The Tilsner was developed into artist housing in the 1990s by building owners Artspace and the Twin Cities Housing Development Corp.

McQuillan, who runs the latter, said when tenants move in, management “is very clear with them: it’s a one-elevator building, and it’s a six-story building. … Things fail, and things need to be repaired. … We do whatever we can to avoid that, but it happens.”

She said she hoped to hear more from her elevator repair vendor and get better information out to residents by Wednesday morning. Anyone moving out of the building temporarily would have their rent abated for that period, she said.

“We’re expanding the hours of our management staff and will be allowing delivery services to go up to the apartments, which we don’t usually do, so people who have medications or groceries can have them delivered,” she said. “It’s not a situation anybody hopes for.”

Maintenance, management concerns

Residents said the elevator is far from their only concern when it comes to maintenance and management. Around 2016, the building owners began shifting the Tilsner, which had been co-operative rental housing, toward a more traditional, top-down property management arrangement.

With the only elevator in the building broken, Barb Rose, who uses a walker for mobility after suffering a spinal cord injury, starts the climb to her sixth-floor apartment in the Tilsner Building in St. Paul’s Lowertown on Tuesday, May 28, 2024. Rose wears gloves to keep her hands from slipping on the handrails, and it takes her about 20 minutes to climb the stairs. (John Autey / Pioneer Press)

Despite the Tilsner’s official designation as “Section 42” housing — a federal designation that provides the building owners with an annual low-income housing tax credit — tenants said their rents have risen heavily over the years. A two-bedroom at the Tilsner can run $1,300 to $1,535. Another tenant said she pays $1,600 for her three-bedroom and a $75 parking fee.

Until residents complained, they said, management in recent years began renting units out to non-artists. Drug use and prostitution became problems, and package thefts increased. Rose recalled someone stealing her laundry. Mary Jo DuPaul, a baker, hoped to create a greater sense of community by organizing potluck meals, but the management removed her sign-up sheets from the elevator. Rules around hanging hallway art have become equally onerous, she said, so most walls now are bare.

Among both tenants and managers, “there were a number of people who didn’t care about artists,” DuPaul said.

There are multiple signs the building is being positioned for sale. Tenants seeking lease renewals have learned their leases will be month-to-month beginning June 1 and they soon would be losing basement storage space. A few weeks ago, all tenants were asked to leave their fire extinguishers outside the doors of each of their units. The extinguishers were taken and never returned, though each floor still has at least one in the hallway.

A power outage two weeks ago knocked out the elevator and all stairway, exit, hallway and other common area lights for 15 hours, raising concerns the generator fuel had run dry.

Rose, who spent months hospitalized after her scooter injury in 2022, recalled the bureaucratic ordeal of getting management to install shower grab bars in her bathroom. A property manager brushed past her, quickly inspected her bathroom and declared the shower to be too narrow. A more sympathetic manager advocated for her, and the grab bars soon were installed without issue. The second manager, she said, no longer is on staff.

Elevator drama

But it’s the elevator that has given residents the most immediate and reoccurring pause. In 2016, the elevator was down for more than a month.

Barb Rose, who uses a walker for mobility after suffering a spinal cord injury, takes a breather as she climbs to her sixth-floor apartment in the Tilsner Building on Tuesday, May 28, 2024. The only elevator in the building is broken and it takes Rose about 20 minutes to climb the stairs. (John Autey / Pioneer Press)

Laurel Cazin, a diabetic who relies on an insulin pump, recalled getting stuck in the elevator for 2 1/2 hours about a year ago. Before freeing her, firefighters were able to toss her hard candy to help keep her blood sugar up. She’s lived at the Tilsner for 30 years and raised a son there.

Her numerous maintenance complaints were responded to in March 2023 with a letter from MetroPlains forbidding her from contacting their management staff directly. The letter states her calls and emails were “accusatory and demanding, impatient, and provide only selective facts and information,” and that even routine maintenance requests would have to be channeled through a caseworker.

Another resident recalled his then-teenage son getting stuck in the elevator for hours alongside three friends. That was in 2014, yet problems persist.

Jennifer Dorris, a 13-year resident, recalled the elevator door closing on her hand for 20 minutes two years ago. The elevator dropped a few feet, paused, and then dropped again, inching toward the basement. She feared her trapped digits would make contact with the floor platform. The pain was excruciating, leading her to believe — wrongly, thankfully — that her fingers had been broken, if not torn off. “I was able to call 911,” she said. “I was screaming and crying.”

Dorris, who recovered without permanent injury, later complained to management, who sent her a legal letter in response. “Their attorney wrote me back saying, ‘This is all staged.’ I didn’t have money to go after them,” Dorris said, “but someday I will.”

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