Sister Charlotte Berres was barely 5 years old, if not younger, when she fell in love with the Persian rugs, Victorian furniture and hand-tiled fireplace in the lobby of St. Agatha’s Conservatory of Music and Art in downtown St. Paul.
The convent and music school at 26 E. Exchange St. called to her, and so did God. Berres followed her cousin’s footsteps and became a nun with the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, who ran one of the city’s first and most successful women-owned businesses for decades from the two 1910-era Beaux Arts-style buildings, where as many as 90 nuns worked at a time.
The convent and conservatory buildings were sold around 1962, but continued to serve the public in other ways. In the modern era, McNally Smith College of Music used part of the seven-level main facility for classes, as did other tenants. The college closed a year ago.
The final tenant, a law firm, moved out between April and June, leaving two empty buildings just steps from the historic Fitzgerald Theater and Metro Transit’s Green Line light rail service.
That’s not to say the future of St. Agatha’s Conservatory has darkened — far from it. Longtime owner John Rupp sold the buildings in 2017, and new owners — Northfield-based Rebound Hospitality — unveiled major plans on Tuesday.
Much of the wood trim will be saved, terrazzo flooring will be buffed and shined, and the flower-patterned, hand-tiled fireplace that called to Berres almost 70 years ago will be kept largely as-is. In fact, four or five large, ornate wall paintings have been sent to a museum restoration company, and research continues on their origins.
“We’re trying to preserve as much as we can of the woodwork,” said Brett Reese, a managing partner of Rebound Enterprises, which runs the Archer House River Inn near their Northfield headquarters.
So what in heaven’s name will happen to the convent? Sometime next fall, it will reopen to the public as the Celeste St. Paul Hotel and Bar (Celestestpaul.com), a 71-room boutique hotel that borrows its name from Mother Celestine, aka Ellen Howard, the convent’s first Mother Superior.
Following a historically sensitive remodeling, the hotel will be reborn with a stained-glass windowed “chapel suite” and public bar overlooking the same fireplace where Berres first felt her call to God.
The buildings, which landed on the National Register of Historic Places in the late 1980s, will be restored using state and federal historic tax credits, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be some ironic changes. For instance, a confessional room half-hidden behind the fireplace will become a curtained, dimly-lit side bar — a romantic rendezvous and lover’s nook.
The remodeling work by Flannery Construction, already begun in September, should take about a year. To run the Celeste, Rebound Hospitality will bring in Carl Deeken, the same general manager from the Des Lux Hotel, Rebound’s sister site in Des Moines, Iowa.
Additional partners include architects WAI Continuum, historical consultants Hess Roise and the creative agency Supervox.
Berres, who visited the open house on Tuesday afternoon with at least four other Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, marveled at the marriage of commerce and history.
On Tuesday night, she emailed a reporter some parting thoughts.
“I was marveling at the jewels of historical significance in our city tucked away in little corners,” Berres wrote. “It’s interesting that it took a group from Northfield to ‘see’ the beauty of this building and then to have the imagination to bring it to renewed historical significance, making our city popular for visitors and ever so notable! Let’s continue in this direction in ALL our decisions: SAVE our history! SAVE our beautiful homes and buildings. … Let’s be leaders in preservation! Let’s become known as a historical city!”