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Maxwell House to close Dec. 1

By Jeff Hansel

The Post-Bulletin

Gerald Bertschinger nervously taps his finger on an end table in the front room of the Maxwell Guest House, yet the action seems to ground him for what he is about to say.

"It’s got to be done," he says. "You gotta go with the flow, I guess."

Bertschinger and 31 other residents of the Maxwell Guest House, 426 Second Ave. S.W. in Rochester, must all find new places to live by Dec. 1, because the property is closing for good.

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Cost makes the search for a new place difficult for residents. At Maxwell, most pay weekly or through verbal monthly agreements with former owner Jim Elliott. Elliott says he sold the Maxwell to Premier Bank and will stay as manager until closing day.

"Jim would let me slide by until I got my SSDI, Social Security Disability (payments), and then I’d pay him all back in full," Bertschinger says. That kind of trusting support from property owners is essentially absent in today’s society, said Robert Frisby, of Olmsted County Community Services, giving his personal opinion.

Residents with disabilities or mental illness will struggle. Others have criminal backgrounds, including felonies. But Frisby said Maxwell offered a good option for a new start.

"You give that person a home, and we’ll help that person stay on the straight and narrow — and if they don’t, we’ll get them out of there," was the gentlemen’s agreement that worked between the justice system, social workers and Jim Elliott, said Frisby.

"After 88 years, I think I’m about ready to slow down a little," Elliott said this week.

Premier Bank officials did not return calls for comment, so what will happen to the building is uncertain. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but no demolition permit has been applied for, city officials say. If Premier intends to tear the building down, they would first have to submit forms to the Minnesota Historic Preservation Office.

Although the Maxwell House has gained an unsavory reputation, residents are quick to point out that outsiders don’t realize there’s a community within a community.

"Most of the people that are here are here because they couldn’t find a place in the first place," said Joleen Kenitz. "I was actually homeless before I came here."

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Residents visit, play cards, volunteer in the front lobby or take out the trash. The camaraderie will be missed.

"Everybody gets along. Everybody helps each other out, and that’s all it is," said Dennis Becker, who has lived in the building five years. "People get together. They make food together. They do everything. It’s a community. It really is."

"It’ll be hard for them to find that same spirit," said Frisby.

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