by CHRIS ROGERS
Fastenal founder Bob Kierlin’s Main Square Development company is seeking the city of Winona’s permission to demolish the former Winona Junior High School auditorium and build a three-story, 130-stall parking ramp in its place. After Main Square broke the news, city officials confirmed they are in early discussions with the company about possibly leasing some of those stalls for public parking use.
The auditorium is on the National Register of Historic Places. Because it’s also a protected local historic site, Main Square Development needs permission from the Winona Heritage Preservation Commission (HPC) — or the City Council — to demolish the building.
The once-grand building contains an over 1,000-seat auditorium, a gym, locker rooms, and a pool, but it has been boarded up for years and its Art Deco details and ornate Biesanz stone have been covered in algae and mold since busted drains led to widespread water damage in the mid-2010s. While many Winonans have dreamed of its restoration as an events center — it was once even eyed for an expansion to the library — the few serious suitors over the years have been scared off by seven or eight-digit cost estimates for remodeling. Even Winona Mayor Mark Peterson — a champion of historic preservation — has said the building is likely too far gone. Main Square Development and city staff argued demolition is justified because the building cannot be feasibly restored, that toxic mold and hazardous pigeon feces make it a public health hazard, and the proposed parking ramp would benefit the public.
“I think the history of the last 20 years has demonstrated that: There is no viable use of the property,” attorney for Main Square, Cindy Telstad, told the HPC on Wednesday. “No one has come forward with a viable plan to make a different use of the property or rehabilitate the property. It is not economically feasible to do that.”
Great River Shakespeare Festival (GRSF) Managing Director Aaron Young said that, before his tenure, GRSF eyed the auditorium as a potential venue for its plays, but decided against it.
Winona Area Chamber of Commerce President Christie Ransom argued, “While a historic building or a building that has historic significance is important to communities, one that stands vacant for several years and that is rundown with no viable means of preservation or restoration is really just another vacant building in a community. And the more of those that sit in a community without use or progress, it doesn’t bode well for people moving in and coming to a community … I think utilizing the space is better than leaving it vacant for more years and more destruction.”
HPC members were reluctant approve the demolition, saying that the building’s current disrepair is the property owner’s fault.
“I have some concerns about approving a request for demolition of a building that has been neglected — especially a building that is not only on the local register, but the National Register, as well — because it seems to set a [precedent] that tells a property owner, if they want to get a building demolished, the best thing to do is to stop maintaining it,” HPC member Connie Dretske said.
“We’re making way too much out of bird poop and the fact that someone really neglected this building for too long and now that’s the reason this has got to be torn down. It’s the classic demolition by neglect,” HPC member Peter Shortridge said, referring to a term that means allowing an historic property to fall into such disrepair that demolition is inevitable. At the same time, he stated, “It seems inevitable where this is going.”
With that in mind, Shortridge pushed for more detail on how and whether pieces of the auditorium could be saved an incorporated into the exterior of the planned parking ramp. In lieu of preserving pieces of the building itself, Telstad said Main Square was proposing to fund a new museum exhibit at the Winona County History Center that would cover the full history of education in Winona — from the founding of Winona State University to private schools and public schools, including the former junior high.
“It’s kind of nice, but it’s really just a little oil on the waters here,” Shortridge said of the proposed exhibit. Incorporating features from the historic building into the design of the new parking ramp would go much further to preserve the “architectural fabric of downtown,” he argued.
The HPC postponed a decision until September 23 to gather more information on potential steps to save pieces of the building and to get more input from the Minnesota State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO).
At Wednesday’s meeting, HPC members were eager to hear what input SHPO had on the proposed demolition. It’s common practice for the city to seek SHPO review of any changes to historic properties. Winona City Planner Carlos Espinosa, who was filling in for the city staff’s normal point person on historic preservation, said, “I don’t have that information in front of me right now.”
“Wait. We don’t have SHPO’s recommendation? Isn’t that kind of key?” Shortridge responded.
HPC member Kendall Larson echoed, “I want to get that additional expertise from SHPO, the State Historic Preservation Office. We’ve done that in the past, and I really appreciate their commentary because they deal with this often.”
The HPC will meet on Wednesday, September 23, at 4 p.m. over the videoconference system Zoom to consider the demolition request. Meeting details are not yet posted but are expected to be listed at www.cityofwinona.com/calendars.