by CHRIS ROGERS
On Monday, the Winona City Council will decide how far the developer demolishing the former Winona Junior High School auditorium should go in saving pieces of the historic building.
Bob Kierlin’s Main Square Development wants to purchase and tear down the former theater and gymnasium to build a parking ramp kitty corner from Main Square’s downtown apartment-commercial complex. Main Square representatives say they’re hoping to lease a majority of the ramp to the city for public parking; city officials say they haven’t discussed a price. In a rare move last month, the Winona Heritage Preservation Commission (HPC) signed off on razing the locally protected and nationally recognized historic building and approved the demolition.
Main Square didn’t get exactly what it wanted, however. The HPC placed a condition on its approval that requires the company to do more to salvage pieces of the auditorium, possibly to incorporate them into the design of the new parking ramp. Main Square appealed the HPC’s decision to the City Council, asking the council to change the salvage requirement.
HPC narrowly approved demolition
Decked out in Biesanz stone and Art Deco details, the over-1,000-seat auditorium was once an impressive venue. However, while the old junior high school’s classrooms were turned into apartments in a historic reuse success story, and while some Winonans dreamed of a similar rebirth for the auditorium, a feasible plan for its use never came together. Some interested parties kicked the tires and walked away. The auditorium sat empty for the last two decades. In recent years, un-repaired leaks led to major water damage and mold. City inspectors reported the building is structurally sound for the moment, but because of toxic mold and pigeon feces, they recommended no one enter without protective equipment.
The approval of demolition passed narrowly, in a 4-3 vote. Some HPC members dissented.
“I still struggle as a member of the HPC to approve demolition of the building where the primary cause — and I know there are a few other things — but where the primary cause is demolition by neglect,” Connie Dretske said. “Demolition by neglect” refers to letting an historic building deteriorate beyond repair. Dretske asked, what precedent does it set if the city allows owners to demolish historic buildings because they haven’t been maintained?
HPC member Kendall Larson still saw the auditorium’s potential — with enough money — to become part of the downtown arts scene. “I’m just really saddened that we could possibly lose this — another historic, one-of-a-kind building,” she stated.
Attorney for Main Square, Cindy Telstad, said at an HPC meeting, “I think the history of the last 20 years has demonstrated that. There is no viable use of the property.”
The HPC majority seemed to acknowledge that. “I think we’re all aware there isn’t a champion for this building, and that’s what it has lacked for a number of years,” HPC member Peter Shortridge said. Instead, the HPC should focus on what it can do for the public good: saving pieces of the building. The HPC can’t prevent demolition, but it can salvage artifacts from the auditorium, HPC member Innes Henderson stated. The two pushed for the increased salvage requirements Main Square is now appealing.
Back and forth on salvage requirements
The HPC expressed a desire to save pieces of the old auditorium — either interior elements like seating, historic light fixtures that match the Masonic Temple Theatre, and decorative metalwork and stonework, or exterior ones, such as columns and carved stone.
“The interior is in extreme disrepair,” Telstad wrote in a letter accompanying the demolition application. “Although some of the interior features of the auditorium remain, there is significant water damage, mold growth, and bird infestation, including toxic pigeon feces. The portions of the addition other than the auditorium have no architectural features or materials of significance.”
When the demolition application first came to the HPC on September 9, Assistant City Planner Luke Sims recommended this requirement regarding salvaging pieces of the auditorium: there must be “analysis of and deconstruction of the building's remaining historical elements to preserve significant architectural detailing, as determined in consultation with a qualified preservation specialist, which shall be required to be reused or sold at auction.”
At the HPC’s September 9 meeting, Main Square objected to that proposed requirement. Having people enter the building would be a safety concern, Telstad said. Instead of the salvage condition, Main Square proposed paying for a new Winona County History Center exhibit on the history of all local educational institutions.
Shortridge argued that salvaging pieces from the auditorium and incorporating them into the new parking ramp would best preserve the auditorium’s history and serve the public. “Really what I think we would like to see … in terms of the architectural fabric of downtown is that the building, as much as possible, continues to tell some story, and to do that you really need to look at how you’re designing this parking lot and maybe even go beyond the form-based standards that the city will require and look at how you might incorporate those exterior elements so as to continue to tell the story of education in Winona.”
While the HPC postponed a final decision to September 23, city staff talked more with Main Square representatives. Based on the company’s input, city staff members changed the proposed conditions to match what Main Square was willing to do: “The applicant shall work cooperatively with the Winona County Historical Society and the city of Winona to salvage and provide to either the Winona County Historical Society or city of Winona historical elements or fixtures of interest from the auditorium at a cost not to exceed $15,000 including the cost of moving such items.”
The proposed condition put a cap of $15,000 on the total cost of salvaging pieces from the auditorium, Telstad explained.
Winona City Planner Carlos Espinosa said the $15,000 figure was included because the developer had proposed it, but the city couldn’t legally demand a larger dollar figure.
“I think we need to do some amount of mitigation,” Shortridge said. Mitigation refers to saving pieces or representations of historic structures. It is a common step when destroying historic sites. Maybe, Shortridge continued, “We need to get some people in hazmats suits and really make that walk through along with the petitioner to see what is and isn’t [worth saving].” That might be onerous, but, he stated, “At the same time, for us to do our job and do our due diligence, we can’t just have it ramrodded through that this is what it’s going to be, and it’s so bad you can’t go in there …”
There needs to be some evaluation of what can and should be salvaged, Henderson echoed, adding, “I do have a hard time with the $15,000 cap without knowing what the salvageable material is going to be.”
Shortridge and Henderson proposed and the HPC approved a new salvage condition with no dollar limit: “The applicant shall allow the city of Winona, Winona County Historical Society, and Heritage Preservation Commission, as far as reasonably possible, the ability to view the building interior and exterior for salvage or re-use, prior to the commencement of deconstruction or demolition to occur within 60 days. The parties will work in cooperation and good faith to determine elements that are salvageable. The Heritage Preservation Commission would make the final determination of elements that are to be salvaged from the auditorium. The applicant will provide elements of interest including cost for moving.”
Main Square appeals
On Monday, Main Square will ask the City Council to change the salvage condition back to the company’s $15,000 proposal.
“Appellant objects to the second condition imposed by the Heritage Preservation Commission because it creates an unworkable situation, further delays the project, and imposes an open-ended obligation,” the company wrote in a statement signed by Kierlin. “Logistically, it would be very difficult to comply with that condition on a timely basis,” Telstad said in an interview. “Time is important to Main Square,” she added.
Regarding how much salvage will ultimately be required, Telstad pointed out, “The condition is vague and completely in the control of the HPC.”
Asking the City Council to approve Main Square’s salvage proposal, Kierlin’s statement concluded, “Appellant believes these proposed conditions are reasonable and adequately provide for appropriate and practicable salvage of historical elements. If the second condition as imposed by the Heritage Preservation Commission stands, this project will not move forward.”
The City Council will hold a public hearing before making a final decision at its meeting on Monday, October 19, at 6:30 p.m. To join the virtual meeting with a smartphone or computer, visit https://zoom.us/j/896465916, enter meeting ID number 896 465 916, and passcode 207207. To join via telephone, dial 1-312-626-6799 and enter the meeting ID when prompted. Speakers must unmute themselves to be heard during the public hearing.