Al Mueller’s first-place winning photo in the Post’s 2013 Historic Bridge Photo Contest.
Photo by Al Mueller.
by CHRIS ROGERS
Scores of Minnesotans are coming to Winona this week for the state’s annual historic preservation conference, Preserve MN. With National Register of Historic Places-listed buildings around every corner, a local Heritage Preservation Commission (HPC) that has been very active lately, and lots of historic preservation success stories (and some failures) to tell, Winona is the first city to host the state conference for a third time. The conference will feature tours of “working-class architecture” in the East End with City Council member George Borzyskowski, tips for developers looking to utilize tax credits, and reflections on “lessons learned” from the historic bridge projects in Winona and Stillwater, Minn.
“It’s always fun showing off Winona to people who care about old buildings and preservation,” Winona Mayor and Winona County Historical Society President Mark Peterson said. The conference will feature discussions on the ins and outs of historic rehabilitation projects, and it will highlight some successful developments in Winona and from around the state. Peterson is leading a tour that will start at Woodlawn Cemetery, make its way past Winona State University’s renovation of historic schools into the cutting edge “Education Village,” and, conveniently, end at Island City Brewing Company.
Because the Winona HPC was really interested in the topic, one of the conference sessions will focus on “demolition by neglect,” a term that refers to situations where historic properties deteriorate beyond repair because of a lack of maintenance. “That’s something [the HPC members] have been really harping on for the last three years, four years,” Winona Assistant City Planner Luke Sims said. Earlier this summer, HPC member Peter Shortridge described the former Winona Junior High School Auditorium as an example of demolition by neglect. The building has suffered significant water damage and mold after pipes burst and were never repaired. The owner disagrees with Shortridge’s characterization. In an interview, Sims described the city’s struggle to prod the owner of the former Mason Jar building to repair his fire-damaged building as another example of potential demolition by neglect. Conversely, many Winona officials believe that the auditorium may be too far gone to save. City Council member Pam Eyden has called on the city to consider establishing rules to prevent historic properties from falling apart beyond repair. “Demolition by neglect should be off the table in Winona,” she stated.
Dan Becker is the former long-time head of historic preservation for the city of Raleigh, N.C., and he is one of the country’s foremost experts on establishing and enforcing rules against demolition by neglect. Raleigh is one of a few cities in the U.S. with rules that essentially require property owners to repair historic properties in danger of demolition by neglect, and Becker has experience enforcing those requirements with property owners who were intentionally trying to get rid of their historic buildings and with people who were genuinely having trouble. “This is not something we do on a lark,” he stated. “In addition to having an ordinance and enforcement procedures and practices, you also really need to have tools to help people with the human part of it … treating your neighbors well,” he stated.
Becker stressed that maintenance requirements only work if buildings have an underlying economic potential. North Carolina state law essentially prohibits cities from requiring repairs that exceed the economic potential of a building, and Becker stated that some of his work involved educating property owners on the long-term return on investment they could reap by maintaining historic properties. In cases where the cost of repairs exceeded what a property’s economic potential could support, Becker said that Raleigh created a revolving loan fund to provide gap financing. Having a strong economy helps make it feasible to rehabilitate historic properties, he added. “We’re a boom town here,” Becker said of Raleigh. “The bigger challenge is the smaller rural communities, where the towns have kind of cratered out and there are no resources to deal with [disrepair]. This kind of enforcement is not a solution for those circumstances because it takes repairing the wider economy, and picking on one or two people when everyone is struggling — that’s just not going to fly,” he stated.
“History is important to folks, and that bridge is a big part of Winona’s history,” Minnesota State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) National Register Historian Denis Gardner said of the Winona interstate bridge. Winona’s historic bridge is one of the last bridges in the state with a cantilevered through-truss design. Gardner explained, “The whole center section between the two piers is hung. It’s pinned. You’ve got the sections coming from either side, one side coming from Latsch IsIand, one coming from the Winona side, and between those two sections coming to meet each other, you’ve got this long section that’s just kind of hung there.”
Gardner, along with SHPO’s Sarah Beimers and representatives from the Minnesota Department of Transportation (Mn/DOT) and the engineering firm Mead & Hunt, will talk about their work on projects to replace and restore historic bridges in Winona and Stillwater. “You have a historic bridge that needs to be fixed. How do you do that appropriately?” Beimers explained.
There was controversy between Mn/DOT and SHPO in 2013 over the Winona bridge. At the time, Mn/DOT was still deciding what style of bridge to build for the new bridge that would be erected just upstream of the historic bridge, and Mn/DOT proposed building a concrete box-girder bridge. A SHPO official called that design “unattractive and obstructive” because it would block upriver views from the historic bridge. SHPO pushed Mn/DOT to choose an arch- or cable-style bridge instead, as La Crosse did. Some locals did not like the box-girder design either. Then HPC Chair Bob Sebo called it “one the most god-awful things I’ve seen in my entire life.” Cable or arch bridges would have cost $14 million more, according to Mn/DOT estimates. In letters to SHPO, Mn/DOT officials argued that a box girder would be more historically appropriate than an arch or cable bridge and claimed that migratory bird regulations would likely rule out arch or cable bridges — a claim which was not corroborated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Ultimately, it was up to Mn/DOT, not SHPO, to determine the historic impact of the new design.
When the new box-girder bridge was opened in 2016, many Winonans praised its design and business leaders were relieved to have a sturdy bridge in place. The work that has gone into rehabilitating the old bridge is an engineering feat, but some Winonans balked when they heard that restoring the historic Winona bridge to last another 50 years would cost millions more than constructing the new bridge with its 100-year lifespan. Instead of pouring millions into saving the historic bridge for 50 years, Mn/DOT should build a more beautiful new bridge that will last a century, Leone Mauszycki argued at the time.
“That’s always a hard thing because people want another signature bridge,” Beimers said. She added of the design controversy, “Those decisions had already been made by the time I came here.” However, Beimers was part of a team that determined it would be acceptable to replace — rather than rehab — the approach spans leading up to the historic bridge, shaving a few millions dollars off the project cost.
Minnesota is one of the few U.S. states with a strong program to preserve historic bridges, Beimers said, adding that her office trains officials in other states on the topic. “They’re like, ‘Really? You preserve your historic bridges?’ Not many states do that, but we do,” she stated. “There’s such unique engineering for some of these bridges,” Gardner said, adding, “They are just as significant as buildings. People really do love bridges.”
Preserve MN runs from Wednesday, September 12, through Friday, September 14. For more information on the conference, including a full schedule and registration information, visit https://mn.gov/admin/shpo/conference/.