by CHRIS ROGERS
This summer, Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) had its first experience getting permission from the city of Winona to alter its historic elementary schools and add new wheelchair-accessible entrances.
The Winona City Council’s 2017 decision to make Central, Jefferson, Madison, and Washington-Kosciusko (W-K) elementary schools local historic sites staved off the possibility that Madison and Central would be demolished by developers. However, now that the school buildings are historic sites, any exterior modifications to the properties also require city approval. WAPS sought that approval — a permit called a certificate of appropriateness (COA) — for the first time in May, when WAPS’ architects tried to design new handicap-accessible entrance ramps for Jefferson and W-K that would both meet Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements and satisfy the city’s Heritage Preservation Commission (HPC).
The wheelchair ramps at W-K and Jefferson are part of a package of repair and remodeling projects funded by a $9.4-million loan approved by voters last fall. WAPS hired architects from Wold Architects and Engineers to design the ramps.
The HPC did not like Wold’s first design for the ramps, which were reviewed at a meeting in May. “The idea is to minimize the amount of impact on a primary facade as much as possible,” Assistant City Planner and staff representative for the HPC Luke Sims said.
Essentially, the HPC wanted the ramps to blend in with the historic structures as much as possible, and the group believed Wold’s initial designs featured railings that were too bulky and obtrusive. The initial plan also would have required removing parts of stone staircases at the buildings’ entrances. “The current stone provides symmetry around the existing staircases,” Sims said. “The HPC indicated they had concerns about losing that symmetry.”
Sims acknowledged it was a tricky problem because WAPS does need to meet ADA code, and the new ramps were going to have some effect on the appearance of the historic structures. “The ramp is going to be visually different, and it’s going to be a new impact on the front of the facade … So [the goal is] just trying to balance that in a way that doesn’t necessarily get rid of the symmetry, but can harken back to it.”
The application also lacked some information — like drawings from certain angles — that the HPC wanted to see, Sims added.
After it was clear the HPC did not support the initial design, WAPS and Wold officials agreed to withdraw their initial applications and revise their plans, rather than have them formally denied by the HPC. WAPS submitted new plans for Jefferson, but opted to hold off on the W-K project for now. The HPC reviewed the new design for Jefferson on June 25 and approved it.
The new plan features much smaller — and in the HPC’s opinion, less obtrusive — railings. Instead of removing part of the original stone staircase, WAPS contractors would shift the staircase forward to accommodate the ramp while retaining the stonework. “It’s quite the change,” HPC member Carolyn Larson said. “In general, I think it conforms pretty well [to historic design guidelines],” Sims told Wold’s Ben Beery and WAPS Buildings and Grounds Director Michael McArdle. “I think it’s about as good of a thing as we can imagine,” HPC member Preston Lawling stated.
The Minnesota State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) also reviewed the plans and wanted WAPS to clad the new ramp in Biesanz limestone to match the stone steps. WAPS had proposed to build the ramp out of concrete, colored to blend in with the stone. However, the HPC — not SHPO — had the authority to decide what was acceptable. WAPS asked if the HPC would allow concrete construction because the stone cladding would be far more expensive and harder to maintain, and HPC members assented. “I think the future of the schools and their money issues — it’s something we should consider,” Larson stated.
“That hasn’t been much of a hang-up at all,” McArdle said when asked about getting HPC approval for the Jefferson ramp. “We knew we would have to talk with HPC and make sure they were comfortable with the final decision.”
McArdle stated that construction on the ramp at Jefferson will begin this week and continue into the beginning of the school year. He said that WAPS aims to construct the new ramp at W-K next year and noted that, for the time being, there is one accessible ramp leading up to W-K’s main entrance.
Any exterior modification to a city-designated historic site requires a COA from the HPC. If the HPC denies a COA, property owners may appeal the decision to the City Council.