When the city of Winona's Historic Preservation Ordinance was passed in 1989, it did not come without a struggle. "People were fighting us and saying this was a Communist plot and all kinds of things," Mayor Mark Peterson recalled. "The only thing missing from the meetings were weapons," joked one Heritage Preservation Commission (HPC) member of the 1989 debate. One of the champions of that battle and subsequent battles for historic buildings is stepping down. "People who owned historic buildings were opposed to the ordinances as something that was just un-American and an infringement on their property rights," Peterson continued, "but we presevered with the help of the State Historic Preservation Office and good people like Bob [Sebo], who were willing to stand up and serve."
Sebo, who has been on air with Winona Radio for over 20 years and served for 14 years as chair of the HPC, recently announced he will be leaving Winona. He plans to move to St. Paul in August. Peterson, of course, gave up his post on the commission when he became mayor in January.
Peterson and Sebo were among those leading the charge to protect and honor Winona's historic buildings. Twenty-four years after the passing of the ordinance and the creation of the HPC, Sebo and Peterson were the last original members of the group.
Last week, Sebo and Peterson exchanged awards commending each other for their years of service on the HPC. "I beat him as longest serving commissioner by six months," Sebo teased the mayor.
"I want to recognize the time and effort you put into the foundation of a successful historic preservation program," Sebo said as he handed a commendation from the HPC to Peterson. "I thought I was here to give you one," Peterson said, surprised as he took the award.
"We really appreciate your service as chair on the committee. Your voice on the committee will be missed and your voice in the community as an advocate for historic preservation is a hole that will not be filled," Peterson told Sebo.
The two old friends shared big laughs as they ceremoniously shook hands, commendation plaques in hand.
"I've never been happier in my entire life," Sebo said of living in Winona. "And this commission has been a huge part of my life.
"I love Winona. My family has lived in Winona since the Civil War," he added. Everywhere I go feel like I'm seeing my family."
With property owners' participation, the HPC has helped scores of buildings receive national and local historic designations and receive grant funding for historically sensitive improvements. The group provides guidance on preserving historic buildings, honors exemplars of preservation, and, with the city council, reviews changes that might damage historic properties. In recent decades, Winona's historic districts have become a top attraction for tourists.