Contractors tuckpointed part of the historic Erpelding block at 102 Walnut Street this fall.
The building, which is currently being renovated according to historic preservation standards, is part of a proposed expansion of Winona’s downtown historic district.
by CHRIS ROGERS
Winona officials are considering expanding the geographic reach of the city’s historic preservation rules, both in downtown Winona and in neighborhoods. The city’s Heritage Preservation Commission (HPC) is studying the potential creation of “conservation districts” that would extend some version of historic preservation rules to select neighborhoods, and the HPC discussed expanding the city’s downtown historic districts in the future to include Bay State Milling’s active industrial operation.
Expanding downtown historic districts
Earlier this month, the HPC voted to expand the National Register of Historic Places’ Second Street Commercial Historic District. Currently the district mainly encompasses the strip of buildings from the Acoustic Cafe to Betty Jo’s, including the Winona Post’s office. If approved by the state, the expansion will add Jefferson Pub & Grill, Island City Brewing Company, the entire 111 Riverfront block, and the 102 Walnut Street project.
That expansion does not have much bearing on what downtown property owners can do with historic properties. Most of the buildings slated to be added to the historic district are already individually listed on the National Register, and national historic status does not prohibit owners from altering or demolishing a building.
Local historic status is another story, however, and HPC members and city staff said they plan, at future date, to propose that all of the properties in the expanded district be named local historic sites. Any exterior alterations to local historic sites must be approved by the city. Some of the properties in the expanded district are already local historic sites, but others — including the 111 Riverfront building and the brewery at 65 Front Street — are not. If the HPC follows through on its plan and the City Council approves it, local historic preservation rules would apply to those properties for the first time.
More remarkably, the HPC initially directed a city consultant to study expanding the Second Street Historic District further east, to encompass the Bay State Milling property. The mill’s silos have been in operation for 119 years, and the former Park Brewery (formerly Peerless Chain) building at 32 Walnut Street has its own long history. They are undeniably historic, but they are also part of a working mill that grinds grain by the ton. If the industrial plant became a local historic site, the city would need to approve the historic appropriateness of any exterior alterations.
The consultant, Carole Zellie of Landscape Research, backed off including Bay State Milling at the recommendation of the Minnesota State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO). “SHPO wasn’t very excited about this much larger district because of potential lack of participation by owners,” Zellie explained, meaning that Bay State Milling might not want the historic designation. “The real question is, which privately owned business agrees, with an active operation, to sign up for the National Register?” Zellie told the HPC. The district could be expanded in the future, Zellie added.
Bay State Milling leaders were not immediately available for comment. Bay State Milling Vice President Bill Quigley told the Post this fall that the company planned, in the future, to use the former Godfather’s Pizza property — next door to the Park Brewery building — to rearrange the layout of its production facility. The mill demolished the boarded up former Schuler Chocolate factory on the corner of Second and Franklin streets in 2015.
Bay State Milling may need some city approvals in the future, HPC member Peter Shortridge stated at the group’s November meeting. “They kind of want to play nice a little with the city on some of this,” he said. “It’s possible that they would look at restoring the brewery even though it would be an industrial interior to the building,” Shortidge stated, referring to a historic restoration of the Park Brewery building’s exterior. Shortridge is a partner in 111 Riverfront, 102 Walnut Street, and other neighboring properties.
What is the HPC going to do about the former Park Brewery? HPC Chair Kendall Larson asked. “That building is a very important building,” she added.
Part of the HPC’s mission is to try to find ways to preserve historic landmarks throughout Winona. Larson and Shortridge agreed to send Bay State Milling a letter, to start a conversation about the value of the building. “We want to at least encourage them to restore the exterior,” Shortridge said.
Neighborhood conservation districts
Five years ago, the grove of trees that bordered Winona’s historic Alexander Mansion were cut down, and an apartment building was erected at Broadway and Franklin Street. Numerous Winonans recoiled when they saw the box-like building go up in a neighborhood full of stately Victorian homes. For some, the project became the go-to example of the kind of unattractive development the city should discourage. One city official called it “stark.” It does not fit in with the historic neighborhood, others said.
The city has since passed aesthetic rules in its new zoning code — called “form-based design standards” — that prohibit the construction of vinyl-sided apartment buildings or ones with large blank walls. However, HPC members have been throwing around the idea of taking a different approach to making sure new or remodeled buildings fit in with historic neighborhoods: conservation districts.
Conservation districts are designated areas within a city where special rules relating to historic preservation and architectural design apply. “Conservation districts encourage community involvement and encourage preserving the character of core neighborhoods,” Larson stated. Some experts have described conservation districts as a “lite” version of local historic designation, but across the country, there is a great variety in what rules conservation districts set and how strict they are.
The conservation districts in Red Wing, Minn., for example, are relatively stringent with rules that mirror the city’s full-fledged downtown historic districts — all major renovations must be reviewed by the HPC. In Stillwater, Minn., conversely, only new construction projects in neighborhood conservation districts are subject to design review — not renovations or additions.
Like the rules for downtown historic districts, neighborhood conservation districts often have subjective design standards that are open to interpretation. For instance, Stillwater’s guidelines require that, “… the new building’s roof should appear compatible in scale, pitch, orientation, and complexity to those surrounding it.”
In both Red Wing and Stillwater, the HPC approves or denies applications, and HPC decisions may be appealed to the City Council.
The Winona HPC is in the early stages of researching different approaches to neighborhood conservation districts. It has not yet made any formal proposal to create conservation districts in Winona. “Please keep in mind we are in the preliminary conversation phase,” Larson told the Post in an email. In meetings this year, Larson has suggested that areas on Broadway and near Winona State University’s campus could be potential sites for conservation districts. If the city were to create any conservation districts, neighborhood support is key, Larson and Shortridge stated. “You want to find some citizens in each of those neighborhoods that see value in this and can get engaged in this,” Shortridge stated.
In 2016, Winona created its first historic district outside downtown and its first historic district in a residential neighborhood — the Windom Park Historic District. Homeowners almost unanimously supported it. Winona’s historic homes are such a valuable asset for the community, homeowner Dave Crawford said at the time, adding, “I think its really important to preserve that within reason.”
The HPC is expected to discuss conservation districts at future meetings after further research.