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Local View: Embracing preservation only when convenient

2018 News Tribune file photo / This is an aerial view, made with a drone, of the Pastoret Terrace building in Duluth as it looks now, following a fire in 2010.1 / 3
Duluth Public Library photo / The opulent Pastoret Terrace was constructed in Duluth in 1887, a design of premiere architect Oliver Traphagen. 2 / 3
2017 News Tribune file photo / Stretar Masonry employee Ron Joyal of Duluth uses mortarboard and a trowel to set mortar while working to tuckpoint the brick of the Empire Block on Tower Avenue in Superior. The historic building was renovated to have 15 apartments and retail space for three businesses. 3 / 3

The Duluth Economic and Development Authority recently announced it rejected all proposals submitted to redevelop the burned-out Kozy Bar and proposed its demolition.

The Kozy was constructed in 1887 as the Pastoret Terrace. Designed by Oliver Traphagen, then Duluth's premier architect, the Pastoret contained six opulent townhouses. By 1924, the townhouses were split into smaller, less-expensive units, and a restaurant, later the Kozy, was added to the ground floor. By the time fire severely damaged the building in 2010, it had been subdivided into 50 apartments. Little was done to protect the building since the blaze, making renovation extremely expensive.

The once-grand landmark has become the city's symbol of blight. Its likely loss holds many lessons that could guide the future of historic preservation in Duluth.

There are many lessons about responsible stewardship of historic properties.

Eric Ringsred owned the Pastoret when it burned. The building was not adequately insured, limiting the resources available for its repair. The damaged building was then left to decay, hampering potential renovation efforts. Further, the building was never nominated for consideration as a Duluth landmark property, which would have provided a pathway for protection from demolition. After property-tax delinquency allowed DEDA to take ownership of the building, Rinsgred sued the city for willful neglect.

The preservation community can take a lesson from the Pastoret problem. For too long those of us eager to retain Duluth's architectural heritage have been reactionary and ill-prepared. We too often have waited until a landmark was in grave danger and then demanded it be saved — whether there was a plan for its future or not.

Passionate arguments failed to save St. Peter's Church. Fortunately, Jeffrey Larson stepped up to purchase and repurpose it. Today, St. Peter's stands not because of editorials or speeches in city council chambers, but because someone developed a plan for its adaptive reuse and well-financed renovation.

Efforts to save the 1923 St. Louis County Jail only resulted in delaying its destruction until fortune again prevailed when Grant Carlson bought that building — but with no clear plan for its future. Work to renovate the 1915 National Guard Armory has been hampered by an initial lack of planning and funding — and later some genuine bad luck — for nearly 15 years.

Ironically, as long as the jail and armory remain empty and unused, they stand as arguments against preservation rather than for it. Fortunately, plans appear to be coming together for both.

We preservationists need to learn that it is not enough to simply "save" a landmark. Efforts should include a plan not only for the restoration of a landmark's exterior but for the adapted modern reuse of its interior, along with financing for both the work and the building's ongoing stewardship. Success comes when a landmark once again plays a vital role in its community, is back on the property tax rolls, or serves the municipality.

The Duluth Preservation Alliance, a volunteer-staffed nonprofit, often advocates on behalf of preservations efforts. On the Pastoret, the alliance urged the "acceptance of a proposal that maintains the historic architectural integrity of this unique building." But the alliance, which generously has helped the city fund historic-property inventories, understandably does not have the resources to do more than advocate and advise.

With an annual budget exceeding $400,000, the St. Louis County Historical Society should have plenty of financial resources to aid in efforts to preserve our cultural heritage. Yet for the last 30 years the historical society has made little effort to protect our architectural heritage. Nor has it offered much, if any, assistance or guidance on preservation issues.

Meanwhile, across the bay, the Douglas County Historical Society — with a $100,000 budget — assisted in renovating Superior's Empire Block and creating housing by helping developers acquire historic tax credits. St. Louis County could learn to recognize that for far too long its taxpayers have been paying too much for an organization that delivers too little.

I hope the city learns to embrace historic preservation as part of its development plans. Every time we lose a landmark, we lose what puts the "Historic" in the Duluth Commercial Historic District and in Duluth's Historic Arts & Theater District, weakening the impact and authenticity of both areas.

The city's record on preservation exposes a long-standing anti-preservation posture coupled with an often contradictory treatment of historic properties. Past actions expose a pattern that indicates the city couldn't care less about preserving our architectural heritage.

Except, that is, if preserving a landmark fits into its plans or those of a friendly developer.

For example, owners of Duluth's landmark-protected 1889 City Hall asked permission to install replacement windows deemed inappropriate by the Duluth Heritage Preservation Commission, and they were denied. Yet when the city wanted to install inappropriate windows in its own 1929 City Hall, also a Duluth landmark, it ignored the preservation commission's recommendation.

During the struggle to save St. Peter's, as another example, the city stripped the preservation commission of its ability to simply nominate buildings as local landmarks, the only real authority it holds. It was only after the city realized it could lose access to state and federal grants that the authority was restored.

The city's considerations of contributing buildings within the Duluth Commercial Historic District display its most obvious inconsistencies. The Pastoret/Kozy, Carter Hotel, and Temple Opera Block, as well as the Orpheum and NorShor Annex (the two buildings that contain the NorShor Theatre), all are considered contributing buildings to the Duluth Commercial Historic District.

The Fond du Lac Band, which owns the Carter, wants to demolish it to make room for parking and eventually a hotel. The band removed most of the Carter's roof, exposing the interior to the elements and contributing to the building's decay. After the city's relationship with the band soured, the city argued that, despite its neglected condition, the Carter deserved protection because of its status as a historic district-contributing building.

Yet with the Pastoret, the city proposes demolition.

Moreover, the 1905 Astoria Hotel at 102-108 E. Superior St., another historic district-contributing building, is slated to be demolished to make way for a new hotel.

And now that the city and the band have patched up their relationship, DEDA approved the Carter's demolition.

At this rate, our historic district soon will be void of historic landmarks.

DEDA purchased the NorShor buildings and Temple Opera Block from Ringsred for $2.6 million to facilitate the construction of a yet-to-be-built skywalk from the Fond-du-Luth Casino over Second Avenue East through the Temple Opera Block and NorShor to connect with the skywalk leading to Greysolon Plaza.

In the wake of the city's dispute with the band, that skywalk plan mushroomed into a $30 million project to "save" the NorShor. There is no denying the NorShor's cultural significance, but architecturally its exterior pales to the Pastoret. The theater sits inside two buildings. One, the 1910 Orpheum Theatre, had much of its architectural significance stripped from its façade in the 1920s and its cultural significance gutted in 1940. The other is a 1926 parking garage.

Not that I did not support the renovation of the NorShor. It is a fine example of a community coming together to retain and revitalize part of its cultural heritage. But it also serves as another example of how the city embraces preservation only when it fits its plans or those of a friendly developer.

If the city found a way to finance the NorShor's rebirth, a way to retain Pastoret's facade also can be found. Duluth stands to lose more than some old brick and brownstone. The loss of the entirety of the Pastoret would reduce the impact of the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial across the street, as memorial Board Secretary Heidi Bakk-Hansen recently pointed out (In Response: "Duluth's communities of color callously neglected, too," July 11). The Pastoret and the 1895 Third Regiment Armory provided the backdrop to Duluth's 1920 lynchings. Today those buildings allow visitors to the memorial to better envision and understand what happened that tragic night, a lesson that remains important today.

No one can deny the need to eliminate the blight surrounding the Kozy, but we need to adapt our perspective on preservation or risk losing more landmarks — including Duluth's iconic 1892 Central High School ("Our View: New plan needed for Old Central"). The Pastoret may be running out of time, but it is not too late to change how we approach preservation.

Let's use these lessons as a catalyst to direct the entire community toward proactive, common-sense, and cooperative historic preservation so we can retain our cultural heritage and historic character and celebrate the city's past as we propel it into the future.

Duluth author Tony Dierckins is the publisher of Zenith City Press (zenithcity.com), whose newest book, “Naturally Brewed, Naturally Better: The Historic Breweries of Duluth & Superior,” releases Sept. 20.