Sunday, March 31, 2013

Old buildings...sometimes... part 2, History, Life

Once there was a small town on the iron range in northern Minnesota.
There came a time when they began thinking that their City hall building was getting old and needed to be replaced. It was not an entirely popular way of thinking. At the time the old City Hall was built it was considered one of the show pieces of the iron range. But after a life of about 40 years, the town began to out grow the building. They needed more space for offices and jail cells and space for firetrucks.

For years the matter of a new building was discussed and at some point early on, a building fund was even set up to start saving money for the new building. After a while, this plan was abandoned as the project had not gained sufficient momentum. A few years later a plan was made for a new building that would cost about a quarter of a million dollars and an election was held to vote on bonds for this purpose. The proposition was soundly defeated at the poles and the council was informed that, though perhaps the people of the city desired a new building, no bond issue or other form of indebtedness would be sanctioned. The council then, once again, set up a building fund. The fund was slow in starting, but a couple years later contained enough to pay for about half the construction and, knowing that the next years levy would be enough to pay for the completion of the project they set out to begin.

Architects and contractors were enlisted and the plan took shape. The old building, once considered one of the nicest on the Mesabi Range, was demolished to make room for he new one on the same sight. And, though the old building was an amazing one, the new one proved to be just as impressive.
The latest American style of architecture was employed in the design of both the interior and the exterior of the building. It was printed in the local newspaper at the time: "The modern American style of architecture is not a fad but is here to remain as it is very practical and at the same time beautiful to behold".

...and so, in the final month of the year of 1930, in the growing mining community of Ely Minnesota, under mayor Grant McMahan, a new City Hall was built.

At that time the population of Ely was over 6000, almost twice what it is today. The city had larger needs and most of the space was put to use as planned.There was an operating courtroom with a judge and half a dozen jail cells, (presumably all of them needed). There was also a need for St. Louis County offices in the building.

Today the once "state of the art" building sits half empty. If anyone needs to be incarcerated, an off duty officer is called in and they drive the prisoner to Virginia. Court is not held in Ely any more so the court room is only used a few times a month for city council meetings...

Later in that decade...

A few years later in 1938 another building was constructed about a block away. The Ely Community Center. This is an even larger building having a total floor area of about 29,000 square feet. On the main floor there was the Public Library which, today, has expanded to fill many of  the originally designed additional meeting rooms on that floor. On the 2nd floor there is a large auditorium with high ceilings and a stage at one end. The basement is also one large area with a kitchen and serving area to be used more for food oriented events. There are additional meeting rooms on all the floors, some of which are still used occasionally.
This was built as one of the WPA projects of the time, (Works Projects Administration, one of the "economic incentive" programs of the Great Depression era). Funding came from a city bond and a grant from the Public Works Administration.


Today, some 70-80 years later, these two buildings find themselves in somewhat of a dilemma. They are two of the most prominent historic, architectural landmarks in the City of Ely, but they are being under utilized and the rising costs of heating and maintaining them has become somewhat of an unnecessary financial burden.

Another huge problem was that both of these buildings were built long before there was ever any thought given to handicap accessibility or ADA requirements leaving them in need of some very expensive upgrades.

I have been a part of the Ely community now for well over 25 years and it seems like as far back as I can remember there has been discussions of what to do with these aging buildings. During most of that time, I was not actively involved in the community at all...
I was caught up in the day to day activities of building my business and my home and trying to keep food on the table for four growing kids...

My involvement with these buildings was minimal. I would occasionally go in to the City Hall to acquire a building permit for the rare project that I would do within the city limits, (most of my work was out of town), and when the kids were smaller, we would be in the Community Center for karate lessons, dance classes, gymnastics... When the kids got a little older they might go there after school occasionally for use of the computers in the library for homework and things, (this was back in the days when there was only one computer in the house and rural internet was painfully slow dial-up).

Other than that, these were buildings I drove past daily and never really gave a lot of thought to...

A few years ago the subject came to the forefront again. Being a little older now and having a bit of time to read papers and such things, I read about the situation somewhat passively. There was a thought that they could build an entirely new building and abandon the two old ones with the suggestion by the Mayor that they could perhaps "sell them to a developer for a dollar to renovate into high end condos", ( high end condos? in Ely?, really?).

The City could never really afford to build this new 7 million dollar project and wasn't really considering it, but, with that, the flame was kindled and so the start, (or revitalization), of the discussion.

I remember thinking at the time that I would really like to dig in and take a closer look and see if there was a better way. It seemed to me that we could at least save one of these buildings. Squeeze the library somehow into the City hall and leave the Community Center. Little did I know that a couple years later I would get my chance to do just that...
A couple months ago the city asked for volunteers to fill five seats on a long since inactive board called the Heritage Preservation Committee. Apparently, the HPC had been inactive for some time simply due to a lack of people wanting to do the job. Well heck, I thought. This might be interesting. I like old buildings... In hindsight maybe not one of my more insightful decisions.

More often than not, we maintain a degree of cynicism about our elected officials... as if we, in their place, could do things better... as if I could somehow think of a solution to a problem that they had not already considered, or perhaps worse, decided not to consider... but after 20 years of this discussion, I think it is safe to assume that they have thought of just about every option.

There have been a lot of numbers put together over the years. Studies on how much it will cost to go with this option or that one. The way things work with government projects like this is, they can't really go out and get an estimate of what things will actually cost. So they pay an engineering/planning firm to put together some general numbers to use to make their decision and then, when the decision is made which option they want to go with, they have an architect draw up the plans and then put it out for bids. Until that point there are only these general numbers thrown around and they vary considerably from one study to the next so it is difficult to try to pin down what things are going to cost and compare one option to another.

Having talked to most of the decision makers involved I found out, the elected city leaders and Mayor, being practical people, would still prefer to build a new building and abandon the two old ones. That being not an affordable option and not a politically popular one, they are now leaning towards an option that involves either squeezing the library into City Hall or building a new library building but either way, abandoning the Community Center. That is a bit of an oversimplification of the options, there are still lots of variables.

As I look over all the numbers that are available it looks to me like all of the options will cost somewhere between 3.5 and 4.5 million dollars and will almost certainly involve having the taxpayers chip in a little bit. In my thought process I have determined for myself that if some strong desire to save the historic Community Center was a common theme between the majority of the citizens of Ely and the city leaders, some collaborative and creative effort could be implemented that  could do just that and cost about the same and still relieve the taxpayers of the future burden of paying for the heating and maintenance of all that underutilized space...


... the questions then, to me, become: Is saving one or both of the buildings really something that should done? Would it be a responsible use of taxpayer dollars?
How many more years would we get out of these buildings if we save them?
Are we just patching them up for some future generation to have to deal with 20 years from now?
...and what really is the value of these buildings from an aesthetic standpoint to the City?

Maybe there comes a time when a building has outlived its useful life span.
What is History anyway? 85 years ago these building didn't exist at all. 200 years ago the town of Ely didn't exist. 500 years ago the most elaborate construction here was probably a well built beaver dam...

If the entire existence of the world was plotted on a timeline equal to 100 years, the existence of human beings would only be about 15 minutes.
This planet will still be occupying its lonely place, orbiting its lonely sun, in this unbelievably vast and  ever expanding cosmos long after any traces of humans, (and the Ely Community Center), will have been wiped clean. I am sure of that.

...I am one who has a hard time throwing away an old pair of boots... not because of the cost of new ones but because I find comfort in the old. I don't want new. I want them to last forever. I resist change when ever possible. I think this is human nature. Maybe we just want comfort and we find comfort, to some degree, in things just staying the same as much as possible.

But one thing we can be sure of is change. We are born, we grow old, we die. And the same is true of the people and cities and forests and rivers and landscapes around us. Any memory of our existence as individuals will most likely be erased a few generations out... while we are here, we try to have a positive effect, or what we perceive to be a positive effect, on the people and communities around us. We try to make the right decisions with the information that we have. Hopefully we can reach some semblance of a consensus and make those decisions with a minimum of conflict and division. That's about all we can hope to do...

I don't know what the answer is with these city buildings... but as for me, most likely I will get out the tube of "shoe-goo" and see if I can get just one more year out of this old pair of boots...