Along Mitchell’s Main Street rest a handful of historic buildings that were once the homes of thriving local businesses, doctors' offices and hotels.
While some date as far back as the early 1900s, all the historic buildings in downtown Mitchell have a story to tell. Preserving that history is what the State Historic Preservation Office has been doing since its founding in 1966.
Nearly two decades later, the city of Mitchell formed its own historic preservation commission to review the plans of any property owner seeking to remodel, manipulate or demolish a historic building. Jeff Logan, the owner of a downtown Mitchell business who also serves as a member of the Mitchell Historic Preservation Commission, fully understands the process of remodeling a historic building while preserving its historic nature.
“One of the strengths of downtown Mitchell is you have this eclectic mix of unique historic buildings that were built in different eras, and they reflect the history of the town and those eras,” Logan said in an interview with The Daily Republic. “We’re in favor of remodeling historic buildings, but we want to see the building remain true to its origins. We try to be as realistic as possible, but it can be a tedious process for property owners.”
Although the review process is in part designed to maintain a building's historical character, property owners looking to modernize a historic building have at times been restricted by the guidelines of the local and state historic preservation offices.
Herm Harms knows the challenges of remodeling a historic building while meeting the requirements to maintain its historic nature outlined by the State Historic Preservation Office. As an architect for Puetz Corporation, Harms designed the renovation plans for a property owner’s 401 N. Main St. building. Despite the remodeling project adding a shot of life to an aging downtown Mitchell street corner with the addition of three modern office and retail spaces, it was nearly stalled due to some of the City Planning Commission members wanting to wait for the local and state historic preservation offices to complete their review processes.
While the initial design plan entailed modernizing the old Fabric and Textile Warehouse building, Harms went back to the drawing board to adjust the original plan in attempt to stay within the rigorous guidelines of the state’s preservation office.
“We are keeping the building’s rounded curvature, because that is one item that’s considered a unique, historical feature,” Harms said at the mid-August City Planning Commission meeting. “The property owner is making strong attempts to preserve the historic nature.”
Some of the attempts made to maintain the building’s historic nature included replacing the existing glazed, porcelain panels on the corner of the building with similar-looking metal panels, along with retaining some of the brick facade.
After Harms presented the revised renovation plans of the 79-year-old building at a recent Planning and Zoning Commission meeting, several members of the panel were reluctant to recommend approval, citing the need to have approval from both the state and local historic preservation offices. Amid the back and forth discussion, John Hegg, the city’s building inspector, interjected and detailed how difficult it can be for the state’s historic preservation office to recommend historic building remodeling plans.
“I’ve had plenty of struggles dealing with the state on some building remodel projects in the past,” Hegg said at the Aug. 12 Planning Commission meeting. “Whether they approve it or not, at the end of the day it’s going to better our community, and it’s going to promote progress and commerce in our city.”
City Attorney Justin Johnson also cautioned the panel of waiting for the review, as he said the state’s historic preservation office rarely recommends renovation projects that encompass significant alterations to the building.
“I know that the review processes can become controversial, because the requirements aren’t always agreed on by both sides. Slight changes can be considered too extreme of alterations,” Johnson said in an interview with The Daily Republic. “Before I arrived at the city, they were dealing with the state Historic Preservation Office regarding a church building that resulted in a long, drawn out process. It can lead to a courtroom battle.”
Johnson emphasized the state and local historic preservation offices’ reviewals are simply recommendations of approval or denial. Therefore, the Planning Commission and City Council can approve a historic building's remodeling or demolition project regardless of the state and local preservation offices’ recommendations and rulings. However, if a property owner has requested a building permit to alter their historic property, Johnson said the City Council must allow the historic preservation offices to complete its reviewal prior to approving the proposed project.
While City Planner Neil Putnam acknowledged the state preservation office’s review process can be complex and rigorous at times, he said it serves a vital purpose. Putnam has experience working with both the local and state preservation offices, because he’s an ex-officio for Mitchell’s Historic Preservation Commission.
For the state historic preservation office’s review process, the main criteria center around whether the proposed building changes or renovations will have an adverse affect on the historic nature of the building and if all feasible, prudent alternatives were considered while mapping out the desired changes to a building.
“There is some literature in the statutes of the review procedure that can be interpreted as subjective, but the goal is to restore and preserve the history of a building, along with trying to protect it,” Putnam said in an interview with The Daily Republic.
Although Putnam is overall pleased with the state’s review process, noting it as timely and thorough, he pointed out how a “feasible” and “prudent” alternative allows for a subjective interpretation. Putnam said that wording is where disagreements between the state’s historic office and respective property owners looking to renovate a historic building can arise.
“How do you determine what’s feasible and what’s not?” Putnam asked. “And that also kind of depends on the resources that are available to that party or property owner.”
Third and Main Street demolition
The most significant alteration of a historic building that calls for a thorough review process is demolition. After a two-year battle with the property owner of a dilapidated building on the corner of Third Avenue and Main Street, the city purchased the historic building and its neighboring building, which houses Moody’s Western Wear. With a gaping hole on the back corner of the crumbling building that forced a two-year street closure, the city had its sights set on demolishing the structure.
However, Putnam said a property owner’s plans of demolishing a historic building are almost always deemed an adverse effect by the state and local preservation offices, because it’s essentially destroyed and removed. But there are a few unique scenarios in which the preservation offices will get behind recommending demolition plans. The Main Street building was one of those exceptions that the state and local preservation offices have recommended to be demolished.
“Because the city had all the cost estimates of demolition complete, and the structural engineer reports, all of that demonstrated there were no feasible alternatives to save the building,” Putnam said of the entire corner of Third Avenue and Main Street.
The final step in the state historic office’s reviewal process is deciding whether it’s necessary for the local preservation committee to review the building renovations. Putnam pointed to this step of the review process as being one of the most complex, in large part due to the differing case reports and opinions between the two historic preservation offices.
“The local committee can either agree or disagree with the changes and findings of the report, or choose not to comment,” Putnam said, noting he’s experienced all three options.
Disagreements of reviewal at local and state levels
As one of the mayoral appointed members of the Mitchell Historic Preservation Commission, Logan has experienced several historic building projects that make for a tough review process.
“We’ve disagreed with the State Historic Preservation Office now and then, but I think it’s mainly due to us at the local level having a better understanding of the history of the building and the economic state of what’s possible for the building owner,” Logan said.
The local historic preservation commission’s ability to have a better understanding of the economic means and other factors facing the property owner traces back to the 401 N. Main St. remodeling project. Considering the local historic preservation offices were aware that the building’s roof was significantly over-stressed and risked collapsing in the event of a heavy snowstorm, Logan said the local historic commission had a clear understanding of what was at stake for the property owner.
Although the Fourth Avenue and Main Street renovation project recently received recommendation from both the state and local preservation offices, Logan said the historic building is a good example of displaying qualities that reflect the unique architecture of the historical time period it was built in 1940. The distinct, rounded curve that stretches around the corner of the building is a prime example of a feature that had to remain to meet the requirements of the state and local preservation offices.
“They want to make the building look new and fresh so it’s rentable and attractive, but you don’t want to make the building stick out like a sore thumb either,” Logan said. “While some plans may not be ideal regarding the attempts to preserve the historic nature of a historic building, we would be happy to see an improvement and development of a building that’s been sitting empty for several years.”
While finding common ground during the reviewal process has made for some challenges among property owners seeking to drastically modernize their historic building, Logan reiterated Mitchell’s Historic Preservation Commission isn’t in the business of halting new developments just to see a building's historic nature be preserved.
“We’re trying to strike a balance between modern functionality, while keeping the historic integrity intact as much as possible,” Logan said. “We have some beautiful historic buildings on Main Street, and they’re an eccentric asset to downtown Mitchell.”
According to Putnam, there are historic districts mapped out in the city of Mitchell which include individual houses scattered throughout; the district with the most concentration of historic buildings is downtown Mitchell. There are roughly 42 historic buildings in the downtown historic district, which stretches from The Depot Pub and Grille northbound to East Seventh Avenue.
In 2013, the State Historic Preservation Office updated the city of Mitchell’s historic districts. Putnam said the criteria that the state’s historic office follows to deem which buildings become historic are the age of the building, unique architecture and whether the building had a notable figure occupy the property.
When a property owner of a historic building who is seeking to remodel meets the requirements outlined under the state and local preservation offices, it opens the door to grant funding opportunities through the State Historical Society. Chief among the grant funding options is the Deadwood Grant, which is a matching grant that allocates money toward historic preservation efforts.
“There are some great grant opportunities for those who meet the requirements and get recommendation,” Putnam said. “The incentives to maintain the historic nature of a building are there.”
Logan said some may be quick to think using older features like quartzite, which is what the exterior of Carnegie Resource Center is made of, will automatically be more expensive than modern material. But he’s witnessed some historic buildings see gains from maintaining the historic nature instead of opting to use modern material.
“Historic buildings tell a story, and preserving that story is what makes our Main Street unique,” he said.