By Charlie Warner
Tuesday, June 5 will be “D-Day” of sorts for the 137-year-old former Houston County Jail. At their May 29 meeting, the county board once again discussed what should be done with the majestic limestone jail.
After throwing a number of options around, they agreed that come Tuesday, it will be “Decision Day.”
With the completion of the County Justice Center (CJC) last fall, the stately stone jail, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, has sat empty.
The county must keep some heat in the structure during the winter months and somewhat climate controlled during the summer.
Because the iron jail cells serve as the supporting walls, county staff is concerned if the building isn’t kept somewhat climate controlled, the cells will rust away and the building will collapse. Staff is also concerned that pieces of the ancient wooded facia, which is rotting, could fall on persons walking past the building below.
With the county’s purchase of the former Meyer Furniture Building several years ago, and the completion of the CJC, the county really doesn’t need any more office or storage space.
One of the issues discussed at the May 29 meeting was what types of hoops and how many the county might be forced to jump through to receive approval to tear the old jail down.
The following is a letter sent to County Auditor Char Meiners from Mary Ann Heidemann, manager of Government Programs and Compliance with the State Historic Preservation Office.
Dear Ms. Meiners:
My boss, Barbara Howard, has asked me to respond to your recent e-mail concerning the old Houston County Jail, which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Your first question was how to remove the building from the National Register.
Federal Regulations adopted under the National Historic Preservation Act do provide a process to remove buildings from the list, but I suspect your building will not be a good candidate for removal.
Essentially, the building must have lost the characteristics for which it was listed in the first place, and from a quick review, I don’t believe that to be the case here.
However, you are welcome to follow the process outlined in the attached document. The National Register Historian in this office would make comments, as would the Minnesota State Review Board and the final decision would be made in Washington by the Keeper of the Register.
More to the point, the Houston County Board needs to know the laws related to proposed demolition of a National Register structure. If the proposed demolition would use state or federal funding, or require a state or federal permit, the project would need to be submitted to this office for review under either the Minnesota Historic Sites Act and/or the National Historic Preservation Act.
Even if no state or federal funding or permits are needed, the county as the responsible governmental unit for this action will still need to prepare an environmental assessment worksheet (EAW) under requirements of the Minnesota Environmental Rights Act. Demolition, in whole or in part, of a National Register property, triggers an automatic EAW requirement under the Environmental Rights Act.
Although the Minnesota Historical Society comments on EAWs involving demolition of Register buildings, we do not administer the Environmental Rights Act. That is done by the Environmental Quality Board. For further information on the EAW requirement, you can contact Bob Patton, Executive Director of the Environmental Quality Board, at (651) 757-2870 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Please note that an EAW is required to be completed before reaching a final decision about the fate of the building. I am sure your county attorney can help you review and better understand these requirements.
While I understand the financial situation facing many Minnesota counties, it would be a great shame to demolish this structure and salvage the stone only. Before it comes to that, perhaps an alternative idea can be considered by the county board.
If the building has no current use for the county, I would recommend that it be marketed for long term lease or sale to other entities, for either non-profit or commercial adaptive re-use.
National Register buildings are potentially eligible to receive up to 40 percent of eligible rehabilitation costs in federal and state tax credits, if the building is used for income-producing purposes. This makes Register buildings very attractive to developers.
Even without an income-producing use, a Register building is eligible for other grants and incentives, including those established under Minnesota’s recent Arts and Cultural Heritage Program (Legacy grants). Legacy grants can be used, for example, to fund a re-use study and/or an historic structure report, that could be a first step towards productive utilization of the building by the county or other interested partners. The Legacy Grant contact in our office is Mandy Skapala and her phone number is 651-259-3458.
Thank you for contacting the Minnesota Historical Society about this matter. Feel free to call me at 651-259-3456 if you have additional questions.