Heavily divided by what members deemed to be their appreciation for libraries, learning and history, the St. Paul Heritage Preservation Commission met for nearly two hours on Monday to consider whether to support adding the Hamline-Midway Library to the National Register of Historic Places.
In the end, they voted 5-4 against the recommendation, effectively overruling city HPC staff, which had supported nominating the 1930s-era structure near the intersection of Snelling and Minnehaha avenues for historic status.
The vote does not end the long saga over the future of the two-level library building, one of the smallest and most outdated destinations in the city’s library system. The cozy reading room has nonetheless captured a neighborhood following thanks to its age, arched entryway and distinctive red brick and limestone façade.
On Aug. 16, the State Historic Preservation Office’s review board will consider the National Register nomination, authored by former HPC member Barbara Bezat, but will have to formulate a decision without major input from the city’s primary advocates for historic preservation. Following their decision not to back Bezat’s nomination, the HPC voted 5-4 on Monday against informing the state review board they oppose the nomination.
In effect, their protracted division keeps them silent.
Library officials have already acquired $8.1 million in city funding to demolish the structure at 1558 Minnehaha Ave. and build a larger, more accessible library better equipped for remote learning and other demands of the modern era. Addressing the HPC, Beth Burns, president of the Friends of the St. Paul Public Library, passionately described how the library’s basement hallway is so narrow a wheelchair cannot turn around in place, and special events take place on a church basement-like stage despite the building’s outdated layout, not because of it.
Bezat and a coalition of historic preservationists, dubbing themselves “Renovate 1558,” have advocated for the building’s preservation. Bezat acknowledged that the library’s Collegiate Gothic architecture, three-sided bay window and arched cement door aren’t so indicative of a particular time period to qualify for National Register status, but she said the library’s social history had greater significance.
Upon his death in 1890, Judge Henry Hale left the city half his estate to construct a library in his memory, and Hamline-Midway and the original Merriam Park branch were erected as Henry Hale Memorial Libraries 40 years later. The neighborhood had set aside land in 1917 and petitioned for a Carnegie Library but was not selected.
HPC Commissioner Ethan Osten noted that history — which includes community advocacy, donations from a wealthy estate and library visits by post-suffrage women’s groups — could describe virtually any library in the country.
While arguing in favor of the nomination, HPC Commissioner Joseph Peroutka acknowledged that even being added to the National Register would not necessarily save the library from demolition.
“This is a fully-funded project. It’s been my experience that fully-funded projects go through regardless of their contradictions,” Peroutka said. “If the building is demolished — and that does look like its future as of right now — (a National Register nomination) would be a way to memorialize it.”