Hamline-Midway Library denied historic designation

The St. Paul Heritage Preservation Commission met for nearly two hours on Monday to discuss whether to support adding the Hamline-Midway Library to the National Register of Historic Places. Members were sharply divided by what they perceived to be their appreciation for libraries, learning, and history.

The council essentially overruled the city HPC staff, who had backed the nomination of the 1930s building at to the intersection of Snelling and Minnehaha avenues for historic status, by voting 5-4 against the proposal.

The two-story library facility, one of the tiniest and most dilapidated locations in the city’s library system, is still up for debate after the vote. The modest reading room has nonetheless gained a following in the area because of its antiquity, striking red brick and limestone fa├žade, and arched doorway.

The National Register nomination, submitted by former HPC member Barbara Bezat, will be reviewed by the State Historic Preservation Office’s review board on August 16. However, the board will have to make a judgment without significant involvement from the city’s leading preservationists. The HPC voted 5-4 against notifying the state review board that they opposed Bezat’s candidacy after they decided not to support it.

Their extended divide essentially prevents them from speaking.

For the purpose of tearing down the building at 1558 Minnehaha Avenue and constructing a bigger, more accessible library better suited for distant study and other requirements of the modern period, library officials have already secured $8.1 million in city funds. Beth Burns, president of the Friends of the St. Paul Public Library, spoke to the HPC and passionately argued that the library’s basement hallway is so small that a wheelchair cannot turn around in place and that special events are held on a stage that resembles a church basement despite, not because of, the outdated design of the building.

Bezat has pushed for the building’s preservation along with a group of historical preservationists going by the name of “Renovate 1558.” Bezat admitted that the Collegiate Gothic architecture, three-sided bay window, and arched cement entryway of the library aren’t particularly representative of a specific era to merit National Register classification, but she said that the social history of the library was more significant.

Judge Henry Hale donated the city half of his fortune upon his passing in 1890 in order to build a library in his honor; 40 years later, Hamline-Midway and the first Merriam Park branch were built as Henry Hale Memorial Libraries. In 1917, the community set aside property and applied for a Carnegie Library, but it was not chosen.

HPC Commissioner Ethan Osten stated that practically every library in the nation might be described by its history, which involves community activism, gifts from a large estate, and visits by post-suffrage women’s groups.

HPC Commissioner Joseph Peroutka spoke in support of the proposal but admitted that even inclusion on the National Register might not prevent the library’s demolition.

“This project has been completely financed. According to my experience, fully funded projects still proceed despite any inconsistencies, Peroutka stated. “(A National Register nomination) would be a means to remember the building if it were to be destroyed, which does appear to be in the structure’s destiny as of right now.”

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