What’s Worth Saving?

The contentious demolition of the Dewey-Radke House in Little Falls, Minnesota, on August 30, 2011, led to plenty of public outrage. Underneath the emotional outcry was a more complex question: What made this house worth saving?

Indeed, what makes any house or structure worth saving? This is the question we in the history field ask ourselves daily about every human artifact, whether it be a scrap of paper, curling iron, pair of jeans, newspaper, business building, bridge or house. What are our criteria for deciding what gets saved? Do we only save Old stuff or Important stuff, the stuff of the Wealthy and Influential?

If we had unlimited space, time and resources, this question would be an easy one to answer. We’d save everything. That, however, isn’t practical. Even if we could manage to save everything, life would conspire to keep us from doing so. Fires break out (like the one at the Isanti County Historical Society in 2011), water reaches flood stage (in North Dakota and Northeastern United States in 2011), or tornados rip through a community (like in Wadena in 2010), undoing great chunks of our environment, even those precious things we’ve worked so hard to preserve. Disaster does not cater to our desires.

Natural and unnatural disasters aside, our limitations (time, space, resources) force us to make choices about what to save. Those choices must be made carefully because the work of preservation will demand that we use plenty of time, space and resources to preserve whatever it is we’re trying to save for as long as possible. We’ve got to be committed and we’ve got to make the “right” decision. We don’t want to live with regret.

At the Morrison County Historical Society, our mission narrows down what we will preserve, but not by much. We concentrate on saving the history of Morrison County, whatever form that might take. Of course, we can’t shrink all of Morrison County down so that it will fit inside The Charles A. Weyerhaeuser Memorial Museum, so we must instead save items that are small, representative, and densely packed with information. Documents and photographs fit these requirements beautifully and we’ve collected an entire archive of them. We also collect artifacts and they, too, must meet our criteria of being small (certainly small enough to fit in the building and be easy to move), representative (we don’t need 52 typewriters when one or two will do), and densely packed with information (we look at the provenance or history of a piece to determine how many stories it can tell).

Those are some of our criteria, but what about saving Old, Important stuff that belonged to the Wealthy and Influential? We certainly save some of that, but we don’t discount the new (which will eventually be old), apparently unimportant stuff (which may be more important than initially estimated), or items that belonged to the poor or powerless. History is a conglomeration of all manner of human activity and if we only tell the Really Impressive Stories, we would be missing a lot of history.

In the end, we carefully analyze each item offered to MCHS and make a case-by-case determination for whether it belongs in the collection. Sometimes, the determination comes down to a judgment call or gut feeling. If an item meets our criteria and we feel we can properly care for it, it is deemed worthy of preservation, as vague as that may seem.

Our communities do the same sort of analysis when it comes to historic sites like the Dewey-Radke House. While the families who owned the home were regular people, just like those who own most of the historic homes in Morrison County, what made this home iconic was its attractive architecture and location among the virgin pines of Pine Grove Park.

The uproar following the demolition of the Dewey-Radke House was not in evidence during the demolition of the Kiewel Brewery on Northeast Seventh Street in Little Falls in 1983. The brewery, like the Dewey-Radke House, had an impressive façade covered in Little Falls yellow brick, but, also like the Dewey-Radke, it had fallen into disrepair and renovation was considered “impractical and cost prohibitive.” (Little Falls Daily Transcript, November 30, 1982) People were also happy to see the demolition of Hennepin Paper Mill, which quickly became an “eyesore” after the plant closed in 1998 and was no longer employing a sizeable number of workers. Nary a peep was made about the demolition of the Little Falls water tower next to City Hall, even though it was as visually iconic as the Dewey-Radke House. Nor was a fuss made over the destruction of the Central Office Building (old Central High School) in Little Falls or Theodore Mattson’s home near the Little Falls Dam. The latter was a great example of a home still operating without electricity at the time of its demolition.

Meanwhile, concerned citizens have managed to save the Cass Gilbert Depot, Historic Morrison County Courthouse, Buckman Building, Our Lady of the Angels Academy in Belle Prairie, Bowlus City Hall, most of the facades on the historic buildings in downtown Little Falls, and many, many other historic homes and structures throughout the county.

Continual maintenance and possibilities for adaptive reuse seem to be critical criteria in deciding whether to save large historic structures. A structure allowed to remain in a state of disuse for even a few years is one that people will have a harder time preserving because of the resources it will take to restore it, though it is not an impossible situation. Even if a structure can be restored, it must have some use to an organization or community or it will slump back into a state of disrepair.

While communities often make the same kinds of judgment calls about saving historic structures that MCHS makes about individual artifacts, we both have to be cognizant of one other factor: Keeping useful resources out of landfills. This points out another complexity of preservation. Our standards and reasons for what to save keep changing, which make preservation an open-ended discussion.

-Mary Warner, MCHS Museum Manager

This article was first published in the Morrison County Historical Society newsletter, Vol. 24, No. 3, 2011.

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