There has been a lot of community discussion and concern since the Sauer Memorial Home board of directors announced last fall that they were going to close and sell the Lamberton residence. Most of the discussion has centered around the community's concern about who will buy this property and what will they do with it. Publicly, the Winona Heritage Preservation Commission launched an effort to designate the Huff-Lamberton and Watkins Home properties to the local historic register, giving them some protection not afforded under the National Register designation they already enjoy. There are only a handful of properties in the community that can generate this kind of concern from the mayor and council down to the average citizen. We have all seen this before, most recently with the Winona County Courthouse, and perhaps the Winona Opera House.
I think it needs to be clearly pointed out that the Sauer Memorial Home has done a fine job during the past 25 years renovating its property into a limited-care facility and being good stewards of this valuable community asset. In several conversations with the home's administrator, Grant Brandon, and board president, Bob Skeels, it's obvious their decision was a difficult business decision and that their intent is to sell the home to someone who will be interested in maintaining the home's historic character. Without the effort and resources the Sauer Home invested in this property, it is likely that the home would no longer be standing today. The same can be said for the Watkins Home.
Henry Huff built the Huff-Lamberton Home in 1858 at a time when Winona had only a few hundred people living mostly in wood frame buildings nestled along the Mississippi River. Huff was a promoter who had a vision that Winona would grow and prosper. Minnesota had just become a state, the Winona Normal School (WSU) was just chartered, and the first shots of the Civil War were still three years away. After Huff, attorney and investor Henry Lamberton and his family owned the home for 90 years. It then became an orphanage and then an assisted-living facility. It is everyone's wishes that the next owners respect the history and architecture of the home as much as the previous owners have during the past almost 150 years.
As it stands now, whoever eventually owns these properties could conceivably get a demolition permit and within a relatively short period of time have the home torn down. Obviously, the Sauer Memorial Home and Winona Health are not going to do this, but without the local designation in place, a future owner could decide that the property is more valuable than the buildings and the community could drive by modern townhouses or an apartment building on the site.
Winona is at a crossroads. With the arrival of the Great River Shakespeare Festival, the soon-to-open Minnesota Marine Art Museum, and addition to the other fine attractions already in place like the Winona County Historical Museum, the Polish Museum, and our outstanding Victorian and Prairie School architecture, Winona can, and I'm sure will, become more of a destination for tourists than it already is. There is more interest in downtown Winona than I've seen in the more than 20 years I've lived in the city. This won't happen if we let one of our most important resources, our historic buildings, continue to be destroyed. I don't think it's a case of "too little, too late" as some have suggested - yet.
The Winona Heritage Preservation Commission was established in 1989 to decide locally what is important and should be preserved. It's only logical that the commission would initiate these nominations and that the city council would approve them.
The Huff-Lamberton and Watkins Home are community assets worth preserving. Thanks, Sauer Memorial Home and Winona Health, for your excellent stewardship.
Mark Peterson is the executive director of the Winona County Historical Society and a member of the Winona Heritage Preservation
Guest views are opinions of the author and don't necessarily reflect the views of the Winona Daily News. They are published to stimulate thought and to provide an expanded forum on issues of local interest.