Local historian and author Kristina Gray, who authored many series of articles on the history of Crookston and the region for the Times over several years, passed away unexpectedly in May 2018. Her mother, Lucile Torkelson, came across the following story Kristina wrote on November 5, 2017 and submitted it to the Times. “She was so passionate about her hometown,” said Lucile. “Her death was a loss to all of us.”
From the movie “Field of Dreams” the main character had in mind to build a baseball diamond out of a cornfield, his driving force was “Build it and they will come.” The superstar players from the past did appear, but it was simply ghosts from the past. The sad reality is that Crookston’s many old buildings have been built and “they” have left. There is nothing fictional about our beautiful old structures, but then there is a truth to grapple with that we do not have the energetic, industrious people from yesteryear either. The sad truth is that many people who enjoyed the prosperity of the baby boom years live elsewhere or even earlier from a century ago have passed on. Interestingly enough, those of us who remain in the Crookston area wonder if retaining and maintaining these beautiful old structures will bring some people back? I leave it for you to decide with either donating to a cause of restoring an old building or volunteering hours where and when it is needed. Here are my answers to three relevant questions about Crookston’s buildings.
What (in your opinion) are the benefits of keeping and maintaining historic buildings in a community?
The benefits could be for possible tourism if the downtown properties and buildings are attractive for potential shoppers. Also, for nostalgia’s sake, some people like to see architecture from yesteryear because buildings built over a century ago were meant to last a long time. Obviously, there are a few who think that newer is better, thus old is to be demolished. These days, modern structures look like the Big Box style which were made cheaply and their anticipated lifespan is about 20-30 years. Some older buildings might be cultural touchstones that provide historical significance to the town’s development. The Grand Theater is a prime example of that.
I believe Crookston built up in the late 1890s and early 1900s as a way to show that the town was prosperous. Also, people who lived there for a length of time needed to have a sense of pride in the town’s architecture. The original grandeur of many of the buildings was meant to impress. These buildings were built with the intention to last many generations. Some buildings were patterned to look similar to European models or East Coast structures. In the early days of Minnesota, our new found state was considered a wilderness territory. Therefore, we have a state capitol in St. Paul that was supposed to dispel those thoughts from people out East thinking Minnesota was too primitive.
The different nationalities represented in Crookston felt it was important to have sophisticated looking buildings such as our post office, armory, library, high school and other elementary schools. The hotels and churches built back in those days had their own budgets to work within, but the community funded buildings showed growth and achievement. Crookston did not have the money like the Twin Cities did so besides simplicity, craftsmanship and honest use of materials was important. Each building needed to be efficient for heating in the winter but having enough windows to use natural lighting during the day.
The hotels and other downtown businesses needed to be built to look like their business was better than their competitor’s place of business. Having two brick factories in Crookston, helped defray some of the costs of the many buildings that were built to last. Also, neighboring towns had tragic fires because they built their businesses with wood. Any fire in the early days amounted to having a quick team of volunteer fire fighters to come to rescue but strong winds could decimate a whole downtown in a short period of time. We only have to look at what happened to Fisher’s business section in the early 1900s to know this to be true.
Crookston has buildings that are unique in appearance such as the old Cathedral, but also the old Methodist church right across the street. They have been replaced by newer structures, one expanded and the other downsized due to the number of people who were attending. Changing locations in order to expand was what St. Paul’s Lutheran church did from their more central location to downtown. Trinity Lutheran church has expanded since it was flooded in 1950 but stayed in nearly the same location. Churches were built to be stately or picturesque with stained glass windows and beautiful sanctuaries. Banks, on the other hand, were more about security and keeping people’s money safe. Earlier banks conveyed prosperity with old style arches but were more conservative in nature. The hotels like the Palace (Wayne) Hotel and Crookston Hotel had architects make them look more imposing and bigger than they actually were.
Therefore, with the differences in buildings and their purposes, you have different opinions about what should be dismantled or what should be updated and restored. There are two things to consider first. First, the public structures built with taxpayer money. Second, there are the private places like hotels, businesses and churches that result from how much they make in their business or what people in a given church are willing to spend.
What could be some of the downfalls of keeping and maintaining historic buildings?
The disadvantages of maintaining old historic buildings is that the people who support the upkeep are no longer living or have little energy to volunteer their service to upgrade. OR, they don’t have the money to support restoring the structures. Some were originally built from private monies, others were publically funded through tax payer money.
Another disadvantage is that people may be very nostalgic about certain old buildings but they no longer live in the community anymore. They also may return for a visit to Crookston to view it after many years away and have an opinion that nobody is taking care of the buildings. The problem Crookston people have been “blessed” with is that we had some boom years of growth and we had money in this small town that was meant to be the county seat. Back in the early days, as a community it led the way for the early settlers who came to homestead over a century ago. From what I have read, some buildings were very difficult to get money for, such as the old Armory on North Broadway. But it eventually happened and served many people.
Those heydays of movement and energy are over. People have moved away from the agrarian lifestyle, the small farms have gotten bigger. We have not only had a depopulating of the rural areas but also in town. Our growth with young people has diminished to having only TWO elementary schools (Washington and Highland) where we used to have six (Washington, Lincoln, Carmen, Eugene Field, McKinley and Franklin.) That is not counting the Catholic schools that were running simultaneous to the public schools.
Therefore, we do NOT have the people who can help to keep buildings open and maintain them for any length of time. It takes money to update and refurbish old buildings such as paying for electricity, water, heat, A/C to name a few of the things that are necessary. That is not counting insurance and property taxes and necessary people to open and lock up the buildings once back to being usable again. Can we afford to have someone keep the Carnegie building open every day for different art displays, lectures, theater, musical concerts, etc.? All events are accomplished at the Carnegie these last five years with mostly volunteer hours and free will donations.
We need people to invest in old buildings as Jeff Evers has with the old Fournet building. Will he find the people to rent this large building and help cover the costs that he will put in to provide an elevator? To make it structurally sound again and have it meet building codes that are in place now that didn’t exist when it was built? We need MORE Jeff Evers type people who are forward thinking.
Are there any types of historic buildings that a community should try to keep and maintain?
Personally, I think the money and people support must exist FIRST for any historic building to be kept and maintained. If it is falling apart or imploding from within because the roof was not repaired in time (Wayne Hotel is an example), then it is time to take that structure down.
If people want to preserve the Cathedral as is, but are not coming forward to provide money or expertise in how it can be energy efficient and last a long time, then that is NOT good for the community to maintain it. However, I think in order to restore an iconic image of the Crookston skyline with the three steeples means that a compromise has to happen. Someone has to find money to buttress the three steeples for safety reasons but take out the rest of the building. There are a number of other auditoriums in the city such as at the high school or at UMC’s campus at Kiehle auditorium. Adding the Cathedral as a place for performances is a burden on the community. That was a structure that was NOT paid with by the community, it was built by the private donations of the Catholic church. The church deconsecrated it at a certain time and moved their congregation into a bigger sanctuary on the east side of town. If we maintain the front façade of the Cathedral still for photo shoots or outdoor theater, then we have reached a compromise that is fiscally sound.
The Grand Theater has been privately owned and the new owners made changes with taking out the balcony in order to make it more cost effective for heating and thus maintain it. The Armory on North Broadway is being used for storage. The old Methodist church is in sad disrepair with leaks happening because the owner perhaps does NOT have the money to repair the roof. The very well built Post Office is a government building and still in use. Perhaps in time that will change as people rely less on the postal service and more on Internet communication. I believe that public building needs to be maintained and perhaps with community funds to find another purpose for it, if it should come to that.
Many of the older brick structures, such as where the McKinnon brothers in the earliest days first built, on Robert Street and Main are still solid structures. That is where Paint and Glass has their business while next door the old IOOF building that used to be the S&L store remains empty of business, maybe used for storage. The old Elks Lodge on Main street was built with the finest of materials, that should be kept and maintained. But who will pay for the upkeep and the heating costs? Private individuals do maintain those buildings perhaps for nostalgia’s sake but how long will that last?
You can NOT save all of the old buildings in Crookston because it takes people power AND money! I would love to see all of them saved but then I would be asking for a new influx of people and a kind of busyness in our small town that we are not used to seeing. Do we want to have many tourists and outsiders coming to this town? If we want to preserve old buildings we need to have new people with new ideas on how to do just that.