As new construction projects rise in downtown Rochester for an ambitious Mayo Clinic expansion, a group of people who fear the loss of historic buildings has redoubled efforts to save them.
A consultant will soon deliver an interim report that makes the case for creating a historic district in downtown Rochester, a move that some preservationists hope will be a bulwark to protect historic buildings from the red-hot property market that Mayo's expansion has created.
Meanwhile, emboldened by a new historic preservation ordinance that was years in the making, the city's Heritage Preservation Commission, which itself is only four years old, will hold a first-of-its-kind public hearing next month to determine if a local hotel building warrants historic designation.
And local historians like John Kruesel, an antiques dealer, and Kevin Lund, a local district court judge, have given public talks listing the buildings that have been lost to sudden demolitions to help others see the value in preservation.
It's a change from years past, when most of the city allowed the Mayo Clinic to operate as it pleased, even if that meant losing an architectural gem for the sake of a parking lot, said Kruesel.
"The power brokers of this community did not want to have any speed bumps in the road," he said.
Rochester today has 15 properties on the National Register of Historic Places, several of which have ties to the Mayo Clinic. Those properties are well-known, but preservationists say another crop of lesser-known buildings could be in jeopardy as market values and the long-term plans of the Mayo Clinic drive a slate of new development in the downtown core.
A city-generated inventory of notable buildings includes some 13 "landmark" properties and an additional 61 properties under consideration for landmark status. There would be even more properties on the potential list, but 32 of them face some sort of challenge either from their owner or for other reasons and will be the subject of future public hearings by the Historic Preservation Commission.
It's a discussion welcomed by people like Lund, the judge.
"There's a different level of awareness than there was 10 years ago," he said. A sometimes guide who takes people on walking tours to show off the city's history, Lund said he's concerned that too many locals imagine a future for Rochester of "projected relentless development."
First test coming
Lund served on a precursor to the city's Historic Preservation Commission in the 1980s and drafted a historic preservation ordinance at the request of a City Council member. It was rejected. More than 30 years later, a similar ordinance finally passed and was made into local law in December.
One of the new ordinance's first tests comes next month when the Historic Preservation Commission will hold a public hearing to determine if the former Carlton Hotel, now home to a Days Inn, merits designation as a historic property.
"If the Carlton is not protected, I believe it will be demolished," said E. Christine Schultze, the chair of the Historic Preservation Commission. Even if her group designates a property as historic, it doesn't mean it will be spared from demolition, she explained. A historic designation requires that a property owner make a case that demolition is the only option, something that can take an "amazing amount of information."
The commission's work will soon include another initiative when a consultant, PVN Works, reports back in coming weeks evaluating the creation of a downtown historic district. The city is already home to two historic districts, both of them Mayo-related, but some of the older, two-story commercial buildings downtown don't yet have any recognition.
The four-to-five block area would include the Carlton.
On paper, at least, the Mayo Clinic's expansion plan supports historic preservation. The plan, known as Destination Medical Center, outlines a multibillion-dollar, 20-year path to enlarge Mayo's campus and rebuild Rochester's downtown into a destination in its own right.
A lengthy document that spells out the ideas behind the expansion includes a short section on historic preservation, saying the hospital should work with the city to identify historic assets and balance development with preservation.
A Mayo spokesman was not immediately available Friday to discuss the hospital's approach, but the clinic has been negotiating with the Historic Preservation Commission as it assembles its historic list.
The clinic has challenged three Mayo properties for inclusion on the list, including the Rochester Travelers Hotel, which the clinic purchased in 2001, and two additions to the old Lourdes High School, which the clinic purchased in 2013.
Those properties could become the subject of future public hearings, and for locals with long memories of past Mayo buildings that were razed without public comment, that's at least a change for the better.
Barry Skolnick, a community activist and history buff who moved to Rochester as an adult, said he knows some of the city's architectural past only from pictures.
"We've knocked down a lot of our heritage," he said.