Four properties surrounding Lake Minnetonka — a former railroad foreman's house in Wayzata, a steamboat that once shuttled passengers around Lake Minnetonka, a century-old town hall in Minnetonka and the entire downtown commercial district in Excelsior — have been nominated for the National Register of Historic Places this year.
The four are among 25 National Register nominations from throughout Minnesota. By comparison, the lake's 14 cities have submitted just two over the past five years, said Ginny Way, architectural historian with the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO). The commercial historic district in Hopkins also has been nominated. "There has been an unusual amount of activity in the western suburbs this year," Way said.
The Wayzata foreman's house and the Minnetonka Town Hall already have won state and federal approval and now are listed on the National Register. The steamboat and downtown Excelsior will be considered by the state board in August.
A fifth lake-area property, the 85-year-old Island Park Village Hall in Mound, has been deemed eligible for consideration by preservation office, and a recent inspection found it to be sound, said Holly Thumann of the Island Park Village Hall Preservation Society. The group is raising money to restore the building but has not decided whether to seek placement on the register.
Getting a property on the National Register is a complex, multistep process. Nomination forms run dozens of pages, often based on research by a hired consultant.
If the SHPO deems the property eligible, it is reviewed by the Minnesota State Historic Preservation Review Board. Once those hurdles are cleared, the property goes for final OK to the National Park Service, which administers the National Register.
Why the sudden burst of historical appreciation? One reason could be a 20% state tax credit available for work on National Register properties, which might be extended beyond its end date of June 30. A 20% federal tax credit is also available for restoration work.
A National Register listing can open opportunities for restoration grants. A property listed on the register carries "a level of prestige," said Aaron Person, president of the Wayzata Historical Society.
"And it puts the history in the public record — it's there forever," he said.
Contrary to popular belief, Person said, if you own a structure on the National Register, you're not prohibited by the feds from altering it.
But don't try that in Excelsior. Any alteration of the exteriors of buildings on the local historic register, which includes downtown buildings and some houses, must be approved by the city's Heritage Preservation Commission. The commission strictly enforces rules requiring alterations to conform to the building's original appearance.
When reviewing construction proposals, the commission "considers no aspects other than the historical value of the property," said chairman Mark Macpherson. "We are not concerned with the owner's willingness to do it."
Consequently, though interiors in downtown Excelsior have changed dramatically over the years — stores that once sold such everyday items as hardware or aspirin now house boutiques, gift shops and upscale restaurants — the city's streetscape looks much as it did in the early 20th century. The district is scheduled to go before the state review board in August.
Also scheduled for review in August is the Steamboat Minnehaha, built in 1906 and stored in Excelsior. It was one of seven identical "streetcar boats" that ferried commuters back and forth from cities on Lake Minnetonka in the days before cars. Scuttled in 1926, the Minnehaha was raised from the bottom of the lake in 1980, restored and returned to service as a tour boat from 1996 to 2019. It hasn't been in the water since then.
Already approved for the register:
The Section Foreman House in Wayzata, a 119-year-old building that housed railroad section foremen and their families until the Great Northern Railway retired the structure in 1962. Locals plan to restore the house and include it in plans for a lakeside park.
The Minnetonka Town Hall, near what is now Minnetonka Boulevard, was "the most elaborate structure of its kind in rural Hennepin County" when it was built in 1906, according to the nomination submitted by nearby Mills Church. According to the listing, the classical revival structure symbolized "Minnetonka's long-frustrated, but eventually successful, political aspirations for municipal status."