The Dakota County Historical Society and the County Board agree that the outdated Lawshe Memorial Museum in South St. Paul needs work. But they’re divided on whether to renovate the existing building or start from scratch somewhere else.
The history museum, which is operated by the Historical Society and owned by the county, was built in 1978. It’s been compared to everything from a gymnasium to an office building because of its nondescript exterior and inefficient interior. Between 2000 and 2010, visitorship dropped 25 percent while the county’s population grew more than 10 percent.
“I just think it’s so outdated,” said County Commissioner Liz Workman. “It seems to me like if you go to this museum once, you really don’t need to go back.”
The County Board’s physical development committee — which includes all seven board members — voted Tuesday to delay a decision on if and how to renovate the museum, pending additional information and funding options.
Outside architects put together a study, the final version of which was presented Tuesday, that offered up two renovation options to deal with issues including underused space, a lackluster front entrance and inaccessibility for people with disabilities.
The first option, with an estimated cost of $3.3 million, would retool exhibit space and move administrative offices from the second floor to the first, while repurposing the second floor for archive storage and research. The second option, which would cost an estimated $3.7 million, would leave administrative space upstairs and create a flexible exhibit area and “kids zone” on the first floor. Both options include accessibility updates.
The Historical Society’s board of trustees voted unanimously last month to include a third option: relocating the museum to the central part of the county. But that would cost more than $5 million, plus the price of land.
Historical Society staff members have pointed to limited parking and an uninviting exterior as reasons to leave the South St. Paul building behind. But Commissioner Nancy Schouweiler, who remembers going to the museum as a child when it was housed in the basement of City Hall, said she isn’t ready to give up on the existing site. “As much as it would be nice to have a new facility in the center of the county, I don’t know that that’s realistic,” she said.
The discussion is coming as the county welcomes new Historical Society director Matt Carter, who started the job earlier this month. His long-term vision for the nonprofit is likely to play into plans for the museum’s future.
Carter said he thinks the organization will benefit from upgrades whether the museum moves or not. He wants more exhibit space for the museum’s tens of thousands of objects and photographs, and facilities to boost student involvement.
“Hopefully, no matter what’s decided, people will still be able to come out and support the organization whether it’s here or a new location,” he said.