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Friday, 30 June 2017 10:58

Old building, new spotlight: Whitewater wrestles with preservation

Written by  Lynn Greene

WALWORTH COUNTY SUNDAY -- A library is more than a collection of books; it’s a place to read, to access the internet, to borrow music and movies and a place for children to grow socially and intellectually. It’s a place outside of home and work where you choose to spend your time. So, when a library outgrows its space, you’d think everyone would be for its expansion, right?

 Yes. Sort of. But not at the expense of our past, said a collection of concerned Whitewater citizens. That’s not to say they don’t recognize the need for a library expansion.


 “Libraries have changed more in the past 25 years than in all of the 200 years before that,” explained Stacey Lunsford, director of Whitewater’s Irvin L. Young Library since 2001. “This library was built in the late ’80s and it doesn’t meet the needs of the 21st century.”

 Actually, the library has been working on an expansion process since 2003. The library board has been in contact with two architectural firms. One developer, Troy Hoekstra of United Development Solutions of St. Cloud, Minnesota, indicated interest in developing a proposal for a mixed-use facility -- a library combined with retail and a medical facility. In March, Hoekstra met with the Whitewater City Council to discuss such a development that might be located on the site of the former Green Shutters Tea Room, now a Mercyhealth clinic.

The Green Shutters building, 507 W. Main St., also known as the J.J. Starin House, has been listed on Whitewater’s Main Street Historic District, through the auspices of the landmarks commission since 1985. The commission, formed in 1982, exists to protect, enhance and perpetuate the use of historically significant properties in the city. Currently, Whitewater’s Municipal Code Title 17 protects these local landmarks.

 “So many of these old structures were demolished over the years,” said Carol Cartwright, who sits on the Whitewater Historical Society Board of Directors. “Whitewater has lost so many of those grand old 19th century buildings along Main Street; it’s important to protect what’s left, and the Green Shutters building is really the anchor to that Main Street district.”

 The J.J. Starin House, built in 1860 for an early Whitewater resident, was in the Jacob Starin family for three generations before being converted to a tea room in the 1920s. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. These designations should ensure the building’s future life, but when a Whitewater City Council member made a comment about rewriting the municipal code to allow development on the site, despite the historic designation, the Save Our Shutters committee formed.

 Kori Oberle, a Whitewater resident and former landmarks commission member, is the driving force behind the Save Our Shutters effort.

“The Green Shutters is the anchor to the Main Street Historic District,” Oberle said. “It’s in excellent condition; we have to give Mercy ... credit for maintaining the property so well.”

 Just down Main Street from the Green Shutters is the historic White Building and Birge Fountain, both among the 19 sites listed as local landmarks by the landmarks commission.   Ironically, the White building housed the Whitewater Free Library from 1902 through 1992, before the new Irvin L. Young library was built. It is a good example of repurposing a historic structure; it now houses the Cultural Arts Center and is home to the Whitewater Public Television station.

 Another example of repurposing these old structures is the home of the Whitewater Historical Society. Since 1974, the WHS museum has been housed in the old Whitewater Passenger Depot, built in 1890 and listed as a Whitewater landmark building.

 At a May public forum held by the library board of trustees, the case was made for the library expansion. At the time, the Green Shutters site was part of the discussion even though no formal proposal had been given or received.

 “As long as it (the Green Shutters site) is being mentioned as a possibility for development it’s in the public eye and a good time to make people aware of these historic properties and the threats they face,” Oberle said. “Yes, the library needs to be expanded, but not at this site.”

Patricia Blackmer, chairwoman of the Whitewater Landmarks Commission, said it’s important to bring the next generation into the loop about local history. To that end, the commission held a historical building related program at the library for youngsters and their parents. (See photos on preceding page.)

“We need to instill a sense of history in them so they will be more apt to protect their history,”  Blackmer said.

 Marion Burrows, a Whitewater resident since 1965 and a supporter of the Save Our Shutters effort, agreed.

“There’s a lot of white hair at these events; we need to get the younger generation involved,” Burrows said.

 Burrows is concerned about losing that link to the past, but said there are a couple of points to be made concerning Green Shutters.

“Point one is this is a local landmark that needs to be preserved. Point two is that is the worst possible intersection for the type of development they’re proposing,” she said. “There is so much good in this place; we love Whitewater and the fact that its past is still visible. We need to keep that.”

The good news for the group is that a June 13 library board meeting revealed that United Development Solutions is no longer considering the Green Shutters site for a mixed-use development. So, for now, an imminent danger has passed.

 In Whitewater, as in most municipalities, there is a process followed before development takes place. First, any plan must fit the zoning and ordinance guidelines. A public hearing is held before the Whitewater Planning and Architectural Review Commission, which then sends its recommendations to the Whitewater Common Council for review.

 According to the Save Our Shutters organizers, the problem is when people forget the importance of getting involved. In the blink of an eye, 157 years of history can be lost, never to be replaced.

 “We’ve lost enough of Whitewater’s landmarks,” Oberle said. “We’re standing firm on this one.”


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