The quest for a spot on the National Register of Historic Places for the Hamline Midway Branch Library moved one step ahead on Nov. 15, 2022. Minnesota’s State Historic Preservation Review Board voted unanimously 11-0 to forward the nomination of what is formally known as the Henry Hale Memorial Library, Hamline Branch, for register status.
The nomination for the 1930-era building was forwarded to the Keeper of the National Register of Historic Places. The keeper, housed in the National Park Service, will make a decision on a register listing with 45 days of the state board’s recommendation.
While the state-level decision doesn’t mean the library will be saved from the city’s plans for demolition and a new building, it does add a layer of complexity to what happens next. It could delay demolition and force more extensive structure documentation before it is demolished. Plans call for the building to be torn down in the spring and construction started after that.
Preservationists hope the state recommendation adds to their arguments that the building can be saved and renovated, rather than replaced with a new $8.1 million structure. But the preservation-focused group, Renovate 1558, noted the whole matter could end up in court as city officials continue to fight for demolition.
The group’s name comes from the library’s address at 1558 Minnehaha Ave.
“Sadly, at (the) meeting, the city of St. Paul continued to assert that our nomination should not have been considered by the State Board despite the National Park Service, keeper of the National Register, having granted our appeal and rejected the city’s argument that the Heritage Preservation Commission had voted against the nomination when the HPC had actually voted to take no position on the nomination,” the group said in an online post.
Renovate 1558 is holding out hope that state and possible federal decision could open the doors to renewed discussion of library plans. The group last stated, “A NRHP listing would also call into question the city’s claim that a new Hamline Library is about ‘equity,’ given that a renovated building would potentially free up significant money to serve the needs of libraries in our more marginalized neighborhoods.”
The review board got more than 70 letters for and against library preservation. Only one person, Barb Sporlein, spoke. She until recently had served as interim library director, but stepped down days after the hearing. Sporlein at one point expressed surprised that the board would go against Mayor Melvin Carter’s wishes.
The arguments for preservation are based not on architecture but on the library’s place in the neighborhood and context of how library served evolved in Hamline-Midway, the history of Judge Henry Hale and his bequest, and the years of work by community groups – especially women’s groups – to get a library built. Social and educational history can be considerations for National Register status. Carter, in a letter to the state board, described the history as being generic and typical of many other government buildings.
Researcher and former St. Paul Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) Chair Barbara Bezat wrote the nomination. She and Renovate 1558 pushed for the state review after the HPC made no recommendation.
Bezat cites two national trends when the library was planned and built. One was that of having a wealthy benefactor, like Hale.
“The second is the trend of women’s clubs to expand their work from ‘social’ activities (book readings, lectures on art and history, etc.) into work within the public sector,” the nomination stated.
Sporlein said the building doesn’t meet criteria for preservation and that its deteriorated condition creates “significant issues.” She also said a new structure would provide improved access, patron safety and more useful spaces for patrons and staff.
“This library does not have good bones,” she said.
Board members disagreed, as did state staff. They also pointed out that the task before them was quite specific: to determine if the library meets National Register criteria, not to listen to other arguments.
Board members urged preservation and possibly adaptive reuse. Board member Lindsey Dyer said the city could make accessibility improvements and renovate the building while keeping the building on the National Register.
“Once it’s gone, it’s gone forever,” said board member John Stark. Stark disputed Sporlein’s claims about the building’s conditions.
Board member Chris Schuelke said, “I was a little taken aback by the argument that claimed the history of the library was not unique enough to warrant preservation. Historical significance is not only embodied in the great architectural masterpieces but in more modest buildings like the library.”
No comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here