Little Falls Demonstrates, Again, That It Won’t Commit to Preservation

By Erin Hanafin Berg, Policy Director



Exterior of Hurrle Hall in Little Falls, MN

In June, the Little Falls Heritage Preservation Commission voted unanimously to approve the demolition of a local historic landmark. The Friends of Hurrle Hall is a community advocacy group that has been trying to influence the owners of the building, the Franciscan Sisters of Little Falls, to sell and reuse the building instead. Friends of Hurrle Hall appealed the HPC’s decision to the Little Falls City Council. The Little Falls City Council held a public hearing to hear that appeal on June 20, 2022. I attended that meeting to assist the Friends of Hurrle Hall in their advocacy efforts and was one of several people who spoke against demolition. Following are the prepared remarks I delivered to the City Council. You can click here to watch a recording of the hearing, including my ad-libbed references to the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards (which is essentially the Hippocratic Oath of preservation), other speakers’ support for preserving Hurrle Hall, and the questioning of the City Council members.

Exterior of Hurrle Hall in Little Falls, MN

My name is Erin Hanafin Berg, I am the policy director and deputy director at Rethos: Places Reimagined, a non-profit organization with a mission to connect people to historic places and promote community vitality. I hold a masters degree in historic preservation and have worked as a professional in this field since 1997. I served as a staff member to a historic landmarks commission for the first seven years of my career, and was on the board of the National Alliance of Preservation Commission for four years. I have been familiar with Hurrle Hall since 2015, when the State Historic Preservation Office held its annual Preserve Minnesota conference on the campus of the Franciscan Sisters of Little Falls and the building was first proposed for demolition.


In the document that was submitted to the Little Falls HPC that summarized the events over the past twenty years concerning the future of Hurrle Hall, one key piece of information was left out – that the building was listed as a historic landmark by the City of Little Falls Heritage Preservation Commission, presumably in 2003 or 2004. I have in our files a copy of a letter dated Christmas Eve, 2002 from the Deputy SHPO, Brita Blomberg, acknowledging the building’s historic significance and stating that Hurrle Hall is worthy of local designation under the city’s historic preservation ordinance. At least as recently as 2015, there was an oval plaque on the exterior of Hurrle Hall, right next to the main entrance, that read “This property recognized by Heritage Preservation Commission, Little Falls Historic Landmark, Built 1891.”


The Little Falls Heritage Preservation Ordinance states that QUOTE “the city shall review all applications for a demolition permit to determine whether the affected property has been identified as a historic resource. If the city determines that the property is a historic resource, the heritage preservation commission may withhold a demolition permit for a period of up to ninety (90) days.” END QUOTE The fact that Hurrle Hall is a historic resource cannot be in dispute. It has been designated as such by the Little Falls HPC and has been found to be eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places. As to the following sentence of the ordinance, there is some ambiguity around the word MAY. The ordinance does not say that the HPC May OPTION 1 or OPTION 2. The only option outlined is for the HPC to withhold a demolition permit for a period of up to ninety days. Based on my understanding of similar ordinances, I believe that this is a directive statement in the city code, stating that this is the only course of action that should have been taken by the Little Falls HPC - that rather than approving the demolition outright, as they did at their meeting on June 6, they should have determined a length of time, up to 90 days, during which time alternatives to demolition could be explored.


We are confident that alternatives to demolition do exist. As has already been stated at the HPC meeting and before this body, there is a need for housing in this community, and Hurrle Hall would likely be a good candidate for reuse. Over the past two to three years, we have seen successful examples of buildings of this scale that have been converted to apartments in New Ulm, Cloquet, and two in Winona. Similar projects are underway in International Falls, Duluth, and right here in the region in Eagle Bend. These deals do take time to pull together – and they take a willingness to partner with funders, community development entities, and the broader community at a level that the Sisters have seemed unwilling to consider.


Finally, as my organization was invoked several times by the Sisters’ attorney at the HPC meeting, I would like the opportunity to clarify our involvement. As I mentioned, I first became aware of the Sisters plans to demolish Hurrle Hall in the fall of 2015. I met with the Sisters a short time later and shared information about the public funds that could be available to help the Sisters pay for renovation and repairs and the tax credits that could help private developers rehabilitate the building for another use. My suggestions appeared to fall on deaf ears, and the Sisters’ leaders seemed very unwilling to engage with my organization or take advantage of the support we were offering. At the time that the Friends of Hurrle Hall settled their lawsuit with the Sisters, when the Sisters themselves agreed to pause the demolition plans, we offered our assistance again to help find a buyer for the building. But the Sisters themselves never listed the building for sale, stated a purchase price, or even articulated what kind of reuse plans they would be willing to consider. Nor, as I understand it, have they at any time contacted the City or HPC to ask for guidance, information, or assistance – which is ironic, as the City is the only other entity that has a codified interest in seeing Hurrle Hall preserved, by nature of its landmark designation. During the six years that there was radio silence from the Sisters on the matter of preservation they were apparently workingvwith consultant to draw up detailed plans for the building’s removal and the memorial garden in its place – all while ignoring the leaky hole in the roof of the building.


I have seen historic buildings in far worse condition that have been successfully rehabilitated and become economic and cultural anchors for their communities. Many city’s very existence and main economic engines are due to the fact that they chose preservation over demolition time and again – and with patience, hard work, and partnership, these historic places are now thriving. There is no reason that Hurrle Hall cannot be one such place – but the City must uphold its ordinance and help the Sisters seek assistance for it to stand a chance.


Thank you for your time and consideration.


Update: The Little Falls City Council voted unanimously on June 20, 2022 to uphold the HPC’s decision, giving the FSLF permission to proceed with demolition. Although the Friends of Hurrle Hall have continued to advocate for preservation, there are signs that demolition may be imminent – fencing has been erected around the perimeter of Hurrle Hall, and a construction trailer has been moved on site.

 
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