Johnston Hall

Johnston Hall looms over the entrance to District One Hospital. Monday night, the Heritage Preservation Commission voted to remove a major hurdle for any potential developer interested in reusing the historic building. (Daily News file photo)

In an effort to save Johnston Hall from demolition, the Heritage Preservation Commission voted to remove a time-consuming hurdle for a potential future developer.

Monday night, the group voted unanimously to spend $2,500 to fund the first part of the Historic Preservation Tax Credit Application. Tax credits from the federal government would help reduce the cost of re-purposing the historic building.

The application has three parts, the first of which is to evaluate the significance of the property inside and out. For Johnston Hall, finding historical significance shouldn’t be difficult.

Constructed in 1888, the building, on the National Register of Historic places, first served as the Seabury Divinity School where missionaries trained to work with American Indians, according to the Minnesota Historical Society. Its significance is due, in part, to its association with Episcopal Bishop Henry Benjamin Whipple, who founded a religious and educational movement aimed at working with American Indians. In addition, the building has architectural significance for its stonework and prominent bell tower.

The building’s owner, Allina Health/District One Hospital has said it intends to demolish the structure and is undergoing an environmental review process that’s needed before demolition can proceed. The review’s completion has been extended until June. However, hospital officials have said they’re still accepting and considering financed reuse proposals for the building.

According to Community Development Coordinator Kim Clausen, “any project would need [tax credits] to make a project financially feasible,” so her recommendation to the Commission was to approve funding and oversight of part one of the application.

“Then it’s available for a developer to use as part of their application,” she said.

Commissioner Roni Deschamp asked Clausen if any developers had expressed interest in applying. Clausen explained that while no particular developers have expressed interest to the city, having the first part of the application done could not hurt.

“If something were to arise, it’s a small thing, but it’s something that we can contribute,” said Clausen.

Deschamp agreed, applauding the “proactive” measure to try and protect the structure.

For Commissioner Karl Vohs, the idea is a “fantastic” one, adding that he’s heard rumors of interested developers. He asked that the application segment emphasize and include the historic nature of the building.

“White and (Native American) students studied together starting in the 1860s,” he said. “To me, that’s a really important statement about what was going on in Faribault and the history of that school.”

Commission Chair Julie Schiffer added that the application process will be “an interesting thing to partake in.”

She also added that she hopes the findings of report will be shared with the public.

According to Clausen, the first part of the application will take around six months for Dan Hoisington, an historic consultant who has worked with the city on other projects, to complete.

The timeline for the environmental review and subsequent demolition approval/denial process was originally slated to end in February, but the City Council voted to move it to mid-June. The process is at least one month behind the revised schedule, and no findings have yet been announced. A 30-day public input process will follow the publishing of the findings, at which time, the city expects two more months of deliberation before the demolition is approved or denied.

The other two parts of the tax credit application consist of a detailed description of the existing conditions and proposed improvements of the site as well as final certifications before the IRS before any tax credits are issued.

Reach Reporter Gunnar Olson at 507-333-3128 or follow him on Twitter @fdnGunnar.

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