Guest Column: Downtown is a historic cross-section

Published 9:00 am Saturday, March 24, 2018

The Stairwell News by Susanne Crane

Susanne Crane is an artist/educator currently working on a local restoration project in the historic district.

Did you know that Albert Lea has the most intact historic district in the state of Minnesota? If you did, give yourself a pat on the back. We still have the five most important buildings that define any city in the 1900s. These structures: county courthouse, post office and bank building, Carnegie library and opera palace represent the five historically critical areas of public service to all potential citizens β€” law and order, communication, financial security, education and entertainment for the masses with indoor public gathering space respectively.

Why is this of interest today? This is something that can be capitalized upon, if we get smart about it. Historical tourism is an expanding market today. As many of these buildings in other places fall to the wrecking ball, the remaining few become ever more important. This town is a standout for historical value. The historic downtown, with buildings restored accurately, has the potential to inspire and draw in entrepreneurs and visitors from afar. This would benefit everyone.

Under your watchful eye mistakes have been made in our historic district, such as white concrete β€” more appropriate in a new suburb β€” and the modern spacing of the street lamps and brick-look squares, which because of their modern grid system placement, gave no deference to where entrances or architecture would dictate. The street and sidewalks simply do not relate to our architecture well. Many spoke out about this at the public pre-construction meetings, but the plans were not modified to accommodate the architecture. That is a loss.

What does all this mean for Albert Lea? Ignorance is not bliss. Let us not make any more mistakes. We have a declining population, precipitating an unreasonable and unsustainable tax burden that has already caused loss of diversification in building ownership and greater deterioration in the downtown due to capital issues. We all need to get activated to preserve the great, yet undervalued, public asset of an intact historic district while we still have the chance to turn our economic outlook around.

For many around here, history, art and architecture are fluff. It’s not though. Pride of place denotes prosperity. Understanding history helps you to build better strategies while keeping you humble, and of course art is a touchstone. What we make reflects where we are as humans in our minds, in time and place. What we waste also says a lot about us. Embrace your downtown. It is a truly remarkable and exuberant cross-section of 1880s-1920s architectural success and this is rare.