“Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.” —from “Closing Time” by Semisonic
One month after first entertaining a request from Manawa Inc., LLC, for a Certificate of Appropriateness to allow the demolition of the post-fire Archer House, Northfield’s Heritage Preservation Commission met last week to review additional information and revisit the proposal.
Following over two hours of discussion and testimony, the HPC reluctantly approved the COA on a 5-2 vote, with HPC members Alice Thomas and Baird Jarman in the minority.
“We’re of course very pleased with the outcome,” said Brent Nystrom, spokesperson for the ownership group.
“We appreciate the time and attention the HPC gave to the process; they have a challenging role to play but it resulted in a solid 5-2 vote in favor of the unfortunate need for demolition.”
The HPC took their task seriously, thoroughly exploring whether it was possible to retain at least the 1877 building’s facade, which happened to suffer the least amount of overall damage in the Nov. 12, 2020, fire that irreparably damaged the iconic structure.
“It seems like we’re going in two pathways here,” said HPC chair Barbara Evans early in the meeting.
“One is about the actual structural integrity of it … and what it would take to rehabilitate that … and it seems like the other path … is the ‘even if—’ well, even if it is structurally yes or no, is it reasonable, cost-efficient, to actually do it.”
Structural engineer Jeremy Baer of TEKTON Engineers testified to that question.
“From a purely technical standpoint, it would be feasible to save the facade, but does that exceed a reasonable effort? And is it a really good idea?” said Baer.
“In my professional opinion, I believe Northfield would be better served by a new building.”
Scott Koester of Rebound Real Estate delivered the financial estimate of how much more it would take for Manawa to attempt that save; $1.25 to $1.3 million, or roughly 11% of the total project’s cost estimate.
“But what’s happening in saving that facade, you are also limiting any redevelopment going forward with the project, like window locations, different floor heights and limits with what you can do for covered parking,” Koester said.
“It’s just a domino effect of putting a redevelopment into a corner and not being able to come back and redevelop that site to what it best could be … we want to provide a great new asset to downtown Northfield.”
Brett Reese, managing principal of Rebound Enterprises, LLC, stepped forward to address the HPC and clarify the ownership group’s intent, noting the Manawa partners had been good stewards of the Archer House for 24 years.
“We would like nothing more than to preserve this building,” said Reese. “The fire was devastating and very emotional — it was gut-wrenching to us as owners.
“Yes, there are significant limitations if we were to preserve the facade … and in our opinion, it cannot be done. We’ve spent a lot of time, money, effort and analysis, and we would love to save the facade if we could.”
Commissioner Alice Thomas queried whether reconstruction, as in creating a replica of the former building, could be pursued.
Reese wouldn’t promise that new construction at the site would be identical to the former structure, but he and Koester assured there would be nods to distinctive architectural features that might prompt visual reminiscences of what went before.
Koester mentioned arched windows, dormers and a symmetrical facade, among other items.
“It will be done professionally and creatively,” said Koester. “We’re committed to including some memorialization details.”
Added Reese, “We will work to have something that honors the Archer House but also brings it into the 21st century so it can go on another 150 years.”
Still, Thomas balked at the idea of an 11% project increase being an insurmountable economic obstacle.
“That does not seem excessive to me,” said Thomas. “To have a historic building there would be worth $1 million to me.”
Ultimately, discussion and further information about the 1877 roof, which was deemed unsalvageable, led to the majority of the HPC members concluding the facade could not be reasonably saved.
Said commissioner Michael Meehan, “The roof is not a salvageable piece, and saving facades without roofs is not historically significant.”
Added commissioner Jason Menard, “The historic fabric of the building would be gone.”
Prior to the final vote, commissioner Cliff Clark clarified that it was not financially viable or feasible to preserve the property even thought it was otherwise possible.
“Because it is feasible,” said Clark. “It is just not financially viable or feasible. If you had unlimited funds, you could do it.”
Once Manawa has obtained the proper permitting, Nystrom estimates demolition may proceed before the end of the year.
Nystrom also said Manawa will be reviewing proposals from five architectural firms and that some manner of community input would be sought.
“We think it’s important to get some flavor of what the community is interested in seeing there,” said Nystrom.
“But it’s safe to say it will likely be a mixed-use building again, possibly with restaurants, retail and some kind of housing — either permanent or longer-stay hotel rooms. Those are the main ideas on the table.”
Due to the planning and construction processes, plus being alert to potential supply chain delays, Nystrom anticipates completion in the spring of 2023 or even later.
“It’s going to take awhile,” Nystrom said.
“But this is a rare opportunity and it’s very exciting,” he continued. “We will honor the legacy of the Archer House while also taking the chance to create a building that will be much more functional and yet remain a point of pride for Northfield.”