Johnston Hall

Allina Health will appeal a decision by the city’s Heritage Preservation Commission denying a Certificate of Appropriateness needed to issue a demolition permit for Johnston Hall. The building’s tower is reported to be in “imminent” danger of collapse. (File photo/southernminn.com)

In a Friday letter to to the Faribault City Council, Allina Health appealed a decision denying the healthcare system's request to demolish Johnston Hall, a massive 133-year old limestone building that sits on the National Register of Historic Places.

The building, purchased by District One Hospital in 2008, became part of Allina in 2015, along with the hospital.

In the letter, Allina's South Market president Michael Johnston, explains that costs and safety necessitate its demolition.

"Rehabilitation of the building or a partial deconstruction of just the tower is cost prohibitive and directs funds away from patient care. We also have ongoing concerns about the safety of the building overall," he wrote.

A structural engineer's Aug. 31 report to Allina found the tower a hazard and in "imminent" danger of collapse, though there are significant issues throughout the building, including standing water, damp stone and disintegrating mortar. City Building Official John Rued has endorsed the engineer's findings.

Hospital officials have surrounded the building with fencing and vacated a portion of the hospital that could be impacted if the tower falls. That's meant the relocation of its pharmacy and is forcing patients to go outside to access care.

"These important safety steps are necessary, but are impacting patient care and operations and need to return to normal as soon as possible," wrote Johnston.

The building, constructed in 1888, was part of Seabury Divinity School, one of several visible reminders of the legacy of Henry Whipple, the state's first Episcopal bishop, a noted humanitarian and champion for Indigenous people. In 1862, Whipple appealed for clemency to President Abraham Lincoln, helping save more than 250 members of the Dakota tribe sentenced to hanging for their role in the 1862 US-Dakota War near New Ulm.

On Wednesday, the city's Heritage Preservation Commission voted unanimously to deny Allina's request for a Certificate of Appropriateness, which would have allowed Rued to issue a demolition permit.

Board members argued that decades of neglect by its various owners led to its current state and they weren't willing to be a party to its demolition.

Commission member Karl Vohs called it "demolition by neglect," and lamented the increasing number of Faribault buildings facing the same fate. In October 2019, the former Columbia Hall on Third Street NW was razed, along with a neighboring structure, to make way for a city parking lot. A city consultant estimated costs to return the building to a safe, usable condition at $3 million.

County officials have signaled their intent to demo the former Faribault Woolen Mills store on Fourth Street NW and Second Avenue NW. Though not on the National Register, the building is considered a piece of the city's history.

According to County Parks and Facilities Director Matt Verdick, the roof has water damage, visible through holes in a ceiling, which predate the county's ownership. There's apparent water damage to the exterior as well, with bricks bulging from the western wall.

Even if the council upholds the Heritage Preservation Commission's denial, Rued, as building official could step in and issue a demolition permit based on the imminent threat.

"Allina has a responsibility to do something (to abate the hazard)," city Community and Economic Development Director Deanna Kuennen said Thursday, "and we have a responsibility to make sure they do something. But it's not our responsibility to tell them how."

The Commission suggested removing just the tower, but Johnston's letter makes that clear it's not something Allina wants to pursue.

In December 2018, Allina agreed to give the city two years to market the property. The following year, a developer was interested in converting Johnston Hall to a chemical treatment facility, but a partnership with providers proved unworkable. Allina approved two six-moth extensions to the agreement, telling the city the current extension was its last.

Kuennen has said the size of the facility and the pandemic have hindered efforts to find an interested developer.

Reach Regional Managing Editor Suzanne Rook at 507-333-3134. ©Copyright 2021 APG Media of Southern Minnesota. All rights reserved. 

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