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Historic Mason City building could well be lost without significant help
Historic Mason City building could well be lost without significant help
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Historic Mason City building could well be lost without significant help

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Mason City's Milwaukee Road Depot is caught in limbo.

At more than 120 years old, its overseers, the Canadian Pacific Railway, don't exactly have a use for it anymore, but members of groups such as the local Historic Preservation Commission don't want to see it go.

It's been in this state of suspension for several years now. In June 2018, city officials discussed plans to temporarily move the structure from 904 S. Pennsylvania Ave to a nearby vacant lot, select a permanent location for the building as well as a sensible reuse for it, then move the building to that spot.

Almost three years later, none of that has happened yet. 

Milwaukee depot front.jpg

An effort to save the Milwaukee Rail depot building, located near South Pennsylvania Avenue in Mason City, will not be funded by the city.

Meeting minutes found in the March agenda for the Historic Preservation Commission sum up the situation as such: "After multiple conversations, the City does not have the funds or capacity to save the building. There is not a definite relocation space for the building. The private sector will be responsible for moving and retaining the building."

According to Mason City Planning and Zoning Manager Tricia Sandahl, that will require quite a bit of money. Between $5 and $5.5 million, in fact.  

"A lot of that is rehab costs," Sandahl said. "The condition of the freight end of the building, the way that it was built, it’s built with clay tile block (and) those blocks are deteriorating."

Compounding that is the size of the building and the fact that the depot is split into two distinct sections.

"Moving anything like that requires taking down power lines, cutting trees, things like that, and it’s a real hassle. Moving it very far is a really difficult idea," Historic Preservation Commission Chair Terry Harrison said.

That's not the only problem Harrison sees for the process.

"The other thing is: Once you move it, what do you do with it?" he said.

Milwaukee depot rear.jpg

An effort to save the Milwaukee Rail depot building, located near South Pennsylvania Avenue in Mason City, will not be funded by the city.

"Don’t you think we should save this building?"

One thing Sandahl said is imperative for the depot to survive and thrive is not only have a viable, long-term use, but one that can generate a solid income. Sandahl suggested a mix of shops or a restaurant could work, or possibly a parking area with some amenities to host food trucks. 

Dennis White, who is currently part of a "Save the Depot" effort in Charles City, noted that even before that can happen, the motive needs to be as clear as possible.

"First thing to do is identify all the people who have a purpose to save that building," White said. "Call out all of the individuals in the community who have an interest in that community whether it be they worked there or have an interest in the railroad." 

With the Charles City effort, White said that the campaign started with a small group of people who would ask folks on the street, "Don’t you think we should save this building?"

Though the group still hasn't hit its goal of $350,000 to move the Charles City depot to a new location where it will function as a museum and trailhead, White said that it's actually been helpful for organizers that Canadian Pacific has given them demolition timelines in the past. "If no one is pushed in the corner they might not act," White said.

According to Sandahl, the Canadian Pacific hasn't had quite the same firm hand with efforts in Mason City.

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"The Canadian Pacific has been gracious in giving us extra time," she said. As far as she is aware, there's no settled timeline for when a plan needs to be executed.

What matters more than concrete times, is sense of progress. "We need to show forward momentum to the Canadian Pacific," Sandahl said.

Depot 1910s view from SE

The depot in the 1910s.

Finding other uses

About 90 miles north, in Rochester, Olmsted County, officials are in the process of converting a decades-old historic space into a possible expo center and transit hub.

According to Mat Miller, the county’s director of facilities and building operations, the Seneca vegetable processing plant sat vacant for about two years before construction workers for Rachel Contract began to do demolition work in December 2020. While the building itself didn't stay, because it wasn't deemed historically significant, an ear of corn water tower on the property is being preserved and will function as a focal point of the $1.1 million project.

"The ultimate goal was we wanted for it to be painted and restored," Miller said. 

In any preservation situation, Miller said it's important to seriously answer the question: What is the future use going to be? 

"Once the future use is decided, then you can determine do you pursue historical preservation? Historical funding? That’s the first decision," he said.

In Algona, rail depot preservation took the form of a winery.

In 2005, Dallas Clark, former tight end for the Indianapolis Colts and a native of nearby Livermore, decided with his wife, Karen, to renovate the Chicago and North Western rail depot on Phillips Street, which had been vacant for 15 years prior. Windows had been broken and pigeons were living inside.

Eventually, that depot became Train Wreck Winery, which began selling wine by the bottle on Dec. 20, 2011. In a Globe Gazette story from the time, Steve Larson, Clark’s father-in-law, said that the building was in sorry shape when they got a hold of it but that Clark was undeterred about bringing it back to life.

According to Larson, Clark could see it was a great old building, and said, "If we can, let’s save it."

Train Wreck Winery

The Chicago & North Western rail depot in Algona was built in 1917 and set vacant for about 15 years before Dallas Clark and his wife decided on a use for it in 2005.

Not over yet

Despite the present impasse, there's optimism about finding a use for the depot.

"This community saved the Historic Park Inn, I think we can do it again," Sandahl said. "The Depot has a constituency. People who identify as railroad nuts, there is a very active railroad enthusiast community in Iowa."

White believes that a building that's been in a community long enough can have a powerful connection with the people there. And he thinks local residents don't just turn away from that.

"I’ve never known Mason City to not honor their past," he said.

Harrison himself thinks that tearing down buildings every few years keeps people from having any sense of history or past. He doesn't want to just move on from that. "We don’t give up until there’s a wrecking ball."

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Jared McNett covers local government for the Globe Gazette. You can reach him at Jared.McNett@globegazette.com or by phone at 641-421-0527. Follow Jared on Twitter at @TwoHeadedBoy98.

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