By Paul Downer
By Paul Downer
After several discussions, multiple attempts to contact the owner and an appeal to the Carver County District Court, NYA city officials executed a search warrant and entered the old Masonic Lodge building on 3rd Street SE last week.
The group entered through an unsecured window and found piles of rubbish, extensive water damage and mold, standing water in a kiddie pool and tub, sunlight streaming through holes in the roof and an upper level where the entire room was covered with large clumps of moldy ceiling material and insulation that had fallen to the floor.
"You can imagine the associated smell," council member Jim Keller told the rest of the council during a workshop just prior to the regular council meeting last Monday, July 9.
The discussion, along with a photo slide show detailing the tour, was the first look at the interior of the building the council has had since its members began discussing safety concerns last September, when they passed a resolution calling for the building owner to either repair or tear down the structure. At the time, Keller had voiced concern that the building was unsafe due to unsecured windows, apparent electrical service and water damage as observed through windows, the presence of cats inside the building and trees growing along the foundation.
The combination of water damage and electric power in what appears to be an all but abandoned building had sparked fears of a fire hazard, and the tour did nothing to allay those fears. In fact, fire chief Steve Zumberge reported unplugging a heater that was positioned next to a propane tank while the group was inside. While the exterior brickwork still appeared to be in reasonably good condition, Zumberge was unequivocal when sharing his opinion of the building’s overall condition.
"It’s a goner for sure," he said with a shake of his head.
Curiously, the group did discover signs of a recent visit in the form of fresh cat food set out for the animals. The ownership situation is murky: though multiple certified letters sent to the supposed owner have been received and signed for, the city has not received any response. That has put the city in a difficult situation, since for safety reasons it would like to either demolish the building or repair it – an option that may be too expensive to be practical (the estimated price of a new roof membrane alone was around $20,000).
If the building is demolished, the lot would be difficult if not impossible to sell due to its topography and the hefty lien that would be associated with any title. That would make it unlikely that the city could recover the cost of demolition, though repair costs would be far higher.
During the workshop, Keller told council members he would like to put a decision about what action to take regarding the building on the fast track. He said he believed it would take several hundred thousand dollars just to put the building in some sort of workable condition, and said he believed the porous roof would collapse in on itself within five years if nothing is done.
He added that there was "probably little to no chance" that the building could be saved.
Councilor Carol Lagergren agreed, saying that a fire in the building would be bad for everyone, particularly since there is another business located close by.
"There’s a point in time where it’s just not safe, and I think we’ve hit that point," she said.
As for next steps, the city is currently waiting to hear from its attorney whether the District Court will allow it to enforce its order to either repair or raze the building. The city’s building inspector is currently compiling a written report of his findings, and Community Development Director Chelsea Alger is researching the available options for the property and structure.
Alger said she hoped to have her information available in time for the Aug. 13 meeting. If some details have not been ironed out by then, the council will likely address the matter again in September.
Over the past several months, LaVonne Kroells has expressed interest in preserving the building if possible. As president of the local historical society, she has told council members that the city has already lost too many historical buildings and that every effort should be made, if practical, to save the structure.
Kroells believes the building, which was constructed in 1904, is the only building in the county built and dedicated for use by the Mason organization, and possibly one of the only dedicated Mason buildings in the wider area.
She had inquired about receiving funds from the Masons to help with restoration work, but learned this past Monday that the Grand Lodge did not have funds available for such a purpose.
Kroells acknowledged that the building’s interior was in worse shape than she had been hoping, but expressed hope that at least some portions of the building such as the stone bearing the Mason insignia and date of construction could be saved, if nothing else.
"I don’t know what’s holding those four walls together. It certainly isn’t the roof," she said. "When I saw the light coming through the roof, that made me think, ‘Oh, this might not be salvageable.’ But there was just so much garbage sitting around. Get rid of that and go in there again, and you might have a totally different idea."