Friday, June 3, 2011

Historic Downtown Crookston Revisited

A year ago my parents and I traveled to Crookston, the northwestern Minnesota town where my musical great-grandparents, G. Oliver and Islea Riggs, settled at the turn of the last century.
Dad, G. Oliver, me and Mom at the start of our three-day adventure last June.
Our trip had many great moments, including – not necessarily in this order – sampling the chocolate covered potato chips at Widman’s, finding photos of G. Oliver’s bands at the historical society, and marveling at the downtown architecture.

Crookston has the largest concentration of late 19th and early 20th century commercial buildings in the region, and its downtown business district is on the National Register of Historic Places.  Many of those buildings were already built when G. Oliver and Islea arrived in 1898 or were erected during G. Oliver’s time as bandleader.
The former Palace/Wayne Hotel before its demolition.
One building has been torn down since our visit, the Palace/Wayne Hotel.  It’s now a parking lot.  Built in 1891, it met the same fate as another grand building I didn’t get the chance to see in person, the Grand Opera House, which also was built in 1891 and was destroyed by fire in the 1980s.

During our walking tour of Crookston last year, we stood in front of the empty parking lot where the opera house once stood, and I tried to imagine what it had been like for G. Oliver to perform there.  I tried to picture what it had been like for the whole town to come out, twice, to hear John Philip Sousa's band perform on its stage.  The architecture of the parking lot didn’t do much to stir the imagination.

I’ve recently learned that another one of Crookston’s historic buildings, the Union Building, 111 W. Robert St., is a potential candidate for transformation into a parking lot.

Preservation advocate Kay Hegge, whom we met during our visit, is hosting a party June 16 at the three-story brick building.  The event is billed as a chance for people to see the building’s beautifully restored tin ceiling before Kay moves her shop next door and the building goes on the auction block.  Unless someone steps in with money and a plan, the county may take possession and tear it down.

I know it’s not easy, especially in these economic times, to advocate for preserving buildings like the Union and the Palace/Wayne Hotel.  But I also know it is possible for towns to find ways to re-purpose their historic commercial spaces, turning them destinations for locals and tourists alike.  I’ve seen it done.

I wrote a travel piece for the Star Tribune about Crookston last summer, and I have since written several travel pieces about towns like Crookston that are noteworthy in large part because of their historic buildings.  Those that have found inspiring ways to revitalize their downtowns through art and cultural efforts include Faribault and Fergus Falls.

Crookston possesses something no other town has: its own rich cultural history, which happens to entwine with my great-grandfather’s career as a music man.  I remain hopeful that its residents will value that past as they evaluate and act on opportunities for its future.

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