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Historic preservation applies to Brown County Historical Society Museum, too

Staff photo by Clay Schuldt Phase two of a four face exterior restoration project started this spring. The repairs will replace damaged brick and strip layers of paint from the terra cotta stone work.

NEW ULM — The Brown County Historical Society (BCHS) Museum is undergoing repairs to the exterior of the building. This is one of several physical changes through the building’s 110-year history and since the building belongs to the BCHS, its history is well documented.

The building began as New Ulm’s post office. It took years for the city to secure funding for the building. The corner of Broadway and Center Street was chosen for the post office on Nov. 27, 1906, but it would be 3-1/2 years before construction of the post office was complete.

Congress originally appropriated $30,000 for the post office, but the citizens of New Ulm rejected the design plans because of “a lack of architectural beauty.” New Ulm insisted on an appropriation increase and in May 1908, funding was increased to $50,000.

When construction was completed in 1910, it became one of the most aesthetically impressive post offices in the country. It was designed to reflect German architecture. The building would eventually be added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1970.

The building served as New Ulm’s post office for 66 years, but by the 1950s the city realized a new post office was needed. In 1910, the building was the correct size to serve New Ulm’s population of 5,648, but 40 years later, the town’s population and mail volume were too high for the building to handle.

Staff photo by Clay Schuldt Moisture seeping through the walls on the third floor of the museum lead to mold and damage to the bricks, and possibly the displays inside the building.

Another issue was the traffic. As motor vehicles became popular, the Broadway and Center intersection became difficult for post office users and employees to navigate. Curbside letter drop-offs were a nuisance since the dropbox could only be accessed from the passenger side of vehicles.

BCHS Executive Director Kathleen Backer said even today parking is a challenge. Off-street parking is accessed from Broadway, the busiest street in New Ulm, and parking on Center Street is limited.

For 20 years, the city planned to build a new post office. Funding came together and in 1976, the city began construction on the current post office 1st South Street and German Street. In the 66 years between post office construction, inflation increased significantly. The new post office cost $650,000.

With the creation of a new post office, the city had to decide what to do with the old building. Early on, it was considered as a new location for the local historical society. The BCHS was located across the street in the old library building, now the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame. The renovation of the old post office into a museum did not begin until the 1980s, with the final phase of construction completed in 1984.

Evidence of the museum’s post office past can still be by those who know where to look. Those entering the BCHS from the Center Street entrance will see a tiled section of the floor that ends at the front desk. The tile is a holdover from the building’s post office days. This was the public section of the building. The rest of the building was partitioned off for the workers.

Photo Courtesy of Brown County Historical Society Museum Photos from the project closing documents for the west side of the museum project show typical damage to the brick work and terra cotta facing. Below is an example of the finished work following repairs.

Today the BCHS has three stories, but the top two floors are recent additions. The former post office had special catwalks above the main floor for management to observe the postal workers. A special observation window is still visible from the main entrance.

The most recent renovations are the second part of a four-phase project. In 2019, the BCHS completed the first phase of repairs. The project was financed in part with funds provided by the State of Minnesota from Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund through the Minnesota Historical Society. The grant for the second phase was $178,773. The project received local support from Brown County ($33,060) and BCHS paying $11,210. A grant application for the third phase was recently submitted. The third phase is estimated at $206,970.

“This building has a lot of issues with water coming in,” Backer said. The museum’s roof was fixed in 2017, but water is still infiltrating the building through the walls. In a driving storm, water would stream into the building and could be devastating to historical displays and artifacts.

At this time the focus of the work is on the third floor. Workers are removing and replacing damaged bricks and layering on the exterior. Backer said over the years, the beautiful terra cotta stonework was painted, creating a layering problem. This paint is being stripped back.

Window restoration and reglazing is another step in the process. Repaired windows will help keep water and pests from entering the museum.

Photo Courtesy of Brown County Historical Society Museum Photos from the project closing documents for the west side of the museum project show typical damage to the brick work and terra cotta facing. Below is an example of the finished work following repairs.

Backer estimated phase two of the restoration is nearing completion and should be done by July. The plan for next year is to begin restoration on the Center Street/south side face.

Backer is amused that this is the second time she has seen this level of restoration done on the museum. When she first worked for the BCHS in the 1980s, exterior work was needed and now after returning to the position, similar exterior work is needed again. Everything has come full circle.

The four-phase restoration should fix the problem but had to be divided into phases for grant purposes.

Backer said the scope of the work was too large and the original grant request was rejected. By doing a different face of the building each year, the BCHS has been able to leverage grant money.

“We want to position ourselves to cover repairs as grants are available,” Backer said. “If we ignore maintenance, it will only get worse and nothing lasts forever.”

Photo Courtesy of Brown County Historical Society Museum Construction workers finish work on the old post office’s roof circa 1909.

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