2010-05-22 / Top News

Preservation Goals at Crux of Island Debate

Citizens Push City To Take Action, Hold off Demolition
By Karen Gould

Built in 1891, McNally Cottage (left) is slated for demolition this fall. The building has ignited a preservation debate on Mackinac Island, which lacks regulations to protect historic buildings. Other buildings in the photographs are (from left) Main Street Hotel, Haunted Theatre (the old Orpheum Theater), Lilac Tree Hotel, and Big Store. Built in 1891, McNally Cottage (left) is slated for demolition this fall. The building has ignited a preservation debate on Mackinac Island, which lacks regulations to protect historic buildings. Other buildings in the photographs are (from left) Main Street Hotel, Haunted Theatre (the old Orpheum Theater), Lilac Tree Hotel, and Big Store. A pair of meetings about historic preservation on Mackinac Island, specifically concerning the proposed demolition of the 119-year-old McNally residence on Main Street, resulted in a citizen pledge to petition the city for a moratorium on building demolition and an offer by developer Ira Green to sell the McNally Cottage to whoever wants it for $1.7 million, the price he paid for it. Wednesday night, May 19, the city also was told it could tap state resources for money to re-survey its historic buildings and for workshops to educate the community about historic preservation and the economic and tax advantages derived from it.

The city council took no action at its meeting Wed- Pnesday night, but Mayor Margaret Doud said the council will be discussing the issue over the next several weeks. It was at an emotionally charged citizens' meeting afterward that Mr. Green set the selling price and work began to draft a petition asking for the moratorium.

The discussions were prompted by Mr. Green's plans to tear down the McNally Cottage in October to make room for a new hotel and shopping center, and by the city's lack of ordinances to protect its historic structures. Mackinac's historic structures set it apart from imitation buildings on the mainland, said one resident, Nancy May.

“The bigger the gap between Mackinac and the outside world, the more unique we will become, and that's why preservation is so important,” said Ms. May, whose remarks earned applause from more than 20 people attending Wednesday's city council meeting.

Mr. Green and some other business owners say they want to enhance the economic value of their property. They contend that most visitors demand the comfort and conveniences of more modern facilities.

Featured speakers at the meetings were preservation expert Jennifer Metz, a certified architectural historian with Past Perfect of Grand Rapids, who holds a master's degree in historic preservation, Nan Taylor, a field representative with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and Rebecca Smith-Hoffman, also with Past Perfect.

Mrs. Metz delivered to the council letters to support city development of a preservation plan. The letters came from the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO), the Michigan Preservation Network, the National Park Service, and the National Trust For Historic Preservation.

The Island, she explained, already is a National Historic Landmark, but the National Park Service, which administers the designation, has placed the Island on a watch list as some of the historic buildings here are torn down or spoiled. Without tough laws, the city has been helpless to stop the trend.

“The recent events with McNally Cottage have brought this to a head that there is no solid protection, no zoning protection for historic buildings here,” said Mrs. Metz. “One thing we think would be important is enacting a temporary moratorium on demolition in the downtown district. To take a pause, it's a standard thing that is done all over the country, to take a pause and plan.”

A survey of buildings should be completed that would include the age, the history that occurred there, changes, and photographs, she said. It would provide a snapshot to be compared to a survey by the Mackinac Island State Park Commission in 1999. A grant deadline has been extended for the Island and it would pay for a portion of the inventory, she told the city council.

“Basically,” she said, “they are saying, ‘Please apply.’”

The city was also invited to take advantage of free historic preservation workshops on the Island that would include information on tax credits and other advantages of preservation.

The National Historic Landmark status, said Mrs. Metz, makes it possible for property owners to receive tax credits for work on historic buildings, including adding sprinkler systems.

A national economic preservation expert, Don Rypkema, has offered to come to the Island to discuss historic preservation relative to the Island's economy.

Wednesday evening's presentation was organized by Save Our Island, which was formed in reaction to Mr. Green's plans to demolish Mc- Nally Cottage. The group was organized by Anthony “Mac” Trayser, whose family has operated downtown businesses for several generations, including The Big Store, and sponsored the preservation speakers at the meeting.

Historic downtown buildings are the character of the Island and the wealth of the community, he said.

“They created it. They are the essence of who we are. Without them there would be no historic ambiance. . . The real historic buildings here are our real wealth, our real authenticity, and should not be allowed to be destroyed.”

In his address, he noted, “Mackinac Island is unique, unless it is destroyed and replaced with what every other non-authentic community pretends to be, but which we actually are.”

Mr. Green's plans to demolish McNally Cottage and citizen desire to retain the Island's National Historic Landmark designation and preserve its historic buildings turned into an intense debate.

Don Andress, whose Native family here dates to 1695, asked the city council to consider saving McNally Cottage and using it for a museum. There should be no digging on the site, he added.

“The Island is a sacred burial ground,” he noted.

Mr. Green contends that a restored old building is not worth as much as a new building. Visitors do not want to stay in places like McNally Cottage, said Mr. Green, and that is why it failed as a bed and breakfast. Visitors want wide corridors, sprinklers, and beautiful bathrooms.

“If the people wanted McNally, it would have worked,” he said.

McNally Cottage, said Ms. May, failed because it was not maintained. The property was inherited by 17 people who could not agree on its future and no work was done on the property before it was sold.

Mr. Green's observations about what visitors want drew fire from Mayor Doud, who owns and operates the Windermere Hotel.

“The Windermere Hotel has been in business since 1910,” she said. “We don't have wide corridors, we don't have WiFi, we don't have TVs in every room, but we do have a lot of clientele that do come back every year,” she said to Mr. Green. “You're looking at the cookie cutter again.”

“I resent that,” he retorted, and pointed to other downtown hotels that have been torn down and replaced by new structures.

Alderman Armin Porter corrected Mr. Green about two of the structures. The Main Street Inn, he said, replaced a building that was not historic and not a contributing building to the Island's National Historic Landmark designation. The Lilac Tree replaced a structure that burned down.

Mr. Porter’s family has interests in both those hotels.

When Mayor Doud asked Mr. Green why he made modifications to the Lake View Hotel that caused it to lose its historic designation, he replied that loss of the status was not intentional and, at any rate, decisions to make modifications were made by a board of directors and were not his alone.

Mr. Green purchased Mc- Nally Cottage and the vacant waterfront lot across the street two years ago and erected a bicycle rental operation on the waterfront lot.

The city had tried to purchase the lake-side lot, Mayor Doud said, but the McNally heirs wouldn't split the property.

“The city tried to buy the waterfront to preserve it as a park, calling it McNally Park, but they wouldn't divide the property, unfortunately,” she said, “or that waterfront would be preserved today. And that's unfortunate, because that can become the greed factor that ruins Mackinac Island.”

Resident Trish Martin said it is not only McNally Cottage, but all of the Island's historic buildings that need to be preserved.

Mayor Doud agreed.

“We have to preserve what we have in this town and we have some very, very rich history,” she said.

During the preservation question and answer session after the council meeting, held downstairs in Community Hall, Mr. Green reiterated that the Island's buildings are not economically as viable as modern structures. New structures would add to the Island's tax base, including the three story complex he proposes to replace McNally Cottage. That structure, he said, would be on tax rolls as an $8 million building. McNally Cottage, however, if refurbished, would be worth about $2 million.

Mr. Green and resident Charles Puttkammer had a brief exchange, with Mr. Puttkammer finally asking Mr. Green the selling price of McNally.

Mr. Green challenged Mr. Puttkammer and other residents in attendance at the meeting to buy McNally Cottage from him for $1.7 million, which is what he paid for the property.

“If it is so important to all of you, as it should be, then you should do that,” he said. “That is the whole point. That's your right and I'm offering it.”

He said he would not sell the waterfront lot across the street.

Mayor Doud, Alderman Mike Hart, and city attorney Tom Evashevski had met privately with the preservation consultants before the city council meeting.

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