Two Hays City Commissioners said Thursday they don’t want to see the Ellis County Historical Society demolish the Presbyterian church at 7th and Main streets.
The society closed the historic museum’s exhibits to the public in August because of mold growing from years of water seeping into the building. It also temporarily moved its offices to loaned space at 1111 E. 30th St.
Society director Lee Dobratz, at the regular meeting of the commission Thursday evening, acknowledged that since she was hired in March 2016 she had commented on social media about taking the building down.
In an update to the commission, Commissioners Henry Schwaller IV and Sandy Jacobs asked Dobratz about the society’s plans for the building.
“As stewards of our community’s history, it would be ironic if the historical society tore down a church. There aren’t a lot of churches left in downtown,” said Schwaller, noting his family has deep ties to the church going back as far as his great-grandfather.
“It would be weird for historic people to tear down an historic building,” he said, “especially one as beautiful as your building, the beautiful columns, the rather ornate limestone work, in conjunction with the brick.”
Schwaller commented that the church sits within the city’s Historic Chestnut Street District, along with the older stone church that is also on the property. Both are included in the 80 buildings on the National Park Service’s National Register of Historic Places of the U.S. Department of the Interior.
“It’s historically protected,” he said. “When the historical society applied for designation in 1976, it was too young, ironically at the time, and that’s why only the stone church was initially covered. But now because it’s an historic district, both buildings are protected.”
Jacobs expressed her concern, citing demolition in 2012 of the privately owned historic building called the opera house at 9th and Fort streets, built in the 1870s but condemned by the city when falling exterior stonework became a danger.
“I stood in front of the post office and watched them tear down an opera house and I promised myself that we weren’t going to tear any more buildings down in this town,” Jacobs said. “So anything I can do to help or be part of, I don’t want to see anything else come down in this town.”
Dobratz acknowledged that she did comment on social media about a year ago about taking the building down in her enthusiasm for prospects of a new facility.
“I just put some stuff out initially, that I shouldn’t have said, about taking the brick building down, because it was still, it’s always been in consideration,” Dobratz said. “I was just a bit overzealous.”
She commented, however, that years of leakage into the building before her arrival in 2016 have resulted in damage to thousands of archived materials, including mold.
“We haven’t looked at taking the building down just because we don’t like it,” Dobratz said. “It’s a combination of things that have to do with cost.”
Schwaller said there are concerns the society is not maintaining the building, but Dobratz said it’s being maintained as if it were still occupied, at optimum temperature for the archived materials.
About eight feasibility studies have been done since 1978 on what to do with the church, looking at everything from demolishing it to renovating it at a cost of $10 million to $11 million, she said.
The society bought the church in 1974 with $35,000 from the city.
“When they first bought it, the forefathers and mothers that got the organization going never intended for that location to actually be the museum,” Dobratz said, saying it was affordable at the time and a place to start gathering archival materials. But upkeep has become costly for such a small organization, she said. It became a bigger issue when the museum inherited the Sternberg historic collection.
The problem of what to do became more urgent recently.
“With the heavy rains that happened this spring and summer, the mold that we knew we had in the sub-basement exploded and we were all sick,” Dobratz said.
The society is looking for economic storage now.
“We’re plugging away with urgency, trying to find locations for that to happen, and as soon as we have locations secured, we’re going to be moving quickly,” she said.
Schwaller asked if there isn’t an endowment for building maintenance.
“It’s actually an endowment for construction, capital projects, and acquisition of collections,” Dobratz said.
“Are you fundraising?” Jacobs asked.
Dobratz said they’ve average about $10,000 to $15,000 over the past three years, and grants totaling about $25,000 in that time.
Jacobs, who is executive director of the Heartland Community Foundation, said she’d be interested in helping any way she could with fundraising.
“We have a community that steps up,” Jacobs said. “I’m surprised at that low number for you and I think I wold expect a lot more.”
Schwaller thanked Dobratz for scrubbing her comments on social media.
“It’s really critical that if you don’t want the building, and if the space doesn’t suit your needs, either button it up and use it for storage, or let someone else have the structure. Sell it,” Schwaller said. “I would do anything I can personally to raise money.”
She said everything is still under consideration.
“I appreciate not wanting to tear down any more historical buildings, we have a beautiful downtown and a great history here,” she said. “We’re trying to do the best we can with what we have.”
Schwaller noted that Hays many years ago lost a church downtown to arson.
“People grieved that for 40 years,” he said. “So let’s not make that mistake again.”
“We will do our best moving forward,” Dobratz said.