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Preservation commission votes against Chardonnay demolition

The eight-member Heritage Preservation Commission voted 6-1 with one abstention to deny a permit to demolish the 1890s Victorian home at 723 Second St. S.W. in Rochester.

A city commission recently created to guard historic buildings voted Tuesday to recommend denying a demolition permit to the owner of the house that formerly was the site of Chardonnay restaurant, tossing it into the laps of the Rochester City Council for a final determination.

The eight-member Heritage Preservation Commission voted 6-1 with one abstention to protect the building under the city's new Heritage Preservation Ordinance. The 1890s-vintage Victorian home at 723 Second St. S.W., has come to symbolize the tension that exists between preservationists and developers, between public good and private rights, in a city that is projected to double in size within the next 20 years.

The Chardonnay house is considered a classic with a 120-year pedigree rooted in Rochester's history. It also has been the site of a succession of restaurants.

Before the vote, Barry Skolnick, a Rochester resident and advocate for preserving the building, told the commission that no house in Rochester better met the standards and definition of a historic building.

"If you actually approve this demolition permit, one question I ask you is: When would you ever deny a demolition permit?" said Skolnick before the vote. "This building is the essence of what would be considered a historical building."


No one at Tuesday's public meeting at Rochester City Hall urged the commission to recommend approving the demolition permit. The building's owner, Curtis Schuster, was present at the meeting, but when offered the opportunity by commission chairman Jeff Allman to speak, he declined the invitation. Schuster also declined to speak to a Post-Bulletin reporter after the meeting adjourned.

Allman said that after the meeting, Schuster approached him to voice his frustration about owning a building that had become something of an albatross to him.

"He said, 'Look, I've been struggling with this for 20 years and it's been losing money for 20 years. I need some help. I can't carry it forever,'" Allman related. "He's failed four restaurants at it."

Commission members also said they struggled with their vote. Member Valerie Guimaraes said she appreciated the right of an owner "to go forward with their plans and their property," but at the same, the commission's mandate was clear: to preserve the city's history.

"I'm not here to squelch anybody's dreams or hopes for their property," she said. "But at the same time, I feel the owner bears that. The onus is on them to explore these possibilities of additional funds."

Before the vote to deny the permit, member Charles Olson had offered a resolution to table the demolition permit request so the owner could explore the availability of tax credits and other incentive packages for historic buildings. But that was voted down 6-1.

The heritage commission has been assigned the task of compiling a list of historically important buildings and sites deserving protection from demolition. But so far, the body has made little progress in the effort, so much so that earlier this month, the Rochester City Council gave it a deadline for finishing its work.

Before the start of the meeting, a group calling itself the Rochester Conservancy distributed a report outlining the case for the Chardonnay's house designation for historic preservation. Nancy Slocumb, a Rochester resident who wrote the report with the help of volunteers, described some of that history to the commission.


"It is truly a unique building in our history," she said. "I feel like there have to be other uses for the building."

Yet, even though he voted to recommend a denial of the permit, Allman said he thought the Chardonnay's owner would win if he pursued the matter in court.

"What we did tonight, I think, is against state statute," Allman said. "I don't think the city has the right to do what it's going to do."

Olmsted County District Court Judge Kevin Lund, a preservationist advocate, also appeared before the commission, arguing the work of establishing a list of historic buildings was essential to the effort of preserving the city's history. He hailed the work of the Rochester Conservancy as a template for future efforts.

"I would hope that this group would try to spur interest in the community in these efforts," Lund said. "Because we need to get ahead of the curve. Half of the downtown will be gone before you can turn around. And so we're going to be in a defensive posture until we get this list put together."

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