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Our Views: Auto museum proposal poses dilemma for city of Janesville

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August 28, 2014

The Janesville City Council faced three big decisions Monday. Two involved how to respond to Billy McCoy’s petitions and whether to seek more money for street repairs through referendum.

The third was whether to raze or allow reuse of the old gas station behind the police department. It wasn’t the biggest of the three, but it arguably was the toughest.

That was evident in the council’s sharp division. The 4-3 vote gives the new Friends of Franklin Street Service Station four months to present a viable plan and 12 months to solidify efforts toward converting the crumbling station into a classic auto museum.

New City Manager Mark Freitag recommended demolition to show the city will lead blight elimination. It was obvious, however, that the building wouldn’t tumble quietly when council members and residents toured it Aug. 11. Classic car enthusiasts parked a row of vehicles dating from the 1950s to the 1930s as a symbolic show of support.

Those touring the station saw many repair needs. The roof leaks, and parts of the ceiling are falling. Brick walls need tuckpointing. Fencing keeps passersby from being injured should bricks fall.

The station was featured in “Fill’er Up: The Glory Days of Wisconsin Gas Stations,” a 2008 book from the Wisconsin Historical Society Press. The station, built around 1930 with Spanish-Colonial styling, has decorative tile insets and parapets on its red-clay roof. Authors Jim Draeger and Mark Speltz call it “a rare intact example of the Standard Oil Company’s standardized design for its super-service stations.” They believe it’s eligible for National Register of Historic Places listing. Few such showplaces remain. They were razed when competition, tough environmental rules and changing transportation needs and housing patterns made them obsolete.

Preservation of those that remain can’t come too soon, and such stations “are touchstones to understanding how the auto shaped the 20th century,” they wrote.

Here’s what fuels Janesville’s dilemma. The city poured more than $110,000 into acquiring the property in 2008 to provide space for expanding the police department. Officials say that project is at least a decade off. Still, the city is reluctant to sell the gas station.

The city estimates it could cost $250,000 or more to shore up and renovate the station for reuse. Moving it might prove cost prohibitive. The council agreed it won’t sink city dollars into the museum proposal.

Some of the auto enthusiasts are part of the group that convinced the city not to raze Oak Hill Cemetery’s chapel. The chapel group has raised $40,000 and gotten contractors to donate many repairs.

Tom Skinner says station supporters are ready to start fundraising. They suggest the museum could highlight Janesville’s decades as a General Motors town. Perhaps, dare we say, it could showcase that 1963 Chevy sold at a Nebraska auction last year. As The Gazette reported Aug. 14, the Janesville-built Impala has just 11 miles on the odometer, and the Ohio buyer says he might donate it to a museum here. Such a museum could draw tourists.

Janesville has a sad history of demolishing too much heritage. Of course, if the station becomes a museum, no one would want to see the site then used to expand the police department. Expanding instead to the north would require moving utilities for an estimated $70,000. Combine that cost with the expense of securing the gas station six years ago, and letting the museum project proceed would erase almost $200,000 in tax money.

So councilmen must ask themselves: If station supporters present a viable plan without relocating the building, is that museum worth $200,000 in taxpayer support?

It’s hard to fault Monday’s four-month delay. The tough decision might be yet to come.



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