Our Views: Old gas station in downtown Janesville deserves reprieve

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Thursday, May 1, 2014

Janesville Police Chief Dave Moore says the odds of someday expanding the police station are good. The tougher question is when.

Here's another: Must the project demolish a historic but crumbling gas station behind the police station, or could the station be adapted for use by police or other city services?

The city bought the building in 2007 so the police station could expand on the property. Moore says street setbacks, buried utilities and the police station's design pose problems for expanding in other directions. The police station wasn't designed to add a floor atop it.

New City Manager Mark Freitag thinks the city should be a role model for property owners by demolishing the run-down gas station. He needs more understanding of this city's sad habit of destroying history.

Councilman Matt Kealy was right in countering that the city could also serve as a model by fixing the gas station and shouldn't have let it fall into disrepair as an excuse for demolition.

Fortunately, some of the same preservationists striving to save the historic Oak Hill Cemetery chapel want to save the gas station. On Monday, the council wisely voted to give residents until Sept. 1 to explore options and put $35,000 in TIF money toward repairs rather than demolition.

The gas station's roof and walls need work. Unsightly orange fencing surrounds part of it to keep passersby from being injured should bricks tumble.

The station was highlighted in “Fill'er Up: The Glory Days of Wisconsin Gas Stations,” a 2008 book from the Wisconsin Historical Society Press. The Spanish-Colonial design features decorative tile insets and a red-clay tile roof.

Authors Jim Draeger and Mark Speltz said it's “a rare intact example of the Standard Oil Co.'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 torn down because of competition, obsolescence, stronger environmental regulations and changing transportation needs and housing patterns.

“Preservation of remaining stations cannot come too soon,” they wrote, adding that such stations “are touchstones to understanding how the auto shaped the 20th century.”

It makes no sense for the city to sell the building if it might need it to expand the police station. Selling it could cause the city to someday force out the new owner, much like the city is pushing aside homeowners to expand its main fire station. On the flip side, preservationists struggled to attract a business willing to repair a building it can only lease. However, Richard Snyder, a leader in the cemetery chapel effort, said last week he would put his stained-glass studio in the station, pay rent and give the city a discount on chapel window repairs. City staff didn't recommend the council accept Snyder's plan, angering Jackie Wood.

Wood, Rock County Historical Society Board president, and others who have tried to save the building only learned of the city staff's proposal to level it after a Gazette reporter called last week. That's another gaffe in city communications.

If the city doesn't find Snyder's plan acceptable, Wood suggested leisure services could vacate a back hallway at City Hall across the street and work out of the gas station. That spot would create a focal point for the department and ease sign-ups for recreation programs and facilities.

Would that move free up space for the police department to use across the street? Or could a future police station expansion incorporate the old gas station?

These ideas are worth exploring. Repairs to the gas station cannot be put off much longer. Yet demolishing it in haste would erase one more link to Janesville's heritage.

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