Woolen Mill a reminder of Decorah's rich history

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Note: this copyrighted Letter to the Editor, written by Russell Kaney, HPI Director - Housing Investments, appeared in the Decorah Public Opinion.
Additionally, an article by Sarah Strandberg, was published spotlighting Decorah Wollen Mill.
"Preserving the Spirit of Place" is the theme for National Historic Preservation Week 2002 being celebrated in communities large and small across America.
Sponsored by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the week of May 12-18 is established to amplify the role of history in our lives and the contributions made by dedicated people in helping preserve the heritage that has shaped us as a people and community.
Decorah, Iowa has reason to celebrate. Over the years, residents and building stewards have expended time, effort and monies to restore personal homes, commercial buildings and places of worship, restoring the original luster to many sites.
It has allowed the rest of us to be casual observers, cheering them on and learning about the history and rich heritage of Decorah. Excellent examples of restoration can be found throughout Decorah.
In 2002, the tradition continues with the placing of the Decorah Woolen Mill on the National Register of Historic Places. More importantly, the building is undergoing an adaptive reuse. The Decorah Woolen Mill will have a functional, economic use in 2003 and beyond, providing affordable housing for 15 households in Decorah.
As a non-resident of Iowa, I have had the privilege to watch, from 200 miles away, the evolution of a building, the intense research required to establish authenticity and the care and concern shown by local groups to restore the Woolen Mill.
The Northeast Iowa Community Action Corporation (NEICAC), based in Decorah, serves a seven county area in Northeast Iowa. As owner of the Woolen Mill, their programs enhance and better the lives of hundreds of people each year.
NEICAC has been successful in providing new housing units in Calmar and Decorah, previously. The conversion of a historic industrial building to housing was a new challenge. NEICAC had a vision beyond a warehouse use for the Woolen Mill.
With the leadership of their executive director, Mary Ann Humpal, their excellent staff and direction from their Board, NEICAC sought out experienced partners to tackle the complexities of a major construction project.
There was never a doubt that quality, affordable housing was needed in Decorah. A market study and housing assessment confirmed that the need was real and immediate. Next, NEICAC identified a central Decorah site and building for potential rehabilitation.
The Decorah Woolen Mill, operating as the Decorah Tire Service for many years, was ideally situated being close to schools, recreation, downtown shopping and local services. The question, however, was whether housing units could be created from a former woolen mill, mitten factory, pharmaceutical factory, tire retailer and tire warehouse?
NEICAC, working closely with Gardner Architecture of Strawberry Point, Iowa and Finholt Construction of Decorah, determined that the building was structurally sound and could, indeed, be reused for housing.
Today, construction is 40 percent complete with the completion of the restoration and opening of the housing units scheduled for late 2002.
Preserving the past, discovering the history of the Woolen Mill and enhancing and enriching the lives of future residents of the Decorah Woolen Mill are all benefits of this worthwhile construction project.
Not only do we celebrate the restoration of the Woolen Mill during National Historic Preservation Week, we also celebrate the spirit of Decorah. Without strong community support and encouragement, this important development would not be moving toward completion.
"Preserving the Spirit of Place", the theme for National Historic Preservation Week is alive and well in Decorah, Iowa.

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