- Associated Press - Monday, March 31, 2014

NEW ULM, Minn. (AP) - George Glotzbach’s father was the state administrator for the New Deal agency the Works Progress Administration.

The agency carried out public works projects nationwide, and it also commissioned large arts projects. Almost every community was touched in some way by the WPA. And in New Ulm, one of those ways was in the form of three murals painted by John Socha, said Darla Gebhard, research librarian at the Brown County Historical Society.

The murals, painted on canvas, were installed in the new addition to the then-New Ulm High School building, which was built in 1915. The addition was completed in 1939, and the murals were hung shortly after in the auditorium, where they remain to this day.

Like the art, the 75-year-old auditorium itself has been important to the community. As was the style in 1930s, a gymnasium and auditorium with theater seating are combined in one large area, and the space is used for school athletics, concerts and other programs. The auditorium is the only one in New Ulm, making it important to the New Ulm Actors Community Theatre (NUACT), too.

For all of these reasons, numerous stakeholders have been involved in the discussion of the sale of the New Ulm Public Schools-owned building for the past several years. Finally, a deal has been reached, and the school board voted 6-1 to sell the building to the newly formed Cenate LLC in New Ulm.

“In the lobby of the building is a plaque with my father’s name on it. He built that building,” Glotzbach said of his father, Linus Glotzbach. “This auditorium is the only public auditorium in New Ulm. . These three historical paintings are part of it.”

The school building became a middle school before it closed a few years ago. Estimates in 2007 came in at $4.7 million in necessary repairs and improvements, said former Superintendent Harold Remme in 2012. It would have cost $1 million to demolish the building due in part to asbestos.

So district offices have inhabited part of the space, and for years the district has been working on finding a good buyer. Due to all the history and the importance of the auditorium to the community, the district wanted to find a buyer interested in preserving that part of the structure, The Free Press of Mankato (https://bit.ly/1dO2GFv ) reported.

A group of residents in New Ulm (some with ties to NUACT) recently formed the 10-member group Cenate (named for the intersecting streets Center and State) to buy the building for $25,000, said Superintendent Jeff Bertrang.

Bertrang said the group’s plans are in line with the district’s wishes to see the building preserved and restored. The group plans to subdivide the property, said Cenate interim president Reed Glawe, a New Ulm attorney. The auditorium and small gym will be restored, and the rest of the building will likely be turned into market-rate apartments.

Ownership of the auditorium section will eventually go to a separate sub-group of Cenate, made up of the theater enthusiasts. The rest will be sold to a developer after at least two years, as a two-year lease is included in the contract for the district to continue leasing space for $5,000 per month. Another lease is for $1 per year for 10 years for auditorium use, with the district receiving priority for use and scheduling.

The district is currently spending more than $60,000 per year in operational costs on the building and more than $15,000 for insurance. Bertrang said the district wanted to redirect as much of those resources as possible to the buildings that actually house students as soon as possible.

Glawe said Cenate plans to apply for a historic designation for the building so that historic-preservation tax credits help with the restoration costs. He said he hopes those tax credits and other tax breaks will attract more than one developer to the project.

In the meantime, Glawe said the group is decidedly taking a risk on a lot of “ifs.”

“This is not, by any means, a cake walk. But hopefully the group we’ve put together brings to the table the skills to get this accomplished,” Glawe said. “There’s a lot to do. We are kind of taking a step into the unknown here.”

As for the murals, Cenate and the district have agreed that they will not be moved, Glawe said. The district has been talking with the Brown County Historical Society about possibly transferring ownership to the society, which would commit to caring for the paintings in the auditorium.

“The murals will stay in place,” Bertrang said. “Whoever owns the property . they cannot be removed.”

Glotzbach won’t be satisfied until he sees the contract in writing that the historical society will own the murals. He’s been fighting for their preservation for more than a decade, he said.

One painting is of the signing of the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux. Another is of construction workers to demonstrate progress and industry. The third is of the “attack on New Ulm by Dakota,” with settlers shown hiding behind a barricade, Glotzbach said. In 2001, some people in New Ulm wanted the painting removed.

“I went ballistic when I heard that,” said Glotzbach, who wrote letters to numerous influential people from the community level to the state. “I said, ‘Over my dead body are you going to do anything to those murals.’ . I went to school there and saw those murals every day. . They are part of me.”


Information from: The Free Press, https://www.mankatofreepress.com

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