The State Historic Preservation Review Board voted unanimously Friday to put the Potawatomi State Park observation tower on the State Register of Historic Places.
The tower’s formal addition to the state’s list means the status will be forwarded to the U.S. Department of the Interior for consideration for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Sturgeon Bay Historical Society Foundation (SBHSF) paid to have the historic listing application prepared. The group has been trying to save the structure from demolition – a fate the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) had in store for the tower.
The historic listing does not provide insurance against demolition. But it does mean the state agency must consult with the Wisconsin State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) regarding any changes to the tower.
The SBHSF is hopeful the designation will save the tower from destruction.
“We are honored and hopeful that this inclusion of Potawatomi tower onto the Wisconsin and National Register will encourage Gov. Evers and DNR Secretary Cole to recognize that this very important ‘first observation tower ever built in the state of Wisconsin’ is worth protecting as a one-of-a-kind, irreplaceable, historic, iconic tourist attraction worthy of the small investment required in repairing it for the next generation,” said Christie Weber, SBHSF president.
The DNR permanently closed the 75-foot observation tower to the public in the spring of 2018. The closure followed a visual inspection performed by staff from the Forest Products Laboratory that found wood decay. The DNR’s official position has been that demolition is the only choice because repairing the tower would require the agency to meet Americans with Disabilities (ADA) requirements – a cost the state agency said it cannot afford, particularly when a precedent has been set with Eagle Tower in Peninsula State Park.
The SBHSF has insisted – and received backing from Rep. Joel Kitchens (R-Sturgeon Bay), the Town of Nasewaupee, Door County, the City of Sturgeon Bay, the Door County Historical Society and others – that the repair job does not constitute the kind of alteration that would trigger ADA requirements.
The SBHSF’s position has been informed by an assessment of the tower performed by wood expert Dr. Dan Tingley, a senior engineer and wood technologist with Wood Research and Development in Oregon. His report showed the tower was in need of only minor repairs that could be done for $250,000 or less.
The DNR commissioned another report to review Tingley’s report, and although the DNR validated Tingley’s findings, the DNR’s conclusion differed.
Weber asked that the state address the handicapped-access issue separately from the tower repair, whether through a sister lookout, kiosk alternative or other option somewhere in the same area in the future, when funds are made available or raised.