Weighing the Price of Progress in Chelsea

Published In:
Community Observer, Spring 2001,
Spring 2001

Author: Grace Shackman

Pressure to meet modern needs endangers three historic landmarks.

Demand for housing and retail and industrial sites in the Chelsea area has exploded in recent years—so a lot more people are mailing letters, checking out library books, and wanting to park their cars downtown. But even as residents put the heat on village leaders to meet these needs, they are also concerned about not just paving over Chelsea's past.

Take the McKune Public Library, for example. Built in 1860, the building has immeasurable historical value as the home of Elisha Congdon, who, with his brother James, founded Chelsea. As a library, on the other hand, it's becoming very cramped and outmoded. But when the board raised the option of tearing it down to build a new, larger library, there was a public outcry. Most villagers also resisted the idea of locating a new library anyplace but downtown, according to Lynn Fox, library board president. "It's [on] a wonderful site, especially if the city moves their offices across the street."

Fox was referring to efforts by Chelsea developer Rene Papo to build and lease a government center on the Palmer Ford lot there. If Papo's successful, his new office center would solve one of Chelsea's long-standing problems. For three years, municipal offices have been temporarily housed in a bank next to the library.

Papo's plan might also solve another problem: the need for a larger post office. Last year the Postal Service declared that Chelsea's current post office is too small and lacks adequate truck access. While villagers have no control over this decision, they are demanding that the postal authorities keep any new post office downtown. Meanwhile the fate of the old building also remains uncertain, and it, too, contains an invaluable piece of Chelsea's history. In 1936 the federal Works Progress Administration (WPA) commissioned artist George H. Fisher to paint a mural on its north wall. Villagers treasure the mural, The Way of Life (right), as an important example of original Depression-era art and as a significant part of Chelsea's past.

If and when a new post office is built, the old structure—and its mural—will be offered to other governmental units by rank. If federal, state, or county officials decide they want the building, villagers will have no formal input over the fate of it or the mural.

Meanwhile, the Downtown Development Authority is building a new parking lot on the Staffan-Mitchell Funeral Home property in response to villagers' demands for more downtown parking. But that location puts a circa-1880 home, most recently home to Serendipity Books, in the way of the bulldozers (see Marketplace Changes, p. 59).

Sensitive to the historic value of the building, the DDA has announced that it will sell the house for a nominal sum if the buyer is willing to move it. "We're not trying to make money," says DDA director Ann Feeney.

It's obvious to many people that these three landmarks—the McKune house, the post office's WPA mural, and Serendipity House—are "priceless." But saving them will come at a price, and someone will have to pay it.

So far, no one has stepped forward to save Serendipity House. The library plans to approach outside sources for contributions before going to the voters for approval of a bond issue to pay for planned additions and renovations on the McKune house. At press time, the board had no figures on the estimated cost.

The fate of the WPA mural will probably take the longest to determine. Anyone who tries to remove it, however, will face a lot of angry villagers. "They'd never destroy it," says Feeney. "People would go bananas if that happened."

—Grace Shackman