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City, historical society come to resolution on Davis WPA bathrooms

Published: Sunday, Feb. 2, 2014 - 9:09 pm
Last Modified: Sunday, Feb. 2, 2014 - 9:23 pm

A set of Depression-era restrooms in Davis once destined for demolition have a new chance at survival under an agreement the City Council approved last week.

The 1937 restroom building, located in the northeast corner of Central Park, is Davis’ first public restroom and the only structure in the city made by the Works Progress Administration – a New Deal stimulus plan that put thousands to work on public beautification projects.

The City Council voted in 2011 to demolish the structure to make way for new restrooms and a playground accessible to children with disabilities.

But historical advocates came to its defense. After nearly three years of negotiations and a staff-revised plan taking the old restrooms into account, the City Council voted Dec. 17 to allow the staff of the Hattie Weber Museum to convert the structure into a storage shed – provided that the museum can raise the funds for the project.

City Manager Steve Pinkerton and Davis Historical Society President Kathy Harryman signed a formal agreement Jan. 28 detailing costs and deadlines for the project. The city estimated $50,000 for the remodeling project, which the museum needs to raise by Dec. 31 in order to save the building.

“We don’t see it as a bathroom,” said Harryman. “We see it as an edifice that was created from the hands of the people who lived in Davis at that time. That to us is more important than a plaque that says this was a WPA building.”

The Hattie Weber Museum, also located in the northeast corner of the park, is dedicated to preserving the heritage and history of the Davis area. The staff has raised $8,000 so far, said director Dennis Dingemans, and is holding its first public fundraiser party Feb. 14, featuring pianist Dick Livingston on the 1908 Schmeiser family piano.

The city agreed to direct toward preservation the $14,000 initially intended for demolition. If the fundraising effort is successful, the city would handle the remodeling project and maintain ownership of the structure and the museum would take over management.

Should the museum fail to meet its goal, the city’s money would be reallocated to demolition and museum donations will remain with the historical society, which operates the museum.

Though the bathroom is the only WPA structure within city limits, two prominent landmarks nearby were also WPA projects: the Peter J. Shields Library and Hickey Gymnasium at the University of California, Davis.

In June, the city installed new bathrooms in the park closer to the farmers market, which draws large crowds on Wednesdays and Saturdays. The new bathrooms are part of a wider plan to update the 1937 portion of the park, said city parks planner Anne Brunette, which also included installing LED lights and replacing the existing playground with one twice its size.

Construction of the new playground begins Feb. 3. Previous plans that called for demolishing the WPA structure envisioned a park plaza in place of the old restrooms.

Dingemans said he intends to use the remodeled structure as an annex for delicate items that are currently packed into the museum, such as a set of bells, several bicycles and a large safe.

“Right now they’re stuffed underneath our exhibit cases, on the sides of the rooms,” he said. “We’re looking a little bit like an antique store.”

The structure’s northern and western additions, constructed in 1941 and 1956 respectively, will likely be removed during remodeling to accommodate the new playground. Dingemans said the remaining 19-by-19-foot shed will provide plenty of room.

“If they remove the additions to it and finish the building so it looks nice, it should kind of blend in with the museum next door,” said Brunette.

Davis Mayor Joe Krovoza, who voted against the demolition of the restrooms in 2011, called last week’s compromise “a great resolution for everybody,” despite tension between preservationists and advocates for demolition and park expansion.

“Hanging on to our connection to WPA and all the good it did for America and Davis is something I want to preserve,” he said. “That corner of the park is our history corner.”

Call The Bee’s Sammy Caiola, (916) 321-1636.

Read more articles by Sammy Caiola

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