Hot Springs’ historic Wesch-Oak building may be demolished this year, although the city hopes some of the sandstone blocks and the west facade will be saved.
“It’s a tragedy it has to come down. I’m a building restorer myself and it breaks my heart to see it come down,” said city administrator John Gregory. “I was the first to go in (the building) with the engineer, and I fell through the floor.”
The 127-year-old sandstone building sits in the historic district along State Highway 385, which is scheduled for reconstruction in the fall of 2021 for a state Department of Transportation project.
Bid proposals for the building demolition will be accepted until Feb. 10 with the city retaining salvageable sandstone blocks. It also includes an alternate bid item to save the West facade, which was requested by council member Deb Johnston at the Dec. 7 meeting.
Gregory said the city has been through a six-month process of trying to find a responsible bidder to stabilize the building, although discussions began in January 2020 after Albertson Engineering found the building was in imminent danger of falling.
He said the building has been in disrepair and in absentee ownership for about 20 years.
“They’re not going to do anything,” Gregory said.
The building is now owned by Hot Springs Citizens for Progress, a nonprofit organization that lists Robert Johnson of Arizona as its principal officer.
In 2018, Secretary of State Shantel Krebs signed a certificate of administrative dissolution for the nonprofit for failure to file the annual report. In June 2020, Judge Roberty Gusinkay of the 7th Judicial Court ruled that the Wesch-Oak building is a public nuisance and the city has the right to enter the property.
Gregory said the city’s Historic Preservation Commission has been working on rewriting city ordinances to address those who don’t take care of historic buildings. He said they received guidance from the state historical society.
He said the ordinances could include a fine of $500 a day a building is not in compliance with ordinances. Gregory said the city currently has ordinances that aren’t enforced.
Chapter 32 of the city’s ordinances states that property owners permitting deterioration and willful neglect of historic property shall be punished under the general penalty. This could change to an owner being charged with a Class 2 misdemeanor.
Custer area engineer Rich Zacher with the Department of Transportation said the project has been delayed due to the pandemic and acquiring right-of-way. He also said the department wouldn’t be able to move forward with construction knowing the Wesch-Oak was in bad condition.
“We don’t want to create vibrations and cause the building to collapse because it’s adjacent to another building,” he said.
At the Dec. 7 meeting, Uriah Luallin, who ran against U.S. Rep. Dusty Johnson in the 2020 election, and Michael Sommers presented a proposal to save the building under a company called Wesch Oak Restoration Kin LLC, or WORK. The company proposed to save the building using a “berm wall” to protect the building from vibrations.
Luallin and Sommers both sit on the Fall River County Historical Society board.
Sommers said Hot Springs doesn’t get as much tourist traffic as Rapid City or Custer, but its setting is unique and known for its minerals and architecture. He said if buildings like the Wesch-Oak can be saved, new businesses could move in.
“They’re irreplaceable,” Luallin said. “One they’re gone, they’ll never come back. They can’t architecturally build a building of that type the same way without excessive cost.”
The council rejected WORK’s proposal 5-3 at the Dec. 7 meeting.
Gregory said if someone can meet a deadline of stabilizing the building by July and cover a $500,000 performance bond, then the city would be open to the proposal.
If demolished and the sandstone blocks saved, Gregory said the city will use them along the suspended sidewalk with the Department of Transportation’s project.
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