The Decorah Municipal Bathhouse and Swimming Pool has been officially listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Earlier this month, the National Park Service announced it was the only property in Iowa that was part of recent additions to the National Register.

The listing is the culmination of a lengthy process that began with a report issued by the Decorah Historic Preservation Commission in January of 2009 on the historic significance of the building. Commissioner Kyrl Henderson then wrote an application for a Certified Local Government Grant from the State Historic Preservation Office to fund writing and submission of an application for the National Register.

The grant was secured, and Henderson managed the grant from the hiring of an appropriate consultant, Robert Vogel and his company Pathfinder CRM of Spring Grove, Minn., through the presentation of the application to the state committee June 10 in Des Moines.

"We are grateful this building has been recognized by the National Register designation. It's a real gem," Henderson said. "We would like to thank Robert Vogel and his fine team of researchers and specialists, and Dr. Paula Mohr, head of the State Historic Preservation Office, without whom we could never have received this listing. We are most thankful this building is getting the recognition it deserves on behalf of the Decorah Historic Preservation Commission, the Parks Department, the mayor, the city and all of the people of the area who continue to enjoy the pool and building every summer."

A recognition ceremony for the listing is currently in the planning stages.

'A rarity'

The Decorah Municipal Pool building is a rarity, not only because it survived the surge of replacing old buildings in the Midwest that began in the middle of the 20th century, but also because it has been in continuous use since it opened in the spring of 1937, according to Gregg Narber, a former Luther College history professor and former Commission member, who helped compile the history of the building.

It was designed by Edward Novak, who worked at the well-known Charles Altfillisch architectural firm in Decorah. Novak studied at the Cranbrook Academy in Michigan during the tenure of the Eliel Saarinen, one of the pioneers of the modern International Style. His son Eero Saarinen (designer of the St. Louis Arch, among other iconic structures in the U.S.) and Charles Eames were among his other students in that same era.

Altfillisch was influenced by this architectural style, which can be seen in his designs for several of his other Decorah buildings, including the Main Building, Valders Hall of Science and the original Centennial Union on the Luther College campus and several local public buildings: Decorah Lutheran Church, Decorah City Hall and the U.S. Post Office, in addition to several private residences in the city. The pool building is a vision of both Art Moderne and International styles of architecture.

WPA project

Not only is the pool building design an architectural specimen of an advanced contemporary style of its day, it has additional importance in local history, Narber said.

Constructing the Decorah Swimming Pool was a partnership project between the federal Works Progress Administration (WPA) and a local government project during the Great Depression. The property where it stands was donated by Luther College and a few local individuals. Carlson Construction of Decorah acted as the supervisor of this project, and local unemployed men were hired as laborers.

The pool building has significance on a state level, as it is the only remaining building from WPA projects of its style and significance in Iowa. The building is considered by historic architects to be in "very good" physical condition today.

"We are fortunate to have retained this building, as it has not been significantly altered and has been maintained very well by a committed community since it first opened. In recognizing it and continuing to use it, Decorah will be regarded as a community that leads the state in using our historic structures," Henderson said.

"Many other communities, regardless of size, find themselves lacking even the information about their historic architecture, let alone enjoying the wealth of structures and information we appreciate. It demonstrates leadership in community-minded projects that combine art, history and recreation. It also speaks to our awareness of and commitment to making decisions that support a position of a sustainable future, making use of our architectural heritage while keeping more materials out of our landfills."

The Register

The National Register of Historic Places is the official list of the Nation's historic places worthy of preservation. Authorized by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, the National Park Service's National Register of Historic Places is part of a national program to coordinate and support public and private efforts to identify, evaluate, and protect America's historic and archeological resources.

Among the goals of securing this National Register listing were to help support local preservation activities in a number of ways:

• Recognition of the national, state and local importance of a property which may be taken for granted by the local citizens by virtue of its daily use and perception of it being part of every day life in the community.

• Encourage heightened recognition of the historical significance other local properties.

• Recognition and acceptance of local supporters of historic preservation.

• Encourage other citizens to participate in historic preservation.

A common misconception is that with a National Register listing comes protections or special requirements imposed on property owners by the federal government. A listing by itself does not add any preservation requirements, restrictions or protections. It is recognition that a building or site is worthy of national recognition and preservation. The only time a National Register designation adds requirements for property owners is if the property owner has accepted and used federal funding to improve or renovate the property. Then the owner must go through a process to show cause should they wish to significantly alter or demolish the building / site.