The halls of the former elementary school at 202 South Washington have fallen silent again, with South Square being a venue directly impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. 

However, even with no morning conversation to be had over a latte at South Square Coffee, and even though the stage will see no talent from the Cedar Summerstock Theatre this year, the event center has been anything but idle. The nonprofit has been working to earn prestigious status on the National Register of Historic Places for nearly four years, and the efforts have finally paid off.

Ashley DeMaris, member of the Board of Directors for South Square (SSQ), said that the process has been quite a journey. She explained that hours were spent scouring records and decades-old newspaper articles to make a case for the school-turned-hometown-gem, and a professional historian visited and researched the site. 

“There was a ridiculous amount of information to look through,” DeMaris said, recounting how much history there is behind the building. “It was a headache to get on the registry, but it provides a lot of opportunity for [South Square].”

DeMaris said that the venue’s new position on the National Register brings a sense of prestige to the building, as well as a whole new world of grant and funding possibilities to keep providing all that SSQ has to offer. 

SSQ’s leading factor was its significance to the county and community; residents of St. Ansgar and beyond have enjoyed a wide variety of events there, including art galleries, a museum, craft shows, fundraisers, private parties and live entertainment. Additionally, the building is in relatively immaculate condition and hasn’t undergone modernization, which is something that the National Register looks for. 

The process to earn this recognition is so extensive that DeMaris, among others who advocated for the aged giant on Washington to live on, got the ball rolling before the building had even been decommissioned as a school back in 2016. With a demolition of the historic site on the books for when the school district cleared out in the spring of 2017, the band of voices calling for historic preservation didn’t have time to lose. 

South Square has been a hub for St. Ansgar and Mitchell County activity since it first opened its doors as an elementary school in 1928. In that year, its auditorium and kitchen equipment were considered state of the art. The building may certainly not be a cutting edge facility anymore, with its wooden stairs having carried hundreds of pairs of little feet and its interior evolved from modern to classic to antique, but DeMaris said that the efforts to recognize the Washington Street treasure were all worth it. 

“[We did this for] the amazing recognition, proving the historical value of our building, and also this designation opens doors for grants that require a recipient to be on the NHR. Mostly national or federal historic preservation grants have this as a requirement,” she said. 

“This NHR award is really thanks to the entire amazing St. Ansgar community, back in spring of 2016 when we started this journey, asking our citizens what they saw for a future for this building they came to the rescue, providing funds, time, talent and resources to make the current version of SSQ that we see today possible,” DeMaris continued. “So really, ‘great job STA!’ You saved your building, gave her another chance and now we see a celebrated, thriving community center.”

While the venue had a packed summer agenda this year, including its third birthday bash originally scheduled in early May, the performances of the Cedar Summerstock Theatre, and handfuls of private parties, South Square is taking things day by day as the pandemic continues to develop.

The Cedar Summerstock Theatre summer season was one of the first to officially cancel. Other events, including the formal reopening of the venue’s coffee shop, museum and galleries, will come as the government allows. 

“The global pandemic has impacted everyone, leaving no person, community or industry untouched,” said the Cedar Summerstock Theatre Board of Directors in a prepared statement. “Cedar Summerstock, like many nonprofit theater companies, has been forced to make difficult decisions about its upcoming season. In order to protect the health and safety of our artists and the rest of our cherished community, we are deeply saddened to announce that we will be postponing our fourth season to the summer of 2021. We considered various scenarios, including a partial season, but have determined it is most responsible and viable to postpone the entire season.”

The 2020 performance lineup has been bumped to 2021, and patrons with tickets to the 2020 season can convert them to tickets for 2021. The theatre will also accept donations in lieu of tickets, or provide refunds upon request. 

“The future of SSQ if bright, even in the face of this COVID-19 lockdown,” DeMaris said. “SSQ is a patient old building and she’s not going anywhere. For some 90 years this building would wait all summer for her kids to come back to class in the fall and now she waits for the lockdown to lift. While the summer might look different with the announcement of Cedar Summerstock Theater season postponement it will be no less busy. 

“As soon as healthcare and government officials say its safe, SSQ will roar back to life, with coffee, classes and events! Stay tuned to the SSQ Facebook page and website for activity updates.”

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