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One track mind: Whitewater goes back to drawing board for depot restoration

The Whitewater train depot was in line for renovations, but city officials applied the brakes after construction bids came in over budget. The project will proceed but residents will have to wait until summer for its completion. (AP Photos by Bill Olmstead/The Janesville Gazette)

By Kevin Hoffman
The Janesville Gazette

WHITEWATER (AP) — Whitewater’s iconic train depot will have to wait until 2012 to get its long-awaited renovation.

But hey, what’s a few more months when you’re 121 years old?

The city’s historic train station was due for a makeover, but plans were put on hold when construction bids came in over budget. Although the project will continue, residents now must wait until summer before the new and improved depot is unveiled.

“We really feel promise about how we can go forward and get this done and get the building we want,” said Ellen Penwell, president of the Whitewater Historical Society.

The historical society for years used the train depot to store its collection detailing Whitewater’s past. The collection includes photographs, archived documents and a textile collection, Penwell said.

The archives contain material from the pioneer period, including a general history collection detailing early settlement in the region. The exhibits reflect the history of those that lived in the Whitewater area.

Whitewater city officials are targeting construction to begin in the spring at the 121-year-old train depot, with the expectation that it will open in time for the Fourth of July celebration.

“What we want to do when we get back in (to the train depot),” Penwell said, “is tell that narrative — the history of Whitewater.”

The historical society has struggled with how to display its collection. The train depot is the ideal spot, but it only is 1,000 square feet and some parts of the building barely are up to city code.

Whitewater in 2008 took its first major step toward renovating the depot when it received a $320,000 federal transportation enhancement grant. The total cost of the project is about $400,000.

The city pledged $40,000 and the historical society sold memorial bricks to come up with another $40,000. Penwell said those bricks would make up the sidewalk leading to a pair of doors at the depot that hadn’t been opened for years.

“That was a fantastic response from the community,” said Penwell, who expects the bricks to arrive by the end of the year.

The original timeline for the restoration had construction beginning next year. That was until the city received just two bids for the project, both of which significantly were over budget.

Mary Nimm, Whitewater’s former community development coordinator, said the lowest bid was about $52,000 more than what was allotted by the federal grant for construction.

The city council rejected both bids and expects to lobby for new bids early next year. Nimm called January a “more favorable bidding climate.”

Penwell said the project wouldn’t change, but the city might ask that the next round of bids include itemized estimates for different phases of the restoration. That will allow project leaders to determine what’s most important, and what they can afford.

“What’s going to be key is to retain all of the most important items that we identified,” she said. “There are just some things you can’t compromise.”

Penwell said the depot, built in 1890, was pretty well preserved because of the brick used to build it. Inside, water problems in the basement caused the upper floor to buckle.

The building is not in danger structurally, she said. Most of the upgrades involve services such as plumbing that almost are out of code.

Plans also include making the building handicapped accessible and adding a unisex bathroom. Additional renovations are to the original ticket office and smoking room. Those would be used for research or to display exhibits. The former passenger holding room would display a chronological history of the city.

Those can wait, Penwell said. Depending on January’s bids, the historical society might put off less urgent projects in order to complete other phases of the restoration. Penwell indicated the historical society might take on some tasks itself, such as a waterproof coating for the basement floor.

Isthmus Architecture in Madison is helping design the renovation. The company specializes in historical preservation.

Construction could start this spring. Penwell hopes the depot will be ready to open in time for the city’s Fourth of July celebration.

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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