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History Museum has big plans for Navarre Cabin move, seeks approval from Historic Preservation Commission

Wood Structure Navarre Cabin
Marek Mazurek, WVPE
The Navarre Cabin in Leeper Park as seen on Oct. 2, 2023.

The home and trading post of the area’s first European settler, the Navarre Cabin has moved a handful of times already in its 200 years of existence, most recently in 1954 to make room for the water treatment facility in Leeper Park.

Now, however, The History Museum wants to move Pierre Navarre’s cabin to its campus off Thomas Street for more intentional reasons.

In its current site the cabin has seen its share of vandalism. It’s not easy to secure being close to the river and there are no working restrooms nearby. All that has led to a steep decline in the number of school trips to the cabin, especially since COVID.

But The History Museum has a vision for the historic structure. History museum executive director Brian Harding said should the cabin move, it will become part of an immersive homestead experience with a Potawatomi Wigwam, a blacksmith shop and a barn.

“We’d like to really move it with a sense of purpose,” Harding said. “We’d love to put it to a location where we can actually use it pretty regularly and move people from the community can benefit from it.”

Museum staff estimated between 500 and 1,000 people visit the cabin in most years, while the museum itself gets around 45,000 visitors annually. Harding said school trips could see the cabin and then the rest of the museum’s campus including the historical worker’s home and the Studebaker museum all in one trip.

Moving the cabin will cost around $60,000 while the total cost of creating the pioneer exhibit ranges close to $170,000.

In the spot where the cabin currently sits at Leeper Park, Harding said the museum plans to build an area with educational markers to inform the public about the cabin, Leeper Park and the nearby Powell House, the home of South Bend’s first African-American family.

Pierre Navarre built the cabin sometime around 1820 and the building came into The History Museum’s possession in 1895 when the society saved it from demolition. The cabin originally sat at what is today the 100 block of Northshore Drive, but was moved to Leeper Park in 1904. It was moved twice more since then to make room for the pumping station nearby.

Before The History Museum moves forward, however, it must get approval from the Historic Preservation Commission, which has proved difficult in the past. The History Museum has eyed moving Navarre Cabin before with mostly the same plan as the one it’s currently proposing.

The preservation commission voted against the move in 2020, saying the move went against guidelines established for Leeper Park which specified that nothing should be changed. Museum staff at the time pointed out that the preservation commission approved a massive renovation to the west side of the park, which included the removal of the Leeper Park duck pond that had been around for more than 100 years.

Harding said he hopes the commission recognizes the precedent it set with that decision and that the body will allow the move to happen for the good of the cabin.

“Since that time, the duck pond has moved and many other improvements have occurred within the Leeper Park area such that precedent has been set. And we’re hoping that they see the light a little bit more and see that this is a worthwhile exception to be made,” said Harding.

The Historic Preservation Committee will vote on the move at a Nov. 20 meeting. Harding said some in the community have reservations about the change, but he added they’ve almost all come around upon hearing the museum’s plan for the cabin.

Marek Mazurek has been with WVPE since April 2023, though he's been in Michiana for most of his life. He has a particular interest in public safety reporting. When he's not on the radio, Marek enjoys getting way too into Notre Dame football and reading about medieval English history.