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Navarre Cabin to learn fate next month as Historic Preservation Commission to weigh in again

Navarre Cabin currently located in Leeper Park in South Bend. Photo taken Oct. 2, 2023
Marek Mazurek, WVPE
Navarre Cabin currently located in Leeper Park in South Bend. Photo taken Oct. 2, 2023

A proposal to decide the fate of the Navarre Cabin was delayed this week, meaning the History Museum will wait until December to make its case about moving the historic structure.

The History Museum owns the structure and has plans to move it out of Leeper Park and to its campus on West Washington Street. History Museum leaders say the cabin has been subject to vandalism at its current location and with no nearby restrooms or security, school trips are becoming rare.

If the cabin were to move, the museum envisions making it part of an immersive homestead experience where it would be placed near a Potawatomi wigwam and a blacksmith shop to allow museum goers to learn about life in the 19th century.

History Museum Executive Director Brian Harding said up to 1,000 people come to the cabin in most years, while the museum’s campus gets around 45,000 visitors annually.

But previous plans to move the cabin have been voted down by South Bend’s Historic Preservation Commission.

Staff with the Historic Preservation Commission, or HPC gave the project an unfavorable recommendation in 2020 based on Leeper Park guidelines saying moving structures that would “alter spatial and visual relationships in the landscape shall not be allowed.”

The HPC was scheduled to hear the History Museum’s petition on Monday, but Harding said he requested the item be tabled until next month as the timing worked out better for both the museum and the HPC.

Both in 2020 and this year, Harding says he understands the Leeper Park guidelines to not alter anything, but he feels the preservation commission’s decision to allow extensive renovations to the west side of the park in 2019 set a precedent.

“But 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,” Harding said. “We’re hoping they might actually see the light a bit more and feel this is a worthwhile exception to be made.”

The discrepancy a few years ago in allowing the removal of the 111-year-old duck pond, but not allowing the cabin to move caused the South Bend Common Council to review the HPC’s decision, though they ultimately didn’t overrule the commission.

HPC staff this time around have sent the History Museum’s proposal through with no recommendation one way or the other. The HPC’s administrator did not respond to an email requesting an interview.

The report filed by the administrator does still mention the Leeper Park guidelines and the fact that moving the cabin will nullify its status as a historic landmark, meaning it would be ineligible for federal funding for future restoration.

Documents show the History Museum is committed to reapplying for historic status within a month of the move if it’s approved and museum staff have pointed out that they’ve only received federal funding for one project in the cabin’s lifetime dating back to 1820. The museum raised around $155,000 in the early 2000s to rebuild and restore the cabin, some of that money came from federal sources.

The makeup of the HPC has also changed significantly since the last time moving the cabin was discussed. Meeting minutes show that of the eight current historic preservation commissioners, only three were on the board in 2020 and only two were present for the vote with Joan Downs-Krostenko voting to approve the move and Sarah Andrews voting against it.

Harding said moving the cabin will cost around $60,000 while the total cost of creating the pioneer exhibit ranges close to $170,000. He added that the museum plans to put up a series of educational markers on the current site of the cabin to inform park goers about the history of the site, which includes the nearby Powell House.

“This is what it’s in the cabin’s best interest and we also feel if we can do something in the Leeper Park area to memorize this, to create this additional interpretive space. [Moving the] cabin won’t be a detriment. It’ll actually look better in Leeper Park.”

The HPC is now set to vote on the cabin’s future on December 18.

The first European settler in the area, 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 North Shore Drive, but was moved to Leeper Park in 1904. It was moved twice more since then to make room for the pumping station nearby.

The cabin was completely restored in 2005.

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.