Burned WPA building restored in Tuttle, N.D.TUTTLE, N.D. — Fred Zerr shuffled an old piece of plywood around in his garage in Tuttle.
By: Lauren Donovan, Associated Press, The Jamestown Sun
TUTTLE, N.D. — Fred Zerr shuffled an old piece of plywood around in his garage in Tuttle.
Painted on the wood are the words “Should this building be saved?” He moved it to the side, the deed already done.
One of Tuttle’s most esteemed citizens posed the right question at the right moment in time.
The painted plywood had been propped up in front of a 1938, Depression-era building that was burned out to a stone shell in a fire of unknown origin on Nov. 20, 2007.
The building was a landmark structure in town, serving as its post office and city hall for decades. The fire was a tragedy not because a replacement building would have cost too much, but because it was priceless.
More than what it housed, its significance came from what lingers — the memory of a time when this financially staggering country made work for citizens, paying them $30 a month to build civic buildings, dams and bridges. The Works Progress Administration jobs provided dignity; the money something to get by on.
Zerr was just a young boy then. He watched while the men of his town cut local field stone into solid rectangles and mortared them up strong and true.
“It was all local rocks, all local help,” he said. “It was something for the men to do, something to buy a little groceries with.”
Zerr went off for welding training and eventually welded wartime-era submarines. He came back and opened a welding shop in Tuttle, with a reputation for being a man whose ability to weld metal was unmatched.
He still goes up to the shop every day to work beside his son. Zerr is 86 years old.
Like others in Tuttle, he’s pleased that the landmark building was saved from destruction, or more sadly, a gradual decline until it crumbled to the ground.
The town got into the spirit of that question, painted onto plywood. Many residents contributed money and a committee handled all the details and came up with a few grants.
Burdell Johnson, of rural Tuttle, said it took a while for the momentum to build. People were stunned by the fire. “That was a sad day,” he said.
“We were in limbo for a while trying to figure out what we were going to do with it. We got together and decided to go for it,” he said. Johnson was on the committee and wrote the two grant applications.
Sidney Larson, of Tuttle, husband of the town’s postmaster, emerged as a key figure, heading up construction and coordinating volunteers.
Larson said the project literally involved building a new structure inside of a stone shell.
The building became his life for most of two years.
Today, the old WPA building houses three modern apartments and the city’s office. The old jail, encased in concrete and steel down in the lower level, was all that survived intact. It’s used for storage now.
About $200,000 went into the renovation. Larson said he’s proud of the project and all the volunteers who helped.
“It went together real well,” he said. “Everybody’s really happy with it.”
Perhaps few are happier than Zerr, whose home is right across the street.
“It would have been a dirty shame to have a rock structure and do away with it,” he said. “They did a real good job.”
During the time the building was burned and the town was deciding what to do, Zerr could hardly avoid seeing the darkened shell of history in the heart of his hometown.
“It didn’t look the same. It’s nice to look over and see the light on,” he said.