By Jim Becket
To destroy or not to destroy; that is the question. And the object of the question is the Precious Potty, the historic but admittedly stinky old restroom building in Davis’ Central Park — constructed in 1937 using Works Progress Administration funds. These funds came from the Franklin Roosevelt administration to provide employment during the traumatic period of our history known as the Great Depression.
But first, some background. About three years ago, city staff embarked on an ambitious plan to upgrade the children’s play area at Central Park. The crown jewel of that plan was — and still is — the installation of a wonderful interactive play structure that would allow kids with special needs to play, too.
The plan also called for the creation of a “History Plaza” in the area south of the Hattie Weber Museum of Davis, the main feature of which would be colored concrete representing Putah Creek, flowing from the west to the east, and its environs.
Several other features of the plan were included to make room for the play structure, including the removal of the dilapidated and seldom-used horseshoe pits (which has been done), improved lighting (which has been done), and the upgrading and rerouting of the electrical installation (which has been done).
Last, but not least, new restrooms were to be installed along the south edge of that area of the park. No trees were to be disturbed. The attractive new restrooms, with storage space for city use, are complete and functioning.
And that brings us to the heart of this op-ed piece: the preservation of the Precious Potty (so named by a Channel 13 news crew). From the beginning of this process three years ago, city staff has recommended demolition of the old restroom building. But also from the beginning, the volunteer staff of the Hattie Weber Museum of Davis, which stands to the north, in close proximity to the restrooms, has pleaded for the building to be saved.
* The building is historic. Although not meeting the Secretary of the Interior standards for historical designation because of modifications that have been made to it over the years, it was built in 1937 using WPA funds. There’s a plaque on the front announcing this, but you’ve probably never seen it because of the shade structure. It is the only WPA building in Davis.
* The Hattie Weber Museum desperately needs storage space for its growing collection of historical Davis artifacts, which are city property, and other exhibit materials. The need for this to be in close proximity to the museum is obvious, we think. And certainly it’s better than my garage, where much of the non-city-owned materials are now.
* We envision the building as the centerpiece of an authentic History Plaza, as opposed to a phony one of colored concrete. We have prepared a detailed proposal for the creation of such a plaza that we have submitted to city staff and that we will present to the City Council in the near future.
* The doors and windows of the old restroom building could, over time, be made into lighted display cases, so that Davis history could be viewed over a longer time span than the current museum hours on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Stand-alone exhibit cases and plaques could enhance the plaza.
* Much was made at previous City Council meetings of the area between the WPA building and the museum as, a haven for “dangerous undesirables” to congregate and be a threat to the children using the interactive play area. But the fact is, these “undesirables” are gone! The rotating interfaith shelter for the homeless was quite effective last winter. Frequent checking so far this spring and summer reveals that — except for children from the summer camp in the park — there is only a very rare individual in the area between the museum and the WPA building. As far as we know, arrests have been nil. Lighting has been installed.
* As far as public opinion is concerned, volunteer staff members at the Hattie Weber Museum have collected more than 600 signatures from museum visitors on a petition to save the building.
* Bedrock Construction has made an informal estimate of less than $4,000 to do the necessary cleanup and deodorizing of the building to allow the restroom area to be used for storage. (The other half of the building is currently being used for storage and would not require renovation.)
The city would, of course, have to go through its normal bidding process, which undoubtedly would result in a higher figure due to the necessary restrictions that would apply, but the cost should still be less than demolition costs. (And we are not shy about fundraising.) Creating a true History Plaza would be more expensive but could be done over time.
And finally, if the building is so bad, why is it still open now that the new restrooms are up and running?
— Jim Becket is a longtime Davis resident and the director emeritus of the Hattie Weber Museum of Davis. He was Davis’ Citizen of the Year in 2010.