by Kirsten Dirksen
by Kirsten Dirksen
I located this place back in 2007. The house sat on a 220 acre farm enrolled in CRP, a government sponsored set-aside program that pays farmers not to plow marginal and environmentally sensitive lands and instead plant them with native prairie grasses. With the contract up in 2008, the owner decided to not renew and bulldozed the farmstead and plowed up the native prairie for corn. The before and after photos were taken from the same perspective.
I was recently interviewed by New York photographer Angela Cappetta. See the interview and check out her amazing work at http://angelacappetta.blogspot.com/. Thanks, Angela!
The Howes house was built by an English family sometime in the 1870s or 1880s using logs salvaged from existing buildings. The area in which the house sat, French Creek Township, Allamakee County, was settled beginning in the late 1840s. Twenty or thirty years later existing structures were already being taken down and repurposed into new houses . What I do isn’t particularly new or unique.
I disassembled the house in 2008 and it was rebuilt as an addition onto an existing house. See portfolio page for the end results. I really, really appreciated this sweet little house and was sad to take it apart. The family who owned it had had it since the 1960s and did not know the core of it was log. I found it and immediately called the owner and asked whether I could have the thing. ”What log house?” they asked.
The logs both inside and outside were covered from the day it was built. The corner notching was an impeccable full dovetail, but the spacing between the logs was ridiculously large. Keep in mind they simply meant the logs to serve as framing much like 2″x4″s do in a conventional house. The species is all oak. In disassembling it and putting it back together I conjectured there were at least logs from two, possibly three houses. The timbers had existing V-notches, dovetail notches, notching for doors and windows, and odd weathering patterns where they shouldn’t have been.
This place is pretty special. I visited it when I was about five years old with our family friend Leila Matter. Perhaps my earliest memory, it no doubt had great effect! Born in 1910, Leila grew up in this house and lived there till she met her husband Stanley. Leila died in 2009 at the age of 99. The house dates to about 1875 and was built by a German immigrant, a relative of Leila’s, though I’m not sure of the exact connection.
The house remained occupied till about 1940 and by some stroke of luck still stands. The roof has failed and the logs are pretty weathered. The original one room house measures 16′ x 18′, the logs are cottonwood (I think!), and the corners are all square notched. Notice the sweet tongue and groove wainscot used throughout the inside.
Located in Norwegian settled Glenwood Township in eastern Winneshiek County, this little 14′ x 16′ house is almost totally intact. It was replaced by a new house in about 1900 and converted into a shed. The primary facade (with door and most likely side window) was chopped out and two swinging doors installed in their place. The steeply pitched 12/12 roof is not original either, and replaces a much shallower 4/12 or 6/12 roof. The standing seam metal is perhaps a hundred years old and still functions like it is new. The logs are all oak and the corners are joined in a very shallow dovetail notch.
Below are photos of a barn I just finished rehabilitating. Located in western Allamakee County, this small 12′x18′ building was built by Norwegian immigrants sometime in the latter decades of the 19th century. Very similar to the Norwegian-inspired two and three room plans, this building consists of a main room, or stue, and an attached forstue. The stue is log and the forstue heavy frame. The upper level was a hay mow, and the bottom an animal shelter, likely for cattle and pigs, and later on for chickens and rabbits.
The building was a complete wreck when I found it, having been neglected for decades. It had sunk a good foot into the ground, rotting out the bottom three to four courses. I ended up replacing sixteen logs. The roof was completely rotten, too. About three quarters of the aspen pole rafters had rotted, and every last roof board was punky. The whole roof had to come off and be reconstructed. The building was originally set on small rocks set directly on the ground. Realizing this wasn’t adequate, I had to elevate all four corners and dig and pour new corner piers.
The barn will be used as a bunkhouse for family vacations.
This project took about 260 hours to complete.
I have a habit of touting every new house I find as the best one yet. But seriously, this one actually is. I found it last weekend driving outside Spring Grove, Minnesota. The house is impressive in many ways, if not entirely by its sheer size. It measures 19.5′ x 36′ and has an interior square footage of 1,295. It stands a full two stories in height and feels airy and substantial, both inside and out.
Most Norwegian-American buildings I’ve located are easily pigeon-holed into convenient building tradition classifications. There’s the single room stue, the two and three room stuer, the stue with attached svalgang entry porch, the midtkammer or parstue, and many variations of each. This particular house is the midtkammer or parstue plan. This house type– both executed in frame construction and log– is quite rare here in North America, unlike its unexceptional occurrence in Norway. Of the few hundred Norwegian-American log houses I’ve located throughout northeast Iowa and southeast Minnesota, only one other is a parstue. See prior Guttebo House post. Darrell Henning has located at least one in Wisconsin, and a frame construction example within the town of Spring Grove.
Jerri Holan in Norwegian Wood: A Tradition of Building (a must have!) writes of the parstue (midtkammer) stue:
“The midtkammer stue was also common in eastern valleys, especially in Østerdal, but it can be found in some central valleys as well. The midtkammer stuer were an an eighteenth-century development in Norway’s farmsteads, featuring an entrance in the middle of the building with a pantry behind it and a stue room to either side. One was the “best” stue, akin to a parlor, and the other was for working and eating. Later in the eighteenth century this latter room became the kitchen. Originally, the type was a one-story structure, but as larger stuer became customary, it easily developed into two stories. The later midtkammer houses were quite popular in eastern Norway, and from there they spread north, providing a basis for the trønderlåner houses characteristic of Trøndelag.”
The parstue plan is very similar to the classic American I-house, but differs in a few distinct ways. Like the I-house, the parstue consists of a central passageway sandwiched between two roughly square shaped rooms. The walls that divide the two rooms from the passageway are both log. In the case of the Guttebo House, one was log and the other conventional stud framing. The dwelling’s primary entrance is centered on the 36′ long side and enters into the middle passageway. Upon entry into the house is the staircase to the second floor. Behind the staircase is a pantry/closet, which would have been used in conjunction (functionally) with the working (kitchen) stue. The closet would have been accessed through the working stue and not through the central passageway. In the case of the Blexrud house, the closet/pantry was converted into a bathroom and its doorway modified to sit directly next to the staircase within the central passageway. Parstue houses are easily identified by the presence of two chimneys, both centered around the interior walls comprising the center passageway.
Its rare to find an occupied house so nearly intact, especially one as significant as this. It retains much of its original 19th century flare both inside and out. The exterior is sheathed in wooden clapboard siding and retains its original eave and gable trim. The windows are largely intact, too, including original twelve light sashes, interior window trim, and exterior pediment (triangular shaped) window hoods. Much of the interior remains intact, too, including the staircase and 6″ tongue and groove pine floors, and (I’m sure) countless other features guised under later modernizations. It’s an old house. And I’m sure it’s really difficult to live in, but oh my god, is it beautiful.
as i mentioned in the previous post, houses with purlins and ridgepoles are quite rare. of the six houses i’ve located with this type of roof, four were one room plan, while the other two the larger three room plan. below are photos of the five buildings. for most examples i’ve included two photos- one of the exterior and one taken from inside the attic.