Monthly Archives: February 2011

Haugen Hill House, Winneshiek County, Iowa

The Haugen Hill House sits sandwiched in the big woods between Nordness and Haugen Hill Road, just south of Decorah.  This neighborhood was known as Washington Prairie, an area that was settled exclusively by Norwegians beginning in 1851.  Just about every farmstead in this area that was settled- say pre-1880 as a rule- had a log house.  But sadly only a handful survive today.  I think this is primarily due to historical land-use patterns (think agriculture).  Old buildings on the fertile prairie are more susceptible than those on hilly forested, marginal lands.

This house is really odd for a Norwegian built house.  Most of the Norwegian houses were expertly constructed, either by their soon-to-be occupants who had a solid notion of what a good house should look like, or by a team of professional carpenters.  This house isn’t either:  It’s extremely crude and hastily built.  Was it that its owners arrived in October and needed a shelter before winter?  Or maybe its owners thought, “Oh, what the hell, we’re going to upgrade soon, anyway.”  Maybe they couldn’t afford to hire a carpenter?  Who knows, but I rarely see anything as funky as this.

I say “Norwegian built” with confidence because this particular house exhibits a Norwegian plan and construction technique that date back more than a thousand years.  It’s a two room plan:  A main living room called the stue and a smaller entry room called the forstue. In antiquish Norwegian days, the forstue tended to be an unheated space- an entryway if you will- while the stue contained the major living space of the house.  Like the sval plan (see Bigler House post) the main staircase to the second floor was in the unheated forstue.

In the case of this house, the stue room is made of log walls roughly 16′ x 14′.  The top-most logs (the plates; running the 14′ length wall) extend outward 8′ past the ends of the stue room and are capped by upright 6″ x 6″ hewn posts, thus framing the outside dimensions of the 16′ x 8′ forstue. This particular method of construction with one room of log and the other of heavy timber was an extremely common choice for Norwegian settlers in Northeast Iowa.  I can think of probably a half a dozen other examples of this plan.

Since the house sits about a mile off the nearest road, it’s been saved from looters and vandals.  Look through the photos:  Isn’t the white cabinet great?  How about the wood cookstove that sunk into the basement?  Or the funky lime green trim?  The house is in pretty crappy shape, unfortunately.  Its roof was neglected too long, and now a huge torrent rains down the walls when it storms.


West elevation


South elevation


East Elevation


North elevation





Church Road House, New Albin, IA

This was my lesson in the value of documentation.  I found this sweet old house in October of 2007.  I snapped a few photos and told myself I had to come back. Well, I did the next spring and the house was a heaping pile of rubble.  They pushed it over and extracted the logs with an excavator as far as I could tell.  So, these are basically the photos I have.

The house was on Church Road in northeastern Allamakee, just about eight miles directly west of New Albin off Iowa River Road (the best drive in all of northeast Iowa, trust me).  The house measured something like 18′ x 24′, a story and 2/3 in height, and of oak logs.  The corners were notched in steeple or the inverted-V, a notch usually associated in NE Iowa with the Germans. Allamakee County- unlike it’s younger neighbor to the west, Winneshiek- was a melting pot for a more immigrant groups.

Out front near the road sat the squat stone building, most likely a spring house.  Behind it and a bit to the south was a granary that had been been made into a ramshackle-like  workshop.  It was leaning close to collapse, but I remember the timber framed shell made out of sawn pine.  A later improvement, no doubt.

The house itself was really amazing.  Notice the area above the front door where the logs are exposed- that’s where the front porch was.  The front entrance led into a room that was divided just left of the door.  Beyond that, to the right, was the second room.  The staircase to the second floor was butted up against the northeast exterior log wall and cut the second room a bit smaller than the main.  There was a piano from LaCrosse and a beautiful two-light brass fixture.  Except for the outside perimeter of both downstairs rooms, the floor had collapsed into the basement.  Also notice the curtains and the smallish windows.  They don’t get scarier than that.

The house had some amazing faux finishes.  The door with the swirls is really special.  Notice the door latch on the board door to the right.  I usually don’t steal things- hardware, furniture, or otherwise-but I will admit I carried out a hefty pile of green canning jars.  I just can’t resist.  There was also a mechanical prosthetic metal-levered half-an-arm buried under blankets upstairs.  Damn, I wish I snagged that one, too.


South elevation: exposed logs outline original porch

West Elevation

West-south elevation




faux door



Steeple or inverted v


Highland Township House, Winneshiek County, IA

I don’t know much about this place except that it’s really stellar.  The log part is in the center (one room or megaron plan) and measures something like 15′ x 17′.  Like the Bigler House, this one is largely intact and has seen little modification over time.  The interior walls are sheathed in narrow-gauge beadboard (circa post 1900).  The interior doors are much the same- made by sandwiching pieces of wainscot together- and all have their original hardware.

The future of this house is up in the air, unfortunately.  Its owners built a huge new house behind it and had the vision of making this into a little get-away house…but that was five years ago.  The house desperately needs a new roof.  So, we’ll see what happens.

South-east elevations

West elevation

Exposed oak logs under stairway

Second floor

Bigler House, Decorah, IA

The Bigler House is located in Pleasant Township, Winneshiek County, about twelve miles northeast of Decorah.  It was built sometime in the middle of the 19th century by Norwegian immigrants and is of the sval plan.  The sval plan essentially consists of a main log block (three rooms, in this case) with an attached entry porch (sval). The sval was the primary entrance to the dwelling, was unheated, and had a stairway to the second floor.  To get to the second floor you’d have to enter the unheated space and climb the staircase back into the heated space.  The sval was basically what we’d think of a foyer as being today, except that it was sealed off from the rest of the (heated) house.  This is the only sval plan house I’ve encountered in Northeast Iowa, but apparently there remain a few in Southeast Minnesota and Southwest Wisconsin.

The Bigler House was abandoned circa 1915 and has sat empty and unaltered since then.  As a result, nearly all of the original 19th century historic fabric remains, making it (unquestionably) the best preserved log house in all of Northeast Iowa.  Its owners understand its importance– both to their family and the larger community– and have done a commendable job keeping it up.

South elevation: sval left, main log block center, framed additions right

West elevation: sval with primary entrance

North elevation: framed addition left, main log block center, sval right

East elevation

Logs in second floor, taken inside the sval

Stairway in sval

Hand hewn joists and hand planed floor boards

Basement joists

Sandwich log: this log was dovetailed into the two top plate logs to keep the walls and roof from sagging

Logs extend to the gable peaks and purlins run lengthwise

Stairway in later framed addition

Overland House, Choice, MN

The Overland House of Choice, MN was built in 1854 by Johannes Overland of Kviteseid, Telemark, Norway.  The dwelling measures 19’6″ x 27′ 6′, is of oak logs, and extends a full two stories in height.

The Overland House is a superb example of the three room akershus plan.  The akershus plan traditionally consisted of a large room, or stue, and two small rooms used for sleeping and storage.  Sometimes the primary entrance to the dwelling was located in one of the two smaller rooms, but in this case, the main entrance is accessed through the large room.  This particular house has a log interior partition wall that divides the large stue from the two smaller rooms.  I rarely find Norwegian built houses with interior log partition walls.

The logs extend to the peaks of the gables and purlins run the length of the structure.  Uncommon, this bulky type of roof system was traditionally used to support the weight of a sod roof.



circa 1880



circa 1900

In 1887 a framed addition was added onto the original front facade (south elevation) and two porches were constructed on each side of it.  Also notice how the original 6/6 windows were replaced in favor of 2/2.


Logs run to peak with purlins



Log wall, taken from inside the framed addition


West Elevation


North Elevation

East Elevation