By Leah Buletti
MANKATO, Minn. (AP) — The little stone house on the hill survived by neglect.
In the recent years of its 159-year-old life, the Civil War-era home has survived a fire and a demolition order, The Free Press of Mankato reported. Thought to be the oldest stone house in Mankato, it was unoccupied for years and condemned by the city in 2011.
Caleb Wunderlich, who learned masonry from North Mankato preservationist Tom Hagen, is now about mid-way through restoring the home. Wunderlich purchased it at a county tax forfeiture auction in April 2015 for $6,800 and received a $50,000 forgivable loan from the city for restoration.
Built in 1857 by Joseph Schaus, the 1,107-square-foot home stood sentry while the city of Mankato sprung up, while the riverboats steamed in and while the scaffolding used to hang 38 Dakota Indians was erected.
“It was ghastly,” Hagen said of the house’s condition before restoration. They spent about six months clearing out “truckloads” of debris.
Wunderlich has completed the structural stabilization of the house and has rebuilt two walls almost entirely with reused materials. So much is reused that some wall framing inside even came from kneelers in the former St. Peter and Paul’s Catholic Church.
Last week, city officials and members of the Heritage Preservation Commission toured the home for the first time as a group since Wunderlich took over.
Katherine Hughes, a historian who has researched the house’s history, said she was pleased with the restoration work and stressed how difficult life was for Schaus.
“Living here would just be a real treat,” she said.
Schaus, who likely built the house so far from the river because he worked at the nearby Catholic church, labored in his free time under threat of Indian attack and without running water, hot showers or even cement, Wunderlich said.
The house is held together by dirt and has 22-inch-thick walls. The lack of cement made rebuilding the collapsed northern wall easier, Wunderlich said. Such reuse of construction materials would be unlikely with today’s cheaper and faster construction methods, he said.
“This wall collapsed and if it collapses again, they’d be able to reuse every stone here and rebuild it,” he said. “It’s like a big jigsaw puzzle.”
Wunderlich also acquired historically matching windows with 1870s glass from the East Coast.
On the back side of the house, Wunderlich took down a plywood addition and reused the plywood in the kitchen. He also had to rebuild a wall on the back of the house because an addition in the 1990s destabilized it.
With insulation expected to be in place soon, Wunderlich said he hopes to spend the winter on inside work, including flooring and plasterboard. Next year, he plans to work on the roof, bricklaying and storm windows.
The house has three layers of flooring. Maple was layered on pine, which was placed on ash planks likely made on the first sawmill in Mankato. Wunderlich will install stone flooring and radiant heat.
The downstairs, where one stone wall is visible inside, will have a kitchen and half bath, while the upstairs will have a full bath and two bedrooms.
The upstairs is roomier than it looks from the street. And it certainly won’t be as crowded as the 1950s when it was home to 18 members of the Allen family, including 14 children who packed into bunk beds and cots upstairs “like sardines in a can,” Wunderlich said.
Wunderlich has a few years left on the restoration and said he hopes to acquire a rental license to ensure a family takes care of the home.
“I hope it becomes a house again,” Wunderlich said. “I’d like to have some say that this house is preserved and cherished. This is a charming little house. It’s intimate and it’s alive.”
Wunderlich said restoration isn’t “genius work,” but rather a process of continual improvement.
“A trained eye could see that my stone work gets better the higher it goes,” he said. “Practice makes the master.”
Hagen praised his young apprentice for taking on the daunting project. The last owner of the home, Richard Dickie, wound up homeless after a 2007 fire made the house uninhabitable and his contractor abandoned the repair project. Another of Hagen’s students considered taking it on but declined after learning that the city wouldn’t issue a rental license because of density limits, Hagen said.
Becky Wessman, a Mankato attorney, brought a lawsuit over the rental density issue, which essentially kept the house from demolition because it was tied up in litigation, Hagen said. A state appeals court in 2011 upheld a district court’s ruling that sided with the city.
“What (Wunderlich) has essentially done is given up two years of his life to save this house for the city,” Hagen said.
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