Restoration group finds a model in Mankato

People are inside a building being restored.
Laura Leppink, center, an education intern with the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota, looks for signs of rotting wood while on a tour of the Hunt House on Aug. 10, 2019. Leppink showed the group various stages of wood rot in the house that is being restored into a bed and breakfast.
Jackson Forderer | The Free Press via AP

Christopher Crowell first spotted the red Queen Anne in 2011, soon after he moved to town. The late Victorian structure with a large turret is framed between two taller apartment buildings.

Still, the rundown 2 1/2-story house on South Second Street commanded Crowell's attention.

"It was the same for me as it is for everyone who goes by that house; it calls you back to an earlier time," he said. "My interest in Mankato's history was stirred."

In 2017, Crowell and his wife, Kristin Fisher, purchased the property known locally as The Red House or The Hunt House.

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Their residence is nearby and also in Mankato's historic Lincoln Park neighborhood.

The couple purchased the Second Street property from developers who had intended to tear down the house to make way for a new building.

"Thank goodness, the city wouldn't let them," Fisher said.

A house is being restored.
Workers reconstruct the frame of a stained glass window outside the Hunt House on Aug. 6, 2019, in Mankato, Minn. The Preservation Alliance of Minnesota recently hosted a home preservation class at the historic home under renovation.
Pat Christman | The Free Press via AP

She and Crowell are renovating the house and plan to open a bed-and-breakfast at the address next year.

They were eligible for a rehab loan from the city for part of the repair costs, and Crowell has experience in remodeling buildings. Still, he felt overwhelmed by the extent of work necessary.

A window's stained glass was broken and antique decor pieces stolen while the building sat vacant. Vandals ripped from the walls ornate fireplace mantels and stole several stamped-metal ceiling tiles.

Then, on a hot July day, Crowell fainted and fell from a porch roof he was repairing on the house. He needs to wear a neck brace for a few more weeks.

The renovation has progressed, however. Neighbor Jay Camp offered to help out in exchange for learning restoration skills. Professionals are handling plumbing and electrical wiring for the modernized bed-and-breakfast rental area of the house.

Historians found out about the project and offered information about the house where important Mankato figures had lived.

Friends helped the couple connect with the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota organization recently renamed RETHOS. The nonprofit had just begun a new education and outreach program designed to teach homeowners preservation tips.

"They said they had a plan that would fit perfectly with mine; they'd like to use my house as a platform for a class," Crowell said.

A man walks through a doorway.
Chris Crowell, owner of the Hunt House, walks through a doorway to the servants quarters during a tour of the house on Aug. 10, 2019. Crowell is restoring the home to be a bed and breakfast.
Jackson Forderer | The Free Press via AP

The group works statewide as an advocate for the use of old buildings and sites. Its services are offered to those who need advice on historic designations or saving important structures. Education is also part of its mission, The Free Press reported.

During a recent Saturday tour at The Hunt House, RETHOS intern Laura Leppink pointed out the nooks and crannies where wood tends to rot in older homes.

The structure that was placed on its limestone foundation in the 1880s shows few signs of wood rot. Paneling and siding from the 1970s had covered up and protected several areas of the house, including its distinct porch pillars and intricate bric-a-brac wood trim.

Crowell began the "Rehab Lab" day at Blue Earth County Historical Society's History Center, where he presented a program about his property and its former occupants.

Leppink said having a homeowner who is passionate about renovations take part in the "place-based" program added a special quality.

"Chris was fantastic and the class asked lots of questions," she said.

Karen Anderson said the class was appealing to her as yet another addition to her proverbial tool box.

"I'll use what I learned on friends' and family members' homes," said Anderson, a former Habitat for Humanity volunteer.

A man works at the bottom of a spiral staircase.
Neighbor Jay Camp works at the bottom of a spiral staircase in the Hunt House on Aug. 6, 2019.
Pat Christman | The Free Press via AP

Anderson is a Mankato renter who works with college students to help them get involved in projects such as Campus Kitchen.

She said it was a surprise to find out during the class that the Americorps program offers help with home restorations as an option for young adults serving in the program.

RETHOS will offer another program Sept. 21 at the county's history center for owners of historical residences who want their properties to be energy efficient.

"We are always happy to work with the alliance to help them expand the scope of what they offer," said Heather Harren, Blue Earth County Historical Society's communications and archives manager.

The historical society also appreciates Mankato's owners of historical homes who want to keep them in good shape.

"We certainly don't want to lose them," Harren said.