Retired NDSU professor transforms church of field stones to home
LAKOTA, N.D. -- Steve Martens said he loves the architecture of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Lakota, but he never thought he would own it.
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“Architecturally, it’s wonderful. It’s delightful,” he said, calling the church one of the nicest buildings of its era in the country. “It’s a work of art.”
When he and his wife, JoAnna, revisited the 131-year-old building after it went up for sale, he said it would be nice if someone would buy the church made of field stones.
His wife thought they were the people to do it.
The couple had saved enough money to buy the church. Though Steve Martens saw it as an opportunity to save the building, his wife saw it as a project to save them from a dull retirement.
“It struck me as a privilege to be the steward of this place for a while,” he said.
After buying the building about eight months ago, the Martens partnered with Blake and Brea Kobiela of Moorhead to turn the church into a vacation getaway for friends and family. By spring break, the chapel that hadn’t seen people for several years had been turned into a cozy beginning.
Steve Martens, a retired architecture professor for North Dakota State University, has traveled across North Dakota taking pictures of older buildings, studying their framework and building aspects. He also has acted as a consultant when it came to restoring other buildings, including the St. John’s Block in Grand Forks, the Powers Hotel in Fargo and St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Casselton, N.D., which serves as the Casselton Heritage Center.
“In my life as an architecture professor, I’ve really grown to love North Dakota,” he said, adding he has made many friends while visiting different buildings across the state. “We’re kind of preserving this place out of respect for folks like that.”
He said Good Shepherd has been one of his favorite early North Dakota buildings. He’s known about it since the early 1970s and can point out certain historical features passersby may not pick up on.
The church was built in 1885 after the Great Northern Railway founded the city of Lakota in 1883. Good Shepherd was deconsecrated Oct. 27, 2013.
Throughout the years, the congregation made a conscious effort to maintain the church's integrity with updates almost every year, but the Martens and the Kobielas have taken its restoration to the next level, including restoring the shingles. The Kobielas took care of the labor while the Martens provided the supplies.
The original cast iron bell still sits in the tower, and stained glass windows shipped from across the country tell the story of the Bible while giving hints to agriculture and North Dakota values. Wood floors shipped from Washington state greet the feet of guests as they enter the chapel, and locks and hinges from the 1880s still grace the wooden doors.
The church is filled with personal items from the Martens, from a wooden banjo to the blankets that cover the beds, which are made from church pews in the nave. The chancel has been transformed into a kitchen to give it a cozy feeling. The choir loft eventually will be turned into a sleeping area.
“It’s good sleeping in here at night,” he said, adding the field stones keep the church peaceful and quiet.
Martens estimated the church’s updates are about 90 percent finished, and there are plans to install Wi-Fi and build a patio. He also plans to nominate the building to the National Register of Historic Places this year.The Martens wanted to make sure the building would be taken care of for the next 50 years because they wanted it to be preserved. A church is not just a building, but a home for many congregation members. He has met about 60 people in Lakota who have had ties to the church.
“You think about the investment that was made by the Episcopalians in this place over 130 years,” he said. “Just the physical labor of hauling those rocks in … to bring the glass in from the East Coast.”
There are a lot of lessons to be learned from the architecture of Dakota Territory-era buildings, Martens said, particularly dedication and determination to keeping structures such as Good Shepherd standing proudly.
“I just have great respect and admiration for all of that long-term commitment over time to not give up on something like this,” he said.
He said he hopes his visitors not only enjoy the peacefulness of the church but see “everything is good about small town life.” Lakota offers a pool, grocery store and outdoor activities, including birdwatching.
“Lakota has been such a delightful, welcoming community,” he said. “Coming back here was sort of like homecoming. It’s a good place to get away.”