MOORHEAD – Homeowners know it's stressful enough to remodel a modern day home-replacing old shag carpet, knocking down walls or putting in new flooring. But when you add to that the pressure not to destroy centuries-old history with the swing of your hammer, you get a sense of what it's like to renovate our area's most historic homes.
This spring, work began on one of Moorhead's oldest and most iconic houses. The Comstock House has been closed to visitors all summer while contractors work on ongoing renovations to the 132-year-old house on the corner of Eighth Street and Fifth Avenue South. Some of the work includes getting rid of lead dust generated from the scraping of lead paint on window sills. In addition, interior surfaces and furniture will be thoroughly cleaned and re-tested for lead.
"I like to say, it's like having your in-laws over for the holidays," says Minnesota Historical Society Facilities Manager Aaron Novodvorsky. "It's going to be shinier and prettier, you won't see any peeling paint. It's going to be cleaner than it's ever been."
He says he hopes visitors will be able to see for themselves when the home reopens next spring. In the meantime, Novodvorsky says they're taking their time making sure it's being done right, calling progress "slow, but steady."
Clay County archivist Mark Peihl says work such as this is important because it involves buildings at the heart of this region's history. Solomon G. Comstock is one of the area's founding fathers. A successful businessman and politician, he was instrumental in the creation of both Concordia College and Minnesota State University Moorhead. His daughter Ada Louise was a pioneering woman in education in her own right.
"The Comstock House is a reflection of the importance of the Comstock family. It's a significant structure. We have so few examples of 1880s architecture around here and this one one has been spectacularly well preserved," Peihl says.
Improvements are also planned at an even older facility in our region. The Probstfield Farm just north of Moorhead, in Oakport Township, is home to the oldest standing structure in Clay County-a log cabin built by Randolph Probstfield, a German immigrant who settled in the region in 1868.
Marcus Krueger is the president of the Probstfield Farm Living History Foundation. He says the cabin was home to this important local family from 1868 all the way up to the 1980s, so there is more than a century of history between its four walls.
These days it's best known for its community garden, pumpkin patches and harvest festivals. But the foundation is also committed to carrying on the legacy of Randolph and Catherine Probstfield. However, it's not as easy as you'd think to restore the building to its original glory.
"We'd hesitate to take it down to the logs when we end up seeing some really cool 1920s wallpaper in the kitchen. Before we do anything, we need to answer some questions," he says.
He says they need to figure out what the purpose of the building might be down the road. Will it be a site where they could host 4-H meetings? Do they want to make it a museum with placards on the wall or a living history museum where everything is authentic to the era?
"When you start to look at the costs for our repairs, you need to figure some things out. For example, do you want the chimneys to be in working order or could they just be decorative, which would bring the cost down. In cases like this, we'd work with architects from the Minnesota Historical Society who would help us figure out what we need to do. The last thing we want to do is destroy anything," he says.
Right now, the foundation board will apply for grants to address the most immediate concerns-keeping the building safe and weatherproofed. It's estimated they'll need to spend about $30,000 for a new roof and siding. In addition to grant requests, they'll do their own fundraising as well. Last fall, the foundation held the first "Sunday Supper at Probstfield Farm" in which several local chefs prepared food to serve to visitors at an outdoor dinner on the farm. Krueger says they raised about $7,000. Many more thousands of dollars are needed to get the farm fixed up.
Both the Comstock House and the Probstfield cabin face the same problem. According to Krueger, when no one is living in a building, it's more likely go downhill very fast. It requires a constant eye to ensure history is not lost.
"The rule is you cannot replace something when you can repair it," Novodvorsky says. "We have to look at important issues like when is the period of significance of the home and also what is the period of occupancy of the home and those can be very different things."
Krueger says, "You'd like to say we could be done with this one day. But really it's an ongoing process for the next 150 years. We'll always need to put money into these homes to keep our history alive."