An old Granite Falls landmark is getting a much needed facelift as construction workers finish up repairs on the historic Andrew J. Volstead House. Rain damage, particularly around the front porch, is one problem workers are addressing during their renovations of the National Historic Landmark.
The house, now a historic museum, was once the residence of Andrew J. Volstead, who represented this part of the state in Congress from 1903 to 1923. Volstead is most famous for introducing legislation that enacted a constitutional prohibition on the sale and consumption of alcohol. Before becoming a member of Congress, Volstead practiced law in Granite Falls. In 1894, Volstead purchased the wood-framed house built 14 years before.
During his years of residency, Volstead made a number of changes to the house, most noticeably when he added a central two-story stairwell tower shortly after he moved in. It is believed that much of the inside wood work dates from his years of ownership. Volstead left the property in 1930, although it remained in private hands until 1974, after which it was converted into a historic house museum. In 1979, the house was donated to the city.
In the past several years, house caretakers have noticed a growing number of problems, especially with the porch. During rainfall, caretakers noticed that water would regularly leak through the roof, often escaping through light fixtures! The porch deck was also to found to sag considerably, causing it to bounce when visitors walked overhead, and the handicap ramp was falling apart. “It was so bad, you could become handicapped by using the handicap ramp,” Chamber of Commerce Director Mary Gillespie half-joked.
The Historical Society brought these problems to the attention of the city. However, renovating historic buildings is a complicated thing to do. According to Gillespie, “there are only certain contractors who can work on historic homes, which makes starting these projects difficult sometimes.” Additionally, any planned construction work requires specific plans drawn up by a professional architect.
The first thing workers did was tear out the old ceiling of the porch. Weakened and rotting boards were identified and removed. While some boards were tossed, salvageable pieces were refurbished and restored to the house. “It was important for us to preserve what you can and keep as much of the original intact,” said City Manager Crystal Johnson. While rebuilding the sagging floor, the handicap ramp was also repaired. Construction workers had to take care not to alter any of the original features of the house.
This is not the first time that the house has undergone major renovations. In 2014, the Granite Falls Historical Society wrote a grant for the City of Granite Falls to finance restoration work on the cracking foundation of the house (which was causing the house to settle unevenly). About 65 feet of original stone foundation was removed and then assembled using new mortar.
The Volstead House is an important historic landmark in the area, and caretakers hope that these renovations help preserve it for future generations. They are also conscious of the many additional repairs needed. Gillespie, for example, would like to see work done on the siding and the windows.
While nothing is planned for the immediate future, Johnson and other city officials are well aware of the costs. She argues, however, that there is an important cultural value to these structures, and that by preserving old houses like the Volstead House, “you preserve a historic place in our community.”
The City of Granite Falls recently submitted a grant proposal with the Minnesota Historical Society to hire a structural engineer to conduct a complete overview of the house. Assuming the City win the grant, this work will be completed next year. City officials will then use these findings to plan future projects at the house.
The current project is expected to be completed in September. The Volstead House has remained open throughout the renovations, and will remain so until October 15. It is normally open on Saturdays from 11 - 3 pm. Gillespie hopes to extend hours in the future so that more people can experience the site.