Posted: February 21, 2022
A recent improvement has wrought a big change in the appearance of a local historic home in Decorah’s Broadway-Phelps Park Historic District. The portico of the Frederick and Sarah Landers 1860 Greek Revival home has received a much-needed facelift, thanks in part to a $5,265 grant from the Historical Resource Development Program of the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs. Matched by an equal amount from community residents and local businesses, the combined funds restored the portico and the signature Greek Revival transom and sidelights of the historic home owned by the Winneshiek County Historical Society and housing its offices.
Located on the southeast corner of Broadway and S. Mill Streets, the focal point of the historic home, was suffering from the ills accompanying its 167+ years as well as from unwanted attention from woodpeckers and squirrels. Wadsworth Construction, a local company specializing in historic preservation, began work by removing the transom and sidelight windows, and the fluted Ionic columns, capitals, and portico balustrade. Two braces were used to support the portico roof, and transom and sidelights openings were covered with plywood while restoration was underway at the Wadsworth shop. A Day Spring Questers grant had previously restored the center pane of the transom; that restored pane remained in place for the duration of the restoration as a promise of better days to come for the absent panes. In the shop, the remaining transom and sidelight panes were puttied, a cracked pane was replaced with 1860s era glass, and the sashes were repainted.
Meanwhile, the portico railing, columns, plinths, and capitals received similar careful attention. The posts, rails, and spindles of the portico balustrade were scraped, sanded, and repaired. A bonus emerged—it was discovered after many layers of paint were stripped from the portico roof railing spindles, that the c. 1865 carved spindles were in amazingly good condition despite their age and required only repainting. (As evidenced by an 1860 daguerreotype and a later photograph, the portico was not added until approximately five years after the home’s original construction date of 1860.)
The Ionic capitals received additions of wood epoxy to repair voids, then were scraped, sanded, and painted. Removal of the fluted columns from the portico revealed their interesting construction technique. The columns had been built by a local cooper in 1860 with oak staves in the manner of barrel construction. The beautifully executed fluting on the columns’ exterior was carved after each column was constructed. It was a creative carpenter’s inspired solution (we know his name was E.H. Keyes) to the lack of transportation of ready-made columns from a supplier in far-away Chicago, Madison, or Milwaukee. The railroad did not arrive in Decorah until 1869 and transport of the columns would have required rail transportation from Chicago or other points east to Prairie du Chien, a ferry ride across the Mississippi River to Marquette, and then an arduous 3-day journey by wagon from the Mississippi River overland to Decorah. In the case of the columns, necessity was indeed the mother of invention. When all repair and restoration work was completed, the parts were reassembled at the Landers house and final painting was done.
Thanks to local contributions and the grant provided by the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs, the Greek Revival home’s portico and door surround have been transformed from “black eye” to their original role as gleaming focal point, and now serve as a visible reminder of Decorah’s early history. Future restoration plans include restoration and installation of the home’s original shutters and repointing of the brick walls with historically accurate mortar to preserve the locally manufactured brick and limestone from pre-Civil War era Decorah. Stay tuned for further developments!
Portico column had been damaged by woodpecker and squirrel incursions. The deteriorated railings and portico floor had mold problems.
David Wadsworth shows the interior of a cooper-built column constructed with local oak staves, a creative 1865 construction solution by E. H. Keyes, local carpenter. Animal and woodpecker incursions to the Ionic capital and column after restoration were restored with wood epoxy, primed, repainted, and reinstalled. Completed portico, transom and sidelights after restoration resume their original role as gleaming focal point of the 1860 Greek Revival Landers home.