Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

One grand old WPA gym in West Concord April 6, 2015

The original, non-digital, scoreboard that uses light bulbs still graces the 1936 former West Concord School gym.

The original, non-digital scoreboard that uses light bulbs still graces the 1936 former West Concord School gym.

YOU CAN ALMOST HEAR the rhythmic bounce of basketball upon wood floor, hear the roar of the crowd as the ball swishes through the net and two points are added to the scoreboard.

Instructions on the stage wall for operating the curtain.

Instructions on the stage wall for operating the curtain.

You can almost hear the resounding applause of proud parents as performers bow and the heavy curtain sways, pulled shut by hand-over-hand action of a stage hand running thick ropes.

This beautiful gym was once home to the West Concord Cardinals.

This beautiful gym was once home to the West Concord Cardinals.

You can almost hear the clear diction of graduates’ names pronounced before they proceed onto the stage to receive their West Concord High School diplomas.

The former gym now houses the West Concord Community Center.

The former gym now houses the West Concord Community Center. Today the West Concord Historical Society’s research center is located on the second floor, former site of the school library and a study hall.

Echoes of the past linger inside the old West Concord School gym, built in 1936 as a Works Progress Administration project. The school closed in 1991.

The gym is now a multi-purpose facility open to the community.

The gym is now a multi-purpose facility open to the community.

Today this grand gymnasium houses this southeastern Minnesota town’s community center. The space is now used for a middle school athletics program and rented out for class reunions, festive gatherings by the area’s Hispanic community and more, according to Janis Ray, director/gambling manager for the adjoining West Concord Historical Society museum.

The original ticket booth remains just inside the front entry.

The original ticket booth remains just inside the front entry.

I applaud West Concord for saving this impressive auditorium and the connected school. All too often such grand structures are demolished because of the cost to maintain them. They are worth saving for their history, memories and architectural significance.

This massive WPA project painting hangs as a stage backdrop.

This massive WPA project painting hangs as a stage backdrop.

Gymnasiums aren’t built like this any more. Imagine the hands of formerly unemployed men laboring to build this gym. How happy they must have been to earn a paycheck. Preserving this gym is a tribute to them, too, to hard work and building a sense of community.

Students involved in theatrical productions signed the stage wall behind the stage curtain.

Students involved in theatrical productions signed the stage wall behind the stage curtain.

I hope future generations will always remember that.

BONUS PHOTOS:

The building on the left, built in 1902 with a wing added in 1914, houses the West Concord Historical Society. On the right is the 1936 WPA project gym, 60 percent of its cost funded by the government.

The former school building on the left, built in 1902 with a wing added in 1914, today houses the West Concord Historical Society. On the right is the 1936 WPA project gym, 60 percent of its cost funded by the government. It is now the West Concord Community Center.

Imagine the students and their families who have walked through these doors.

Imagine the students and their families and others who have walked through these doors. They were locked when I visited.

What I assume is an original light fixture. Beautiful.

What I assume is an original light fixture. Beautiful.

Looking across the gym floor toward the original fold-up chairs and the entry into the auditorium.

Looking across the gym floor toward the original fold-up chairs and the entry into the auditorium.

Handcrafted detail on the vintage seating.

Handcrafted detail on the vintage seating make these works of art.

A sticker, "Educating Everyone Takes Everyone," on a sturdy wood door reminds visitors of this structure's original purpose.

A sticker, “Educating Everyone Takes Everyone,” on a sturdy wood door just off the stage reminds visitors of this structure’s original purpose.

In a narrow hallway off the gym, leading to the women's bathroom, I discovered these rows of lockers painted in the school color.

In a narrow hallway off the gym, leading to the women’s bathroom, I discovered these rows of lockers painted Cardinal red, the school color.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A quick tour of the impressive Pierce County, Wisconsin, courthouse November 20, 2014

The stately Pierce County Courthouse in Ellsworth, Wisconsin.

The stately Pierce County Courthouse in Ellsworth, Wisconsin.

IT’S AN IMPRESSIVE BUILDING defining a hilltop in the center of Ellsworth, The Cheese Curd Capital of Wisconsin.

This beautiful stone sculpture rises above the front courthouse entry. Anyone know anything about the sculpture?

This beautiful stone sculpture rises above the front courthouse entry. Anyone know anything about the sculpture?

Stately columns, a dome, stone sculptures and a certain sense of strength mark the Pierce County Courthouse constructed in 1905 at a cost of $85,000.

After picking up coveted cheese curds at Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery, my husband and I returned to the courthouse we’d passed along Main Street en route to the creamery during an early October visit. We both appreciate old architecture and the courthouse, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, seemed a must-see.

Up close details of the upper exterior.

Up close details of the upper exterior.

Designed in the Beaux Arts Style of architecture by St. Paul architects Buecher & Orth, this massive structure presents a powerful presence, seemingly fitting for a place that serves as the center of county government and houses the courts. A jail was built adjacent to the courthouse and completed in 1968.

Rotunda murals depict the area's natural beauty.

Rotunda murals depict the area’s natural beauty.

Public space along the impressive stairway.

Public seating along the stairway landing.

Details on the stairs credit the source of the work.

Details on the stairs credit the source of the work.

Look at that beautiful floor.

Look at that beautiful floor.

The law, in the form of a deputy sheriff, showed up when we self-toured the public space of the courthouse. I don’t know if he was dispatched to check out “the woman with the camera” and her companion or he simply happened upon us. But I sensed that we were being watched. And I suppose that’s OK in today’s world.

Looking down from the rotunda.

Looking down from the rotunda.

Our tour proved brief given the public space is small and I wasn’t about to enter the courtroom, although I was tempted.

Beautiful railings, although my husband questioned whether this was meant to be the color.

Beautiful railings, although my husband questioned whether the color is original or mimics the original.

Interestingly enough, the Pierce County, Wisconsin, courthouse has a twin courthouse in Rugby in Pierce County, North Dakota. Same architect. Same style. Built in 1908 and also on the National Register of Historic Places.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Frank Lloyd Wright’s imprint upon Mason City October 7, 2014

CONSTRUCTED WITHIN MY HOUSE of memories, I see my mother paging through floor plans in booklets picked up at the local lumberyard. She dreamed of a new house for her large and growing family.

She bulged heavy with child in 1967, the year relatives and contractors built the house of her dreams and the August she birthed her final of six babies.

By the Christmas holidays, we had abandoned our cramped wood-frame farmhouse for the walk-in basement rambler across the driveway. We welcomed a bathroom, a basement with a cement floor and plenty of closet space. And the warmth of a central heating system.

I attribute my appreciation and interest in architecture to those pre-teen memories of Mom sifting through house plans and of watching Dad unfurl blueprints for our new home. Vivid, too, are the earthy scent of sawdust, the open two-by-fours nailed into rooms, the grind of the cement mixer.

To this day, I study the lines of houses, consider their architecture, often wish I could step inside.

A Prairie School house in the Glen Rock neighborhood of Mason City, Iowa.

A Prairie School house in the Rock Glen neighborhood of Mason City, Iowa.

So on a recent visit to northeastern Iowa, I was thrilled to discover the greatest concentration of Prairie School architecture (eight homes, a bank and hotel, by my count) in the upper Midwest in Mason City.

Martha Pettigrew's "American Architect," a portrait of Frank Lloyd Wright, stands permanently in Central Park. The famous Prairie School style architect designed a house, hotel and bank in Mason City.

Martha Pettigrew’s “American Architect,” a sculpture of Frank Lloyd Wright, stands permanently in Mason City’s Central Park, across the street from the bank and hotel he designed and which were completed in 1910.

Frank Lloyd Wright himself imprinted his Prairie School architecture upon Mason City with the design of the Park Inn Hotel and City National Bank, both listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and of the Stockman House, built for Dr. George Stockman and his family.

Frank Lloyd designed this house, moved to 530 First St. N.E. and today open to the public as an interpretative center, for Dr. George Stockman.

Frank Lloyd designed this house, moved to 530 First St. N.E. and today open to the public as an interpretative center, for Dr. George Stockman. I did not tour the home during my visit to Mason City.

Today the Stockman House is open to the public as a showcase of Wright’s work. You can also tour the historic hotel and former bank.

A Prairie School neighborhood snapshot.

A Prairie School neighborhood snapshot.

A walk through the Rock Crest/Rock Glen neighborhood reveals more Prairie School homes designed by students of this definitively first American style of architecture. I don’t pretend to be an expert in architecture. But Prairie School homes are easily recognizable with their primarily flat and looming rooflines, rectangular windows, plainness, imposing strength and sense of privacy.

Not just any old street corner in any old neighborhood.

Not just any old street corner in any old neighborhood.

Enjoy this tour of Prairie School homes in Mason City. Now if only I could have toured the interiors, I’d have been especially pleased.

 

 

Prairie School 3

 

Prairie School 4

 

Signs embedded in the sidewalk identify some, if not all, of the Prairie School houses.

Signs embedded in the sidewalk identify some, if not all, of the Prairie School houses.

 

An entry to the 1915 Hugh Gilmore House designed by Francis Barry Byrne. It's located at 511 E. State Street.

An entry to the 1915 Hugh Gilmore House designed by Francis Barry Byrne. It’s located at 511 E. State Street.

 

A stunning car port on a Prairie School style house.

A stunning car port on a Prairie School style house.

 

The E.V. Franke House at 507 East State Street, designed by Francis Barry Byrne in 1917.

The E.V. Franke House at 507 East State Street, designed by Francis Barry Byrne in 1917.

 

Prairie School 5

 

A view of the 1915 Sam Schneider House at 525 E. State Street and designed by Walter Burley Griffin.

A view of the 1915 Sam Schneider House at 525 E. State Street and designed by Walter Burley Griffin.

 

The 1920 George Romey House was designed by J.M. Felt & Co. with Prairie School influence.

The 1920 George Romey House was designed by J.M. Felt & Co. with Prairie School influence.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Preserving Frank Lloyd Wright’s work in Mason City October 3, 2014

THIS WEEKEND, IT’S THE SITE of the Iowa Independent Film Festival.

The 1910 Grille sits to the right with the hotel entry in the middle and the former bank to the left.

The 1910 Grille sits to the right with the hotel entry in the middle and the former bank to the left.

But typically, the Historic Park Inn Hotel in Mason City draws the interest of those who appreciate Prairie School architecture. Frank Lloyd Wright designed the 1910 complex anchored in the heart of this northeastern Iowa city.

The original City National Bank today houses the hotel ballroom.

The original City National Bank, right, today houses the hotel ballroom/banquet room.

Originally built as a hotel, bank and law offices, the restored corner structure today houses a 27-room hotel, five-star restaurant (1910 Grille’) and banquet/ballroom/conference facilities. It’s on the National Register of Historic Places.

Windows and architecture inside the ballroom/banquet room.

Windows and architecture inside the ballroom/banquet room.

Recently I took a self-guided tour of the Wright-designed structure. Docent-led tours are available for a fee.

The Park Inn Hotel front desk.

The Park Inn Hotel front desk.

A skylight.

A skylight.

Dark. Everything is dark.

Dark wood dominates.

As I expected, this Prairie School building is heavy on the wood. Dark. Defined by lines and simplicity.

The billiard room.

The billiard room.

My husband kicks back in an historic building that draws lots of interest.

My husband kicks back in a first floor lounge.

Light floods this area which opens to an upper level patio.

Light floods this area which opens to an upper level patio.

This place, I determined, could be the setting for the classic detective board game Clue. Imagine Professor Plum reading in the library, Miss Scarlet dancing in the ballroom, Col. Mustard shooting pool in the billiard room, Mr. Green hanging out in the lounge. No weapons in sight, though.

So wanders my imaginative mind.

Exterior detail on the former City National Bank.

Exterior detail on the former City National Bank.

Imagination will be showcased within these walls at the weekend Iowa Independent Film Festival which continues from 10 a.m. – 10 p.m. Saturday and then resumes Sunday, running from 1 – 7 p.m. Showings include documentary, feature, short feature and student films.

A sculpture of Frank Lloyd Wright stands in Central Park, photographed here from an upper story of the hotel.

A sculpture of Frank Lloyd Wright stands in Central Park, photographed here from an upper story of the hotel.

“Wright on the Park: Saving the City National Bank,” a documentary, airs on Sunday. The non-profit Wright on the Park was established to “own, restore and maintain the Frank Lloyd Wright designed properties across from Central Park.” The restoration cost $18.5 million.

The entire building was restored several years ago for $18.5 million.

The entire building was restored several years ago for $18.5 million.

To the vision-led historians, much is owed for preserving this Prairie School treasure in Iowa.

Strong rooflines define Prairie School architecture like this at the hotel.

Strong rooflines define Prairie School architecture like this at the hotel.

FYI: Mason City is also home to other Frank Lloyd Wright designed and Prairie School architecture. I’ll post about that next.

If you are interested in attending the film fest, click here for more info.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Appreciating the architecture of historic downtown Winona September 5, 2014

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 2:46 PM
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IT’S BAD ENOUGH when a community experiences a devastating fire in its historic downtown. But then again, less than a year later.

Those were my thoughts, as I’m sure that of many others, upon learning the Mississippi River town of Winona lost a 1912 former YMCA building, now housing KidSport Gymnastics, to a Thursday morning fire.

I believe I'm correct in stating the site of last year's fire was in the building to the right of Blooming Grounds Coffee House on the corner.

Last September’s fire occurred to the right of the corner building housing Blooming Grounds Coffee House. The coffee house reopened this summer.

A year ago, on September 13, fire destroyed the downtown Islamic Center and another building and damaged several other historic buildings.

A portion of downtown Winona with the General Store anchoring a corner.

A portion of downtown Winona with the General Store anchoring a corner.

Just last week my husband I were in Winona, staying there upon our return home from a brief vacation to Wisconsin, Illinois and Iowa. We parked our van downtown Wednesday evening and started walking, pausing often to study the beautiful, historic architecture which graces this community. As you would expect, I snapped photos, but, unfortunately, not one of KidSport.

Heart's Desire Gift Shop is housed in this mammoth building.

Heart’s Desire Gift Shop is housed in this mammoth building. Take note of the fabulous fourth floor balconies.

Eleven entire downtown blocks are on the National Register of Historic Districts. According to visitwinona.com:

The Winona Downtown Commercial Historic District contains over one hundred sites listed on the National Register of Historic Places. This area represents Minnesota’s largest collection of Victorian commercial architecture on the Mississippi. Most of the buildings are Italianate or Queen Anne in style and date from between the years 1857 and 1916.

Crank your head up and notice the architectural details.

Crank your head up and notice the architectural details.

If you appreciate architecture and the history of a river town, I’d highly recommend a visit to Winona. Late autumn with tree-covered bluffs, and not buildings, ablaze would be the perfect time to tour.

BONUS PHOTOS:

Everywhere you look, over-sized building and interesting architecture.

Everywhere you look, over-sized buildings and interesting architecture.

We're talking old and historic in Winona.

We’re talking old and historic in Winona.

The Garden Chinese Restaurant occupies an historic downtown space.

The Garden Chinese Restaurant occupies an historic downtown space. It would be great to see the store fronts returned to the original architecture.

The impressive Merchants National Bank.

The impressive Merchants National Bank designed in the Prairie School architectural style by architects George Grant Elmslie and William Gray Purcell and built in 1912. It looks similar in style to National Farmers’ Bank in Owatonna.

More downtown buildings.

More downtown buildings.

The Legendary Tavern fills a space in this stunning corner building.

The Legendary Tavern fills a space in this stunning corner building.

This building seems out of place among all of the historic structures.

This storefront appears out of place among all of the historic structures. Is a gem hidden behind this updated front?

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Feeling at home, wherever you live May 16, 2014

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 6:00 AM
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This colonial style home atop a hill along Wisconsin Highway 21 in Arkdale always catches my eye.

This lovely Colonial style home atop a hill along Wisconsin Highway 21 in Arkdale always catches my eye.

DO YOU PICTURE a dream home in your mind?

There is something sweet and endearing about the simplicity of this country home near Redgranite, Wisconsin. Perhaps it's the porch, the setting...the welcoming style.

There is something sweet and endearing about the simplicity of this country home near Redgranite, Wisconsin. Perhaps it’s the porch, the setting…the unassuming bungalow style.

Or are you living in your dream house?

A sturdy farmhouse near Redgranite, Wisconsin.

A substantial farmhouse east of Redgranite, Wisconsin.

I’ve always wanted to live in a big white two-story farmhouse with a front porch. Rather like the farmhouse where my Uncle Glenn and Aunt Elaine and cousins lived near Echo, Minnesota.

Open front porches, like this one on a home in Redgranite, Wisconsin, encourage neighborliness

Open front porches, like this one on a home in Redgranite, Wisconsin, encourage neighborliness and sitting outside on a beautiful afternoon or evening. Love the curve of the porch roofline and the stone front and steps.

The house, as I remember it, featured lots of dark woodwork with a built in buffet and that coveted porch.

A stunning Cape Cod style home constructed from locally quarried stone near Redgranite, Wisconsin.

A stunning Cape Cod style home constructed from locally quarried stone near Redgranite, Wisconsin.

But then again, I also appreciate the Craftsman and Cape Cod styles of architecture.

A well-kept farmhouse between Redgranite and Omro, Wisconsin, has likely evolved through the years with numerous additions.

A well-kept farmhouse between Redgranite and Omro, Wisconsin, has likely evolved through the years with numerous additions. I appreciate the enclosed porch and the Victorian detailed scrollwork near the roofline.

I’ve always preferred old over new, although sometimes I think living in a modern home would equal fewer maintenance worries.

This cheery yellow house is located along Wisconsin Highway 21 in Redgranite. A welcoming holiday banner still graces the front door three months after Christmas.

This cheery yellow house is located along Wisconsin Highway 21 in Redgranite. Christmas lights and a welcoming holiday banner still grace this home three months after Christmas.

In the end, though, I’ve concluded that no matter where you live, it’s not the walls or design or age or style that truly define a home. It is simply being content where you’re at, with the people you love.

NOTE: These images were taken on a late March trip to eastern Wisconsin when snow still covered the ground. Not any more.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

More from Decorah, Iowa, my “new” favorite historic town July 26, 2013

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 6:00 AM
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The Blue Heron Knittery is housed in this historic building.

The Blue Heron Knittery is housed in this historic building.

FOR SOMEONE LIKE ME who delights in historic buildings, the northeastern Iowa river town of Decorah offers an ideal destination for viewing an abundance of aged architecture.

If you're of Norwegian ancestry, which I'm not, you'll especially enjoy Decorah. Be ware the trolls and gnomes.

If you’re of Norwegian ancestry, which I’m not, you’ll especially enjoy Decorah. Be ware the trolls and gnomes.

But downtown Decorah is about so much more. It’s about Norwegians and shopping and a river town with a distinct personality. This weekend, July 25 – 27, Decorah celebrates its annual Nordic Fest. Click here to learn more.

That said, here’s Part III in my photo tour of downtown Decorah:

Numerous buildings feature sweet little balconies.

Numerous buildings feature sweet little balconies.

A side street off the main route through downtown.

A side street off the main route through downtown.

Lovely signage...

Lovely signage…

So much variation in building design and height.

So much variation in building design and height.

Love this original signage on the old screen door that bangs behind you at

Love this original signage on the old screen door that bangs behind you at La Rana, a charming restaurant.

Vanberia, where you can shop for all things Norwegian.

Vanberia, where you can shop for all things Norwegian.

Norwegian art in the entry to

This art, in the entry of the Westby-Torgerson Education Center, celebrates the Norwegian heritage.

I noticed Santa in this second story window.

I noticed Santa in this second story window.

Shopping for antiques in the basement of Eckheart Gallery.

Shopping for antiques and collectibles in the basement of Eckheart Gallery.

Windowboxes abound.

Windowboxes abound.

Look close for remnants of the past.

Look close for remnants of the past.

Sweet architecture.

Sweet architecture.

FYI: Click here to view a previous downtown post. Click here to view a post on Storypeople. And click here to see a local favorite ice cream spot, The Whippy Dip, which is near downtown.

Watch for more posts from Decorah.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

 
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