A piece of Willmar's history is lost and saved
WILLMAR — A grand old home on Willmar's northside was demolished Wednesday.
Granted, the original splendor of the nearly 150-year-old house had been nibbled away over the years after the large single-family home had been carved up into several apartments and a 1970s remodeling project replaced some of the original interior charm.
But the exterior remained pretty much the same and the house stood as a testament to the city's promising beginnings.
Some Willmarites fretted about the loss of another classic building, and some, perhaps, didn't notice or care that the building was razed.
Once demolition is finished, the new owners of the sprawling lot — Project Turnabout — will consider ways to utilize the property for their addiction recovery program. The non-profit organization owns the large house next door where it operates a transitional housing program for recovering women.
But, between the fretting and the apathy and the future plans, northside neighbor and artist Fred Cogelow removed a small corner of the house.
He literally sawed off a small round room — a turret — before the rest of the building was demolished.
The small round tower with floor-to-ceiling windows and ornate corbels under the eaves is currently boarded up and raised on cement blocks.
But what Cogelow intends to do with the turret could bridge the gap between the past and the future and help individuals make positive steps forward in their lives.
Located on Seventh Street Northwest, across from the High Rise, the red house was built in the late 1800s.
The history isn't totally clear but the house was likely built around 1873.
That's when the original owner, Benjamin Franklin Jenness — a Burlington Northern Railroad surveyor who went on to become an attorney and prominent community leader— moved to Willmar.
As the story goes, Jenness built the ornate Italianate-inspired two-story house in order to entice his wife, Lucia Fancher Jenness, to move to Willmar.
After Mr. and Mrs. Jenness died, (1907 and 1900, respectively) their daughters, Helen and Josephine Jenness, lived in the house.
According to obituaries published in what was then the Willmar Tribune, the sisters both had distinguished careers.
Josephine, who died in 1932, was the Willmar High School principal for 21 years and Helen, who died in 1964, taught music and operated Jenness Gift Shop in the Lakeland Hotel in downtown Willmar.
Bill Gabbert, an artist from Spicer who currently teaches art in the BOLD School District, grew up in the big red house.
Gabbert said his parents, Virgil and Lucille Gabbert, purchased the property in the 1930s — during the Great Depression.
"They got it for a ridiculously low price because no one wanted it," said Gabbert, 76.
"It was a very elegant home at one time," he said, with a winding staircase and marble fireplaces.
But Gabbert said his dad "had a difficult time making the payments" and created three apartments to generate revenue while the Gabbert family occupied the rest of the home.
"Dad had really altered what it was originally," Gabbert said.
"Visually and aesthetically that house was really cool and had lots of neat stuff in it. But as time went, that slowly changed," said Gabbert, who has fond memories of growing up in the house, despite chores of raking leaves from the massive yard.
In the late 1970s the house was lifted up and a full basement installed, along with other interior changes.
A 1985 Minnesota Historic Properties Inventory Form completed on the property said the house was "once one of the fanciest houses in Willmar, unfortunately altered."
The home was sold around 1990 to a real estate agent and it had been turned into five apartments that were leased until late last fall.
"It's a shame it wasn't salvageable. It really was in bad, bad, bad condition," said Mike Schiks, CEO of Project Turnabout, which purchased the property this winter.
Project Turnabout owns the historic "Hulstrand House" next door and remodeled it for the women's program called "Cheri's Place."
But he said the Jenness/Gabbert house was "beyond that kind of repair" and because it didn't fit their mission to be landlords and keep the apartments operating, the decision was made to raze the house and look for ways to use the bare lot for their program.
"We need a mid-level transitional program for women to fill out our continuum of need," he said. Owning the property next door could give them options to meet that need.
Schiks said he understands people concerned about preserving old homes are grieving the loss of another building in their community.
"But sometimes they just get past the point of salvage," Schiks said, adding that Project Turnabout hopes to use the property for something the community will "feel good about."
Gabbert takes the demise of his childhood home in stride.
"Once it's out of the family and it goes to somebody else, you let go, and the house becomes a memory," he said. "Change is good."
Gabbert said, however, he's glad Cogelow was able to rescue a portion of the old home.
A place to think
As a renowned woodcarver who creates sculptures and reliefs from native wood harvested from area groves, Cogelow has a gift for finding buried beauty. He also has a penchant for preserving the history of his neighborhood even if it's concealed in a dilapidated house.
"This project is, for myself, just a slightly, overly ambitious sculpture, undertaken because I am appalled at this community's disregard for its esthetic inheritance, something which includes land contours and space, and, obviously, structures," Cogelow said.
When he learned that the Jenness/Gabbert home was slated to be demolished he asked Schiks about removing the second floor of the turret and fashioning it into a small stand-alone building or wagon that would remain on the property to be used by clients of the program.
Cogelow imagines it being used as a quiet place for people to sit, or talk or think.
"It needs be emphasized that Project Turnabout is the owner of the turret and whatever becomes of its adaptation," Cogelow said.
Schiks lauds Cogelow's tenacity in salvaging a segment of the historic house.
"It's a nice way to preserve some of that heritage," he said.
But there's a lot of work yet to do and Cogelow is looking for some help, including finding a free building to house the structure during the renovation and seeking assistance with the carpentry work.
"I'd even be most delighted if someone would want to take over the project, once the design is fleshed out," Cogelow said, adding that he's salvaged most of the required materials.
"I've donated my time and expenses thus far simply because my esthetic conscience left me no choice," he said.
Anyone who wishes to help with the project can email Cogelow at firstname.lastname@example.org.