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Published January 03, 2011, 12:58 PM

Iron Range holds nation’s only standing housebarn

Unique structure included living space for humans and farm animals.

By: Janna Goerdt,

EMBARRASS — The housebarn stood solid for decades.

Yes, the dry-stacked stone foundation was slipping apart, and some of the silvery-gray tamarack timbers were rotting. But after more than a century of enduring winter freezes and summer heat waves at the end of a long gravel road, the Seitaniemi housebarn still has a grand presence. It’s also the only known housebarn still standing in the United States.

And a fresh infusion of cash from the state to help pay for restoring the combined house, horse barn, haymow and cattle barn means the historical building is standing a little taller this winter.

“It’s a stately building,” said Paul Knuti, a member of the Sisu Heritage organization in Embarrass and the project director for the housebarn restoration. Sisu Heritage was recently awarded a $60,500 grant from the Minnesota Historical Cultural Heritage fund to help stabilize the structure, which hadn’t been actively maintained for decades. Sisu Heritage is working with Ray Goerdt, a local expert in log building repair and restoration.

“I don’t run into too many buildings that are beyond help,” Goerdt said. “But this one was in dire need of work — the footings and roof, especially.”

Some of the original steel roofing panels had torn away, and rot was eating at some of the original tamarack timbers. The foundation was slipping sideways at a few corners. But otherwise, the housebarn was in remarkably good shape. Most of the dovetail corners still fit snug and tight. Remnants of a fairly sophisticated cattle watering and manure handling system remain in place, and traces of whitewash cling to the inside of the cattle barn.

This fall, Goerdt repaired the roof, began stabilizing some of the interior spaces, and learned the basics of dry-stacking a stone foundation. These traditional methods took time to master but usually served the buildings well, said historic preservationist Leone Graf of Ely. She is working with Goerdt and Knuti on the project.

“I’m fascinated by these older construction technologies that we’ve decided are passé,” she said. Instead of digging the barn’s foundation 6 feet below ground to avoid frost damage, the Seitaniemi family opted for a dry-stacked stone foundation that would shift and ride the frost-heaving ground while still remaining locked together. Such a foundation will need some maintenance “every 50 to 60 years,” Graf said, and otherwise can be forgotten about.

The housebarn design was once widely used in Europe, but only a handful were ever built in the U.S., according to Michael Koop, a preservation consultant who prepared the Seitaniemi Housebarn application for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. The building was listed in 1990.

Just why the design failed to make the transition is a mystery to Knuti, he said, because it makes a lot of sense. In the cold months — which predominate in Embarrass — body heat from nearby livestock would help warm the house. Constructing one long building rather than many separate ones conserved timber and the human labor needed to get it. And the compact building design meant much more space was available for farming and grazing.

Saving such buildings also makes economic sense for Embarrass, Knuti said. The Sisu Heritage group came together after the local mining economy was ravaged in the 1980s.

“The community looked at what we needed to do to survive,” Knuti said. “We decided to take advantage of heritage tourism, because we have these historic structures here.”

The Embarrass community was populated almost entirely by Finns until the 1950s. The earliest settlers transplanted construction techniques and cultural traditions from their homeland; thus, the proliferation of finely crafted saunas. By the time Sisu Heritage started looking at cultural tourism, many of those first settlers were gone, their homesteads abandoned or tumbled down.

But not all of them.

Today, Sisu Heritage offers tours of fully or partially restored homesteads and buildings in the area, including seven that are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The organization owns some of the properties and has legal access to others.

When Carol and Larry Schaefer of Ely bought the Seitaniemi property, they bought it for the good hunting land. But after learning more about the housebarn, they became eager to see the restoration complete, Knuti said.

“They have told us they hope we get it done before they die,” Graf said. The Schaefers have donated the housebarn to Sisu Heritage.

It’s even becoming a little easier to find funding for historical and cultural preservation projects these days, Koop said. One big reason has been the state’s Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment, a constitutional amendment approved in 2008 that directs money toward environmental, historical and cultural projects around the state.

“That’s provided a huge boost financially for a lot of projects” across Minnesota, Koop said. “We haven’t had money like that available in the past.”

The Minnesota Historical Society received $2.25 million from the fund in fiscal year 2010 and expects to receive $4.5 million in 2011, according to a 2010 report from the society. The state group uses some of the money for its own programs, and sub-grants the remainder to local groups for individual projects, including the housebarn restoration. In 2009, the B’nai Abraham Synagogue in Virginia received nearly $7,000 from the legacy amendment to help restore stained-glass windows in the last remaining synagogue on the Iron Range.

There is also “enhanced interest” in preserving buildings that link people to the state’s history, Koop said. That can’t come too soon for Sisu Heritage.

“These buildings are going to fall down,” Knuti said. “There are hundreds in the area that are on the ground, or burned.”

It was common practice for volunteer fire departments to burn abandoned barns, houses or other buildings as a training exercise. Iron Range Resources also operates a building demolition program to clear and clean up blighted properties on the Iron Range — though when considering an historic building, blight may be in the eye of the beholder.

And Sisu Heritage isn’t interested in bashing the IRR program. After all, they recently received a $10,000 grant from the agency — to help with the housebarn restoration.