The Free Press, Mankato, MN

March 29, 2013

St. Peter homeowner recalls restoring of historic home after tornado

By Edie Schmierbach
Free Press Staff Writer

ST PETER — Judy Ahlstrom recently placed on the market her Victorian-era house and she’s begun preparing to move.

For three decades, the brick Queen Anne on North Third Street has been her home. Being in the same place for a long time does not mean Ahlstrom or the house, which was built in 1887-88, have never faced the winds of change.

Together, they made it through an F3 tornado that blew through town 15 years ago today.

The intense twister was one of several spawned by a supercell thunderstorm that formed in southeastern South Dakota and rushed through several counties in Minnesota. Winds with speeds up to 200 mph struck the campus of Gustavus Adolphus College and did not break stride as they roared downhill, sweeping several houses aside before ripping off the roof of the historic structure at 202 N. Third St.

Ahlstrom recalled being in the basement March 29, 1998, with her husband, Mark, and their son, Aaron, as the storm raged above. Their daughter, Hilary, was in Mankato on that late Sunday afternoon.

When the Ahlstroms came back upstairs, they found the south-facing kitchen and adjoining dining room were intact. “It’s not so bad,” they assured each other.

Then they ventured a bit farther into the home and realized the extent of the damage. “The roof had been sucked off,” Judy Ahlstrom said.

And there was more. During the storm a car bumper had been lodged into the woodwork of a downstairs room. Windows were blown out, an antique chandelier lost its crystal sun catchers, and a favorite light fixture was perpendicular to the way it had been installed — its “Vaseline” glass lamp intact. The wood coat/hat rack — part of the home’s original furniture — was found mirror face down in the hallway, but still in one piece. Remnants of pink insulation were strewn throughout the downstairs rooms.

Mark Ahlstrom loved the house. “He carried a picture of it in his wallet,” Judy Ahlstrom said. So as they looked up to the sky as they shivered in their home, they didn’t consider leaving or demolishing it, Judy Ahlstrom said.

Her husband just turned to her and said, “Let’s go find Ron Goodrich. We wanted to beat the rush.”

Mark Ahlstrom — who “was quite a handyman himself” — respected the Mankato construction company owner’s reputation for restoring historic buildings.

Goodrich agreed to send over people from a restoration project at the nearby Cox House. Soon, workers had rigged a temporary cover to keep out rain, then they began the top-to-bottom restoration.

The Ahlstroms stayed with friends temporarily but soon went home to an adapted lifestyle that included a Goodrich crew and its numerous projects.

Workers arrived as early as 5 a.m. and climbed ladders to get to work in the attic. Sometimes at the end of the day, they joined the Ahlstroms for cocktails. Occasionally, the crew prepared barbecue in the backyard.

“They became like part of our family,” Judy Ahlstrom said.

Randy Dinsmore was one of the regulars — he coordinated the yearlong project.

Fourteen years after the job was finished, Dinsmore’s love for the architecture of the old house still shows.

“It was a rare opportunity we almost never get to have,” said Dinsmore, who has years of experience in remodeling and restoration.

“I find it more interesting to find solutions to existing problems,” he said. “Most of the time, we have the original pieces. We look at them to determine whether they should be replaced or restored. In the case of the Ahlstroms’ house, lots of the pieces were just plain missing.”

Dinsmore winced when remembering how well-meaning volunteers discarded a pile of damaged but valuable pieces of wood, the remnants of the home’s ornate front porch.

“It (the project) was a challenge. We restored what was there and the rest we rebuilt.”

Matching brick was salvaged from destroyed downtown buildings.

The blueprints had been put in a safety-deposit box away from the house. Having access to those plans made Dinsmore’s job easier. The crew created shop drawings using old photographs to make copies of gables, carved grapevine designs and scalloped arches.

The collapsed roof was replaced with a new support design that transferred the weight load more efficiently and strengthened the structure.

The Ahlstroms also had the Minnesota Historical Society on hand to help with the restoration of their home, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as the Emily and Stephen Schumacher House.

The Historical Society provided funding, part of which the Ahlstroms used to replace copper on the home’s exterior. They also purchased wallpaper with patterns that were in style during the Victorian era.

Judy Ahlstrom proudly displays three plaques on a bookshelf in her study, all citing her family’s efforts in respecting their home’s history. The honors include a 1999 Preservation Alliance of Minnesota Award. (The city of St. Peter received the same award that year.)

The restored home has been featured on HGTV.

On the front porch of the home, another plaque is displayed. It is a tribute to Mark Ahlstrom, who died in 1999. He had been diagnosed with lung cancer a few weeks before the tornado struck St. Peter.

The simply designed plaque from the construction company’s owner is a tribute to Mark Ahlstrom. It reads: “For the love of nostalgia.”

Judy Ahlstrom knows critics may question the expense or the wisdom of living in a old house that could pass for a museum.

“It’s not for everyone, I know. I feel it’s really important for someone to step up to the plate and preserve places like this.”