Herriman Mansion Restoration Project - Article: House Work

The Gazette: Sunday, March 31, 2002, Page 1B.
Reprinted with permission ©2003 The Gazette, Cedar Rapids, Iowa

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The brick fireplace in the living room of the mansion built by Maj. David Herriman in 1860 near Wadena remains in good condition Vacant for at least the past 30 years, the three story mansion has suffered severe structural and interior deterioration. (Gazette photo by Orlan Love)

House Work

Iowans hope to rescue declining historic mansion

Image of dining room full of debris - Click for full-size.

WADENA -When Maj. David Herriman built his brick mansion east of town in 1860, he built it to last. It easily outlasted the major, who died 15 years after it was built, and it outlasted any descendants interested in maintaining it.

Solid as it may have been, how- ever, the long-neglected historic house will likely collapse unless a last -ditch restoration effort succeeds.

"It's going to be a long, uphill battle," said Everett Zupke, who is leading the effort to preserve the house listed two years ago by the Iowa Historic Preservation Alliance as one of the state's most endangered historic sites.

Zupke, a native Iowan now living in Cypress, Calif., said several hundred thousand dollars will be needed to repair a building that probably cost $10,000 to build.

Vacant for at least the past 30 years, the three-story mansion has suffered severe structural and interior deterioration. ...

Historians describe Herriman as an eccentric entrepreneur whose shrewd investments earned him a fortune on the Iowa frontier.

Herriman acquired his military title through service as an Indian agent in Minnesota, where he met the chief for whom he named the town of Wadena.

Herriman's sons considered him so brilliant that they had his brain weighed when he died in 1875, according to a 1949 Gazette article quoting his then 95-year- old sister-in-law, Ann Hidinger of Oelwein.

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Though the autopsy revealed nothing unusual, Herriman had indeed been endowed "with more than a common share of intellect," according to his obituary. ...

Zupke said his interest in the Herriman mansion stems from his own family ties. His grandparents, George and Nina Davis, lived there for four years in the early 1900s, he said.

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The immediate priorities, Zupke said, are getting the building listed on the National Register of Historic Places, which would make it eligible for restoration grants, and stabilizing it -perhaps with tarps to cover leaking roofs and open windows -to prevent further damage.

An agreement must also be secured with the property owner, Eldon Lenth of DeKalb, Texas, to make the house available for historic preservation, Zupke said.

Zupke said he is arranging to have a member of the State Historical Society of Iowa Technical Advisory Network inspect and offer advice on the restoration of the mansion.

Zupke is also collecting information from former residents of the property that will help define the history of the building and the people who lived there.

HERRIMAN, ACCORDING to his obituary , "accomplished the object of his life: He died rich."

The remnants of his fortune can still be seen in the Wadena cemetery, where Herriman's tombstone dwarfs all others and in the sagging mansion overlooking it to the east.

Herriman built his L-shaped mansion to accommodate his own large family, as well as a dozen hired men, who slept in an attic.

Workers built the house of native materials -limestone, brick and pine -either harvested or manufactured on the Herriman farm.

The mansion lacks the adornments common to houses built by wealthy people of that era.

"There was no gingerbread, no Scarlett O'Hara staircases, nothing fancy about the inside at all," said Doug McReynolds, an English professor at Upper Iowa University in Fayette.

In a 1989 Gazette article, McReynolds argued that the mansion must be restored or razed and not left to crumble.

"What was once an icon is now only a relic fast degenerating into an eyesore," he wrote.

McReynolds compared the Herriman mansion to Edgar Allan Foe's fictional House of Usher, with its "vacant and eyelike windows" and its "barely perceptible fissure" zigzagging downward from the roof.

If the restoration effort fails, a more apt literary allusion might be to "Ozymandias," English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley's evocation of the "colossal wreck" that had been the statue of an ancient Egyptian king, who commanded posterity with hauteur undermined by the passage of centuries to "look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!"

Contact Northeast Iowa Bureau Chief Orlan Love at (319) 934-3172 or orlanl@fyiowa.com