Herriman Mansion Restoration Project - The Cedar Rapids Gazette


The Cedar Rapids Gazette: Sunday, Dec 10, 1989, Page 9A.
Reprinted with permission ©1989 The Gazette, Cedar Rapids, Iowa

From icon to relic to eyesore

It's time to restore Herriman mansion or tear it down

Doug McReynolds Photograph

The old Herriman mansion, just east of Wadena in Fayette County, is dying.

Seeing it for the first time, as one approaches on the gravel road from town, one is reminded first of Edgar Allen Poe's grim House of Usher, with its "vacant and eye-like windows" and, more ominously, its "barely perceptible fissure. . . extending from the roof of the building . . .down the wall in a zigzag direction, until it becomes lost. . . ."

But no local legends of incest or paranoia persist here. The reality is that a once-prominent family has died out, and the last living descendant makes her own home in town. A lawyer in Chicago, I am told, owns the property.

The first Herriman was an Indian trader , according to local story. The "History of Fayette County" (1878), however, identifies Major David B. Herriman as an entrepreneur who came. in 1857 from Indiana by way of Minnesota and bought controlling interest in an already successful sawmill on the Volga River.

Striking appearance

With his milling partner, Herriman platted the village of Wadena, and he gave it Its name, calling it after an aged Winnebago chieftain he had known briefly in Minnesota.

By 1875 he had built his manse on 300 good acres overlooking the town and sold his interest in the mill; the .'History" identifies his son, Charles, as a successful farmer and father of five who saw creditable action in some two dozen Civil War campaigns, including the sieges of Vicksburg and Savannah. He suffered a leg wound in the Battle of Pea Ridge March 7, 1862.

Then the Herrimans passed out of local history.

But the house they built remains.

It is a striking house, clean lined, unostentatious and, from a distance, apparently solid: two stories of red . Clermont brick stacked squarely atop another of thick native limestone; slabs of limestone for sills and lintels; shallow- pitched gable roof.

So typically Iowan

Inside are plaster and lathe and more -brick; a narrow, closeted front staircase Scarlett O'Hara would have sneered at, but one eminently practical for Northeast Iowa winters; unadorned brick fireplaces in most rooms.

No gingerbread here, no frets or friezes, no architectural flourishes inside or out. This is the sort of house that breathes bedrock respectability and bears witness - to the virtues of toil, frugality, humility.

And that is what bothers me, for the Herriman mansion is Iowa, and it is falling apart.

The roof is going and whole interior walls have already collapsed; great heaps of plaster shards and brick dust cover the lower floors. Joists a full two inches thick and a foot deep -rough cut joists that must once have supported crowds of rustic revelers as well as a fiddler or two in a modest third-story ballroom -are rotting, and the floor boards they supported have gone soft. One walks gingerly among the whitewash and the few shreds of wall paper still clinging here and there.

The Herriman mansion's roof is going and whole interior walls have already collapsed. Though abandoned long ago, the place apparently is still used occasionally, if dangerously, on summer nights.

Shortlived restoration

Inspection attests that halfhearted restoration has been attempted a time or two. A long side porch has been framed in, and acoustical tile was once hung in one of the central rooms. A modern toilet was even installed behind the kitchen. But the plywood roof above the enclosed porch has rotted through, the acoustical tile has fallen to the floor, and the toilet now lies in pieces. Concrete patching has been grouted into a few of the major cracks along the west wall, forming jagged welts of grey scar tissue down the house facade. Someone of good intentions apparently lost heart when faced with the enormousness of the job.

One local resident recalls people living in the mansion, at least in its downstairs rooms, until 10 or 20 years ago; another reports that the last permanent resident was gone by 1955. Most of the dates penciled onto the upstairs walls by lovers and others lie among the Dust Bowl year- of 1935 through 1940, though other evidence indicates the place is still used occasionally, if dangerously, on summer nights.

Perhaps the structure should be given over to the bulldozer and the wrecking ball. Those comfortable, rural values its design embodies did not vivify it, after all and so what was once an icon is now only a relic fast degenerating into an eyesore.

Perhaps Iowa can never be what we like to think it was when Major Herriman built his home, and perhaps that is good. That the mansion has been allowed to decay is certainly evidence that Iowans do not find compelling reason to maintain it. Perhaps the money required to restore it is better spent on Aid to Families with Dependent Children and public education, or on race tracks and political campaigns.

Currently useless

But something must be done. and quickly. The Herriman mansion must be either torn down or put to rights. And that is the point. It serves no useful or esthetic purpose in its present condition. unless one argues that reminding us of what a thing no longer is somehow constitutes purpose.

No more can Iowa afford to mouth -pieties about values it no longer believes in: the cracks show there, too, and the damage is both structural and fundamental. There is no advantage in longing for a clean and simple past.

If the values are worth preserving, the investment must be made now, before the naked structure crumbles under its own weight and that of the unforgiving elements.

If the values are not worth preserving, it is time to bury the past once and for all. so that upon its bones may be built whatever will vitalize the future.