Historic addresses: Stately old homes are window into Grand Forks' past
GRAND FORKS — Mathilda Engstad wrote in "The White Kid Glove Era" about the elite Grand Forks pioneers who lived in the grand homes along Reeves Drive and Belmont Road:
"The 1890s were a time when ladies wore genuine jewelry or none at all ... a time when we made calls on our new neighbors, and all calls were returned within a fortnight ... when ladies drove in pairs in enclosed carriages and wore white kid gloves to make dozens or more calls in an afternoon, leaving visiting cards, one of her own and two of her husband's. ... It was a leisurely, dignified and comfortable life."
— Grand Forks Historic
It was a long time ago when the city was shiny-new and just 200 people in 1873 could call Grand Forks home. The city was incorporated in 1881. The railroads arrived about the same time, and by 1900, the population had exploded to 7,652.
Today, the calling cards, horses and buggies are gone, and white gloves get mentioned once in a blue moon and only to make fun of mothers or fastidious housekeepers.
But some of the stately homes remain—remnants of the city's history and the entrepreneurs, bankers, landowners, doctors and public leaders who built them in the North Dakota river town.
If only the walls of these homes could talk, they would have so much to say.
The 1901 Victorian Queen Anne at 420 Reeves Drive might have told Bob and Sally Clayburgh: "Really, dears, you needn't bother with the sizing on the 14th layer of wallpaper. It will look just beautiful."
Or the 1885 Victorian Italianate at 420 Franklin Ave. might have whispered sooner to Wayne and Judy Swisher: "Pssst, you know my walls are fat only because I'm hiding my original oak, double pocket doors behind them."
So much history. So many secrets. All sealed beneath the bricks, plaster and laths of these grand, old homes. It's no wonder their owners feel a duty to preserve them for even more generations to come.
"I think there are so few of these houses left, that are for the most part intact, that people don't realize what a treasure they are," Sally Clayburgh said. "While we own our house, we feel kind of like the house owns us. We are the caretakers of history. I don't think people think a lot about Grand Forks' history or where we've come from. ... But it is important, and it's important to honor that."
A time machine
Chuck Flemmer, chair of the Grand Forks Historic Preservation Commission, says for him, living in a historic house is like owning a time machine. His Queen Anne-style home at 412 S. Fifth St. was built in 1894 and already was more than 100 years old when he bought it in 1995.
It had been cut into four apartments, but he quickly gutted it to restore its original floor plan. Today, the home is part of the Near Southside Historic District.
"I love it. One of the reasons I live in a historic home is because I find them to have a lot more character," Flemmer said. "It's fun to think back on all the people who have lived in your house, all the different families and different things that have happened with the people in your house over time."
It's easy to get lost in that history, to travel through other people's memories recorded on yellowed paper or worn pictures at the University of North Dakota's Chester Fritz Library.
"I love finding pictures of my house around the turn of the last century to see how life has changed here in Grand Forks. Things are so different, yet there's always this anchor that makes it feel like home," he said. "When you live in an old house, you think of your house as a person, or an entity that has been existing for all these years. You are just one person, a traveling companion, for a period of time. And it's your job to take care of it and make it better, to treat it like you'd treat an old friend. Those are the things I like about my old house."
The Beare House
The Clayburgh home was put on the National Register of Historic Places in 1995. Originally known as the Harriet and Thomas Beare House, the real estate mogul had paid $295 for the land to build the house at an estimated cost of $5,000.
The Beares did not live there for long. They sold the home to one-time Grand Forks Mayor Michael F. Murphy in 1903, and he built an addition for his family at an estimated cost of $4,000. It also later was home to his grown daughter's family. Later still, it belonged to the Robert Griffith family of Grand Forks' famed downtown department store and then the Vito Perrone family before the Clayburghs moved in with their three small children in 1986.
Today, the house remains remarkably preserved. The sun shines through its original beveled, leaded-glass windows to create prisms of light throughout the pristinely restored living and dining rooms. The floors are oak with cherry inlay, and the rich woodwork on the ornate door and window frames, along with the grand staircase with multiple landings, has been untouched by paint. The walls have been made fresh with period-perfect wallpapering—including the detailed mosaic on the dining room ceiling.
The home's seven fireplaces have original tile, inserts and hardware intact, and each has its own unique and intricately carved mantel. The original curved glass and window sashes also remain in the rounded turrets of the formal living room and reception room.
One easily could say the home appears as beautiful as the day it was built, but Clayburgh will assure them it also has been a genuine family home.
"It's been an amazing house to live in and raise the kids in," she said. "Even though it's a historic home, we never wanted it to be a museum. It's our home. I wanted the kids and their friends to be comfortable here being kids and living a normal family life, not having me say, 'Hey, don't touch that.' And I do think we achieved that."
Modern-day normality was preserved along with the house—right down to its squeaky step.
Clayburgh said a carpenter noticed the noisy step the same day he had discovered a hidden leaded-glass window sandwiched between the siding and plywood in an upstairs bedroom. He offered to fix it.
"Don't you dare," Clayburgh told him. The singing step was her signal a teenager might be coming home past curfew. That was the practical purpose to leave it be. The second purpose was character.
The Wheeler House
Wayne and Judy Swisher would agree a squeaky step is part of an old home's personality. No matter how hard someone might try, it's hard to strip all of it away. Drafty windows could be replaced, but then they no longer would be 1885 windows. Some things are best left alone.
"A lot of people don't really care, but if you're a preservationist, you care about those things," Judy said.
The Swishers are only the third owners of the original home of pioneer North Dakota surgeon Dr. Henry M. Wheeler, who also served as Grand Forks' mayor from 1918 to 1920.
The home was built about 1885 and was put on the National Register of Historic Places shortly before the Swishers bought it in 1986.
In its early years, the house underwent several renovations, including a two-story addition to the back of the home and a two-story, side-front porch addition. Shortly after World War II, when soldiers returned home and housing was in high demand, the home was converted into three apartments.
The Swishers, along with the owners before them, worked to restore the home to its original state.
And that's when the whispering walls finally got their attention. The Swishers said they always had wondered why the walls were so thick between the two parlors, but it wasn't until they raised the ceiling in what Judy calls the "preacher come to call parlor" that they noticed the double-wide pocket doors hiding in the wall cavity.
In retrospect, they laughed and said they should have known better. As avid fans of Bob Vila, they had seen the host reveal the same once on an episode of "This Old House."
The Swisher home is filled with other treasures, including French doors, stained-glass windows in the dining room and stairwell, deep crown molding, segmental arch windows and original electric fixtures and doorknobs.
The Swishers, Clayburghs and Flemmer all agree historic homes require some extra care, but the pleasure in preserving and being part of Grand Forks' history is well worth the work.
"I think it's important for any culture to understand its roots to be able to appreciate the contributions of the people who went before you," Judy said. "It gives you an appreciation for the struggles some of our forebears had to go through. You look at these old houses, and they were built before power tools. That's pretty amazing."