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It’s back to the future

NORTH LIBERTY– There’s a lot more to making history than reaching a certain age.
The Samuel Ranshaw House in North Liberty is 104 years old, but that was not enough to save it from destruction.
When the city purchased the property in 2004, it was with the intent to level the home and eventually expand the North Liberty Community Center’s parking lot.
But when a few city employees entered the house to take a closer look, they were surprised by its still-handsome interior.
“When they saw what great condition it was in, they came back and said we might want to re-think tearing it down,” said Assistant City Administrator Tracey Mulcahey. “That’s when the ideas began to formulate about what would happen with the building, and what we might do with it.
Since then, a group of concerned citizens, preservationists and city staff have been working to bring it the distinction it deserves.
When Iowa City was named a City of Literature– an international designation– the City of North Liberty was also able to realize new opportunities.
“This is North Liberty’s history, and it represents part of our story,” said Mulcahey.
North Liberty partnered with Iowa City and Coralville to apply to the Iowa’s Great Places program. Once North Liberty was deemed an official Great Place, it opened doors for grant funding. The Iowa’s Great Places program has awarded North Liberty grants in the amount of $8,000 and $52,500 for improvements to the Ranshaw house’s exterior. The roof was replaced last year, and this summer, the house will receive window and siding repairs, updates to its grand front porch, some insulation and a new paint job.
The North Bend History Committee, working with Mulcahey and the city, has been the main conduit for the home’s salvation and progress toward renovation.
“There has been a core group of about 10 or 12 people who have been working very hard for the house,” said Mulcahey. Mary K. Mitchell, who served as North Liberty’s City Clerk for 30 years and is the co-chair of the history committee, has been indispensible in getting things done, said Mulcahey. Mitchell’s co-chair, John Christenson, was a regional library director and historical society director in Minnesota, and now serves on the Johnson County Historic Preservation Commission and has brought a wealth of knowledge to the group. Local contractor Roger Gwinnup, a Friends of Historic Preservation member and construction contractor that specializes in historic restoration, has been “phenomenal with his expertise and knowledge” of period architecture, Mulcahey noted, and the other members of the history committee have all made valuable contributions of time, information and dedication.
The committee and Mulcahey received a Certified Local Government grant that allowed them to hire consultant Pat Eckhard to determine the home’s eligibility for the National Register of Historic Places in 2010.
In 2011, they received another Certified Local Government grant to hire Leah Rogers of Tallgrass Historians L.C. to inventory the house and prepare a nomination for the national historic register. The nomination was accepted by the Johnson County Historic Preservation Commission on May 3, and will be reviewed by the State Historical Society on June 8. If approved, it moves on to the federal level for preliminary and final reviews.
The 1908 Queen Anne Victorian has a lot going for it as it goes before the board. Samuel and Emma Ranshaw built the house when Samuel retired as a successful and wealthy farmer. Its modern amenities of hot and cold running water, gas generated electricity and indoor plumbing were remarkable at the time. What is significant now is what remains of the home’s original design. Its woodwork, with egg and dart molding, is in its original state, left unpainted throughout the years. Capital-topped columns still separate the grand entrance from the parlor, and the parlor from the dining room, and the fully-functioning pocket doors are also original. A dumbwaiter shaft remains in place where produce was brought conveniently to the kitchen from the basement’s cool storage vegetable room. Even the home’s leaded and cut glass windows are almost all intact.
The roof, originally wood shake shingles, was replaced last summer with shake-look asphalt shingles. Once the exterior envelope has been completely addressed, the interior work can begin. Fortunately, Gwinnup had the foresight to save materials, such as bead board, flooring, siding and molding, from two local homes of the same period that were recently torn down, so much of the indoor repairs can be made with historically accurate components. That’s important in keeping the home’s historic integrity, said Mulcahey.
“We just have to make sure that whatever we do does not compromise the integrity of what is here. That means focusing on repair rather than replacement,” she said. “The biggest complication is original specifications call for No. 4 lead paint.”
That means finding a lead-certified paint contractor to work on the home’s exterior.
A boon to the house’s ultimate renovation will be the fact that Samuel Ranshaw’s grandson, Harlan Ranshaw, still has the original specifications– or black prints– from when it was built. It designates not only the floor plan showing the first floor’s entry way, parlor, formal dining room, kitchen and large first-floor bedroom, and the second story’s four bedrooms, storage area and full bath, but also the type of materials and equipment to be used in its construction.
The home’s application for the national register also increases its opportunities for funding, making it eligible for additional grants. The interior will be repaired in increments, Mulcahey said.
“Once we get past the plumbing and electricity, a lot of the work will be cosmetic and can be done by city staff.”
And when the repairs have been completed, there will be many opportunities to put it to use once again.
Mulcahey believes the home will be a featured part of North Liberty’s upcoming centennial celebration in 2013; at least, its yard and front porch should be ready to receive guests by then.
“I can see the front lawn being used for the re-enactment of a high tea from the period, or an old fashioned ice cream social with games like three legged races,” Mulcahey said, “or maybe hosting small outdoor concerts.”
Mitchell said the committee also envisions a visitors’ or history center, a place to display artifacts and information on the town’s history. Mulcahey said the upstairs could provide itinerate office or space for various social service organizations or volunteer groups, and the lower level could be used for a variety of community meetings. Some members of the history committee are contemplating planting a period garden full of heritage plants and flowers.
“Until we get to the point of knowing exactly what it will look like and how it will be used, it’s still kind of nebulous,” Mulcahey said.
Whatever it becomes, the Ranshaw House provides room for many possibilities.
As a public space, it will be an important connection to the past in this community that has been racing headlong into its future.
“This is one of the few historic buildings we have left,” said Mulcahey. “There are some old houses, but they are privately owned. We don’t have a historic downtown, and we have many new people who don’t remember the town’s history. This house is a nice connection for our young families. Part of North Liberty’s future will be honoring its past.”