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North Liberty home is history in the making

NORTH LIBERTY– In 1908, scientists were just beginning to consider the possibilities of atomic energy, and the world had just witnessed its first passenger air flight. It was the year of Ford’s first Model T, the nation’s first celebration of Mother’s Day, and the first home of its kind built in North Liberty, the Samuel Ranshaw house.
The old home on the corner of Penn Street and Community Drive in North Liberty, vacant and sleeping largely undisturbed since 2005, is being revived for a new generation of the town’s population.
This Thursday, May 3, the North Bend History Committee and the Johnson County Historic Preservation Commission will hold a meeting to review the City of North Liberty’s application to place the house on the National Register of Historic Places.
Leah Rogers, principal investigator of Tallgrass Historians, L.C., who also prepared the nomination form, will present the document to the commission and North Liberty officials.
The nomination is just the beginning of the future for the Ranshaw House, even though the North Bend History Committee has been working to save it from the demolition ball almost since the city purchased the property in 2004. Once eyed as an area for expansion of the community center parking lot, some felt the once-stately house held too much of North Liberty’s beginning to have it come to such an undignified end.
Therefore, a small group of interested people gathered to talk about the fate of the Ranshaw House.
“It was a group of mostly people who had lived in the area a long time,” said Mary K. Mitchell, co-chair of the historic committee and former North Liberty City Clerk for 30 years. “But none of us had a background in preservation or any real historic expertise.”
Enter John Christenson, former regional library director and historical society director for two counties in Minnesota. Christenson and his wife moved into a North Liberty condominium in 2005, but began to search for an older home and ended up in a 1923 Arts and Crafts home in Iowa City.
Christenson likes the patina and meaningfulness of things that have been around awhile. He currently serves as co-chair of the North Bend History Committee and also co-chairs the Johnson County Historic Preservation Commission.
“It is so valuable to have his experience,” in the Ranshaw House endeavor, said Mitchell. Along with Christenson, the group also recruited assistance from Roger Gwinnup, a Friends of Historic Preservation member and construction contractor that specializes in historic restoration.
“He has restored numerous homes in the Iowa City area,” Mitchell said. “He helped with the specifications for the roof to make sure it would be properly restored.”
Since 2005, armed with Christenson’s guidance, Gwinnup’s knowledge and the perseverance of Mitchell and other committee members determined to save the house, the group has advanced and emerged victorious through several small battles: convincing city officials to keep the house intact; seeking relevant architectural evaluations on the structure; securing the city’s ongoing commitment to financially support the project with an annual budget allocation; and, with the help of assistant city administrator Tracey Mulcahey, getting over $60,000 in grant funding from Iowa’s Great Places program to complete repairs on the house, including replacing the dilapidating roof and, eventually, scraping and painting the exterior, replacing windows, installing insulation and replacing the porch.
The next step has turned out to be a much more involved campaign.
Getting a building placed on the National Register of Historic Places involves several lengthy procedures. The Ranshaw House application began with the receipt of a Certified Local Government grant, which was used to hire an expert to evaluate whether or not the home was even eligible for the Register based on its stringent criteria. Expert Patricia Eckhardt completed that survey, which validated the home’s eligibility, in 2010. In 2011, the Johnson County Historic Preservation Commission applied for a grant to complete a nomination form. Rogers, of Tallgrass, spent nearly a year on that document (which can be found on the city’s website at northlibertyiowa.org/Ranshaw).
This Thursday, the nomination will be up for review by the local historical groups at the city council chambers, 1 Quail Creek Cir., at 5 p.m. The meeting will not be televised, but the public is invited to attend. Once it is approved locally, the nomination can proceed to the State Historical Society of Iowa. After state-level approval, the nomination moves to the Department of Interior at the federal level, where it will undergo another review.
Christenson said the historical significance of the house, along with its many well-preserved interior features– which were both luxurious and modern in 1908– and its status as a quintessential example of a grand rural farmhouse from the early 20th century, makes it a good candidate for the Register.
“It is very unlikely it would not be approved by the state, after this thorough process and well-written nomination,” said Christenson.
Acceptance to the National Register could open many new doors for the historic Ranshaw House, making it eligible for specific types of grant funding for its further development and future maintenance. It would also put North Liberty on yet another map.
“The National Register of Historic Places has a website that lists historic places in the country, so people who are interested in historic sites will be able to locate it,” said Christenson.
And, eventually, visit.
That could mean adding another chapter to the home’s history.
“It’s hard to say exactly what we envision for the house, but we think it would make a wonderful visitors’ center, perhaps a place to hold small group meetings, and maybe a place for a small history center or North Liberty history museum,” said Mitchell. “Now that things are happening, we can see the potential is there.”
Christenson said the city’s growth, and its influx of new and younger residents, makes it increasingly important to save the home and tell its history.
“It is something good to preserve, because there is very little of this era of North Liberty left,” Christenson said. “That has an interest for more than just North Liberty. It is part of Johnson County history, and Iowa history.”