Woolen Mill open house this fall

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Note: this copyrighted article appeared in the Decorah Public Opinion, article by Sarah Strandberg.
Additionally, a Letter to the Editor, written by Russell Kaney, HPI Director - Housing Investments, was published to celebrate National Historic Preservation Week 2002 and the success of Decorah Wollen Mill.
A building that once housed a woolen mill, mitten factory, pharmaceutical company and a tire retailer will soon be providing affordable housing in Decorah.
Located at 107 N. Court St. in Decorah, the Woolen Mill, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, is being renovated into 15 apartment units.
More than 30 applications for the apartment units have been received, according to Northeast Iowa Community Action Corporation Director Mary Ann Humpal. An open house is tentatively scheduled for Oct. 30, and tenants will move in in November.
NEICAC purchased the building in 2001 for its fourth housing project in Winneshiek County. Decorah Tire had owned it until the business moved into a new facility on Montgomery Street.
While providing handicapped accessible, affordable housing, the project is maintaining some of the unique, historic aspects of the structure. NEICAC is working closely with the state Historical Society.
"It's been fun for everyone working here. The building has historical character to it -- it makes it really interesting to preserve something like this. It's been here so long, it's probably one of first buildings in town," said George Backes, job superintendent for the project. He works for general contractor Finholt Construction of Decorah.
"It's rewarding and an honor to be working on something like this, because of the building that it was and what it will be in the future," he said.
Luther College student Kery Johnson of Decorah researched the history of the Woolen Mill.
Constructed in 1867, the Woolen Mill was originally four stories tall.
"It was quite a building for that era to be that high," Backes commented.
At the time, the Upper Iowa River flowed south of its current course, directly adjacent to the Mill.
The Woolen Mill cost $35,200 to construct - and that included the machinery it housed. The renovation project will cost about $1.85 million.
When Decorah was hit by a tornado in 1908, the roof and top floor were damaged and the fourth floor was never rebuilt.
An addition was built in the 1920s. On one of the floors, an archway that links the original portion of the building to the addition will be preserved at the request of the Historical Society.
Ninety-four windows are being replaced with wood framed, six-over-six panel windows, in keeping with the original design.
Two non-functioning doors also will be preserved at the request of the Historical Society, Humpal said.
Renovating the older building has presented some unique challenges for Finholt Construction. Preservation isn't necessarily more difficult than new construction, it just involves more work, Backes said.
"You have demolition and reconstruction before you really start putting it together," he explained.
The Finholt superintendent said older buildings are all constructed differently. Some look worse than they really area, he added.
"It's nice to see how they're tied together and the floor system and how it works with the outside walls. They really had a system. They're structurally a lot sounder than they look," he said.
Over time, the center of the Woolen Mill had settled about six inches, Backes said.
In December, two telescoping jacks were used to raise the entire structure - all three floors and the roof so the floors could be leveled.
All together, a six-inch differential was corrected. Dense wood shims were installed between the top of the column and the lateral beam to correct the problem. The first floor needed the most correction - about four inches, Backes said. The second and third floors each needed only about an inch or two.
Throughout the project, artifacts painting a picture of the building's past have been uncovered. Items such as a Whistle pop sign found buried in a ceiling, pulleys, jars and other treasures will be housed in a "memories" case located near the elevator for the apartment complex.
In addition, some of the stamped, tin-ceiling panels saved during the project will be installed on the ceiling near the elevator.
Backes noted the mill housed the American Drug and Press Association in the late 1800s, and workers uncovered a tin can once containing Metzger's Veterinary Specific Pain Eradicator.
Old ledgers and letters from the drug company days were also recovered.
"Their penmanship was really good," he said.
They also found an Old Style beer can with a cone top
Humpal is hopeful, if funds are available, that wainscoting and period sconces will adorn the hallways.
NEICAC also is looking for 1860s-style doors for the apartment units.
"We're trying to authenticate that era," Humpal said.
There will be five apartments on each of the three floors - two, two-bedroom and three, one-bedroom.
Northeast Iowa Community Action Corporation is a not-for-profit community action agency serving seven counties in Northeast Iowa.
The Woolen Mill project is being made possible through a $1.3 million investment by Alliant Energy Resources, through its affordable housing subsidiary, Heartland Properties Inc.
Additional financial support is being provided by Community First National Bank of Decorah, Federal Home Loan Bank of Des Moines, Iowa Finance Authority, Iowa Department of Economic Development, the State Historical Society of Iowa and the city of Decorah.

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