Restoring the walnut walls of a century-old Whittier mansion

AmeriCorps youth learn historic conservation skills at Hennepin History Museum

Bridget Erickson, an AmeriCorps volunteer with the Duluth-based Northern Bedrock Historic Preservation Corps, applies a fresh paint of white paint to the ceiling of the Hennepin History Museum's entrance hall on Oct. 18. “I think old buildings have a really cool story to tell and by investing in them and rehabilitating them, we have a unique opportunity to connect with people in the past,” she says. Photos by Zac Farber

When the Hennepin History Museum reopens to the public on Nov. 5 after a three-week closure, the century-old walnut wood walls that line the Whittier museum’s Great Room will gleam more brightly than they have for decades.

A group of six young AmeriCorps volunteers with the Duluth-based nonprofit Northern Bedrock have spent the last few weeks inside the Christian family mansion learning about the art of historic conservation by sawing wood, painting plaster, restaining baseboards and reattaching molding with a 19th-century glue made from animal hide.

“I think old buildings have a really cool story to tell and by investing in them and rehabilitating them, we have a unique opportunity to connect with people in the past,” said Bridget Erickson, a Warroad, Minnesota, native who graduated from the College of St. Benedict this spring. “There’s a certain beauty that historic buildings have that isn’t easily replicated today, and I see that as something worth keeping alive.”

The Christian mansion was built between 1917 and 1919, and Carolyn McKnight Christian lived in the home until 1957, joined by seven servants and four foster children. The first president of the Minneapolis Institute of Art’s Friends group, Christian enjoyed hosting fundraisers in the mansion’s Great Room. “She built the house to be an entertaining house and she loved music,” said Rosella DePietro, a museum staffer. “The two-step-up stage is original to the house.”

The Christian mansion has been the home of Hennepin County’s history museum since the late 1950s, and the Great Room’s luxurious wooden walls have suffered some wear and tear over the years.

Mark Johnston, the founder of Vadnais Heights-based Historic Design Consulting, has been serving as a technical specialist on the conservation project.

“Too often these days, historic repairs also include undoing repairs that were previously done incorrectly,” he said. “These young people are learning to do work in such a way that future generations won’t have to undo it.”

One of the difficulties in conserving the museum’s bookcases, Johnston said, is that walnut turns grayer and lighter as it ages. “It’s easy to make light things dark; it’s harder to make dark things light,” he said.

Luckily, Johnston said, he had a piece of lumber from a walnut tree his great-grandfather cut down on his Carroll County, Iowa, farm in 1905 — the year Johnston’s grandfather was born.

“This is a piece of walnut that’s been sitting, waiting for a special project for 115 years,” he said. “Every woodworker’s got this pile of wood that’s waiting for that special project, and the project never comes, and you die, and it gets sold in a garage sale. So I’m actually going to use my great-granddad’s walnut to replace one of these bookshelf [key pieces].”

During conservation projects, Johnston said, he largely relies on the 150- to 200-year-old tools he inherited from his grandfather. To make the shoe moldings between the museum’s baseboards and its African cypress floor, Johnston showed Northern Bedrock volunteers how to use his 1850 molding plane.

Mark Johnston, the founder of Vadnais Heights-based Historic Design Consulting, largely relies on the 150- to 200-year-old tools he inherited from his grandfather during conservation projects. Photo by Zac Farber

The AmeriCorps volunteers also learned to mix a wood varnish out of orasol dyes, pigment and shellac. Anders Christensen, a painter who also served as a technical specialist on the project, said that many people react with disbelief when they find out how shellac is made. “It’s bug poop,” he said. “They look at me sideways like, ‘You are pulling my leg.’ Shellac comes from the secretion of the female lac bug, which is found in southeast Asia. It’s so versatile and produces a beautiful finish.”

The Northern Bedrock volunteers serve six-month stints in the program and are given a biweekly stipend of $800, plus food, housing and an AmeriCorps education award.

The Hennepin History Museum restoration wasn’t the first project for any of the volunteers. Erickson had repaired windows at the Halfway Ranger Station in Ely and at Red Wing’s Anderson Center. Adam Brinson, who majored in public history at Rhodes College in Memphis, had worked on the north shore of Lake Superior, at Grand Portage National Monument. And Lydia Glamann, an Oshkosh, Wisconsin, native, had done a lot of cemetery restoration — “resetting headstones, cleaning headstones,” she said.

Glamann graduated from the University of Wisconsin–Madison this May with a degree in political science and said she’s now considering a career in historic preservation.

“This has definitely been a lot different than anything I’m used to,” she said.

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