Traditional Building Portfolio



Stick Style Ingenuity

A can-do historical society in rural Wisconsin cures a house museum of flood damage.

Project: Herman C. Timm House, New Holstein, WI

Architects: River Architects, Inc., La Crosse, WI; Peter Zirbel, project architect

By Eve M. Kahn

New Holstein, WI, has been a surprisingly productive and enterprising town throughout its 159-year history, despite its relatively diminutive size (current population, 3,400) and relatively remote location (60 miles north of Milwaukee). Within a decade of the 1848 arrival of New Holstein's 70 original settlers from Germany's Schleswig-Holstein, the town thrived with stores, hotels, schools and mills. Before the population count even reached a mere 1,373, in 1920, factories had sprung up making cigars, shoes, steam boilers, pea harvesters and cast iron. Thomas Edison bought gas engines from New Holstein, and a local engineer patented the gate system used throughout the Panama Canal.

"There have been an amazing amount of large manufacturing businesses and entrepreneurs for a town that size, and it still has a lot of that can-do attitude," says Peter Zirbel, an architect at River Architects, Inc., in La Crosse, WI. The firm has just completed, in collaboration with Milwaukee-based designer Merri Cvetan of MEC Design Studio, a five-year, $1.5-million overhaul of an 1892 house museum in New Holstein that epitomizes the local spirit of inventiveness.

The building, the Herman C. Timm House, is the town's only listing on the National Register of Historic Places and one of the country's best preserved examples of the Stick Style (a notoriously fragile architectural mode, given its quantity of lacy gingerbread). Timm was one of the original German settlers – the families are called '48ers – as well as a bank president and grain dealer whose elevators along the railroad tracks could hold 31,000 bushels.

In 1873, he built a Greek Revival house for his family, then upgraded in 1892 with a grand Stick Style front addition. His contractor, August R. Neuman, slathered the exterior in fretwork, spindles, sawtooth bands, faux half-timbering and stained-glass checkerboards. Inside, Neuman juxtaposed Eastlake woodwork bristling with spindles and some simple reeded trim and turned balusters, anticipating the imminent fashion for Arts and Crafts design. The house has a fanciful Alpine chalet quality, perhaps reminding Timm of his homeland and also serving as a cheerful antidote to Wisconsin winters. "This is the first building you see when you come into town from the south, it really makes a design statement," Cvetan says.

Timm's descendants lived in the house until the 1950s. Although they painted the exterior in pale colors and cut the interior into two apartments, the house was relatively unscathed when the family donated it to the New Holstein Historical Society in 1974. "It's extraordinarily rare in America for a house to remain in the original family's hands so long, and then go straight into a historical society's hands," says Kay Nett, president of the New Holstein Historical Society.

Upon taking over, the historical society's volunteers somewhat misguidedly spruced up the place. "They were very well intentioned as they tore off all the wallpaper and every shred of window treatments," Cvetan says. "Instead they put up a '70s version of Victorian country décor, with white woodwork, damask fabrics and flocked wallpaper." Only the Timms' brass and iridescent-glass light fixtures remained; they were installed in 1912, when the house was first electrified.

In the late 1990s, seeking a more historically accurate interpretation of the house, the historical society commissioned an historic-structure report from River Architects. Soon after the document was completed, a series of disasters struck. Carpenter ants chewed through the roof and caused leaks. Boiler failure resulted in frozen pipes, which burst and spewed 500,000 gal. of water into the dining room and kitchen. The historical society stabilized the house while fundraising to cover urgent repairs. The Jeffris Family Foundation, a charity that supports restoration projects in Wisconsin's smaller communities, offered a $562,000 matching grant, which the society more than matched with gifts from hundreds of individuals in the region. The project blossomed into a structural and mechanical overhaul, concealed behind meticulous recreations of 1892 décor.

"We put a new heart into the patient without causing irreparable scarring," Zirbel explains. Engineer Chris Olson, of La Crosse-based Galileo Consulting Group, snaked ductwork between HVAC units tucked into a closet, basement and attic. "We didn't need to put in any large chases or trunk lines that would be visible," Zirbel says. "And the electrician fished the new wiring along the paths from that first electrification in 1912." The contractor, Schneider & Schneider Construction, LLC, of New Holstein, shored up and re-flashed the rotting roof and porch sections. The company performed interior surgery as well, replacing flood-damaged flooring and rebuilding some walls that had been stripped to the studs.

Meanwhile, Cvetan scoured the site for wallpaper fragments. "We looked behind every single switch plate, molding and radiator for traces of wallpaper, and found only a few that were pre-1920s," she explains. Her other clues to the Timms' tastes came from the light fixtures, surviving faux-grain baseboards – simulated mahogany in the living room and oak in the foyer and parlor – and two tantalizingly grainy 1896 photos of the parlor. "We zoomed in on everything in those photos – the furniture, the blinds, the valences," the designer says. "From there we conjectured how an upper-middle-class family in a small Wisconsin town would have lived in the 1890s."

She brought in floral scrollwork, and striped wallpapers from manufacturers scattered nationwide, including Wolff House Wallpapers in Mt. Vernon, OH; Belfry Historic Consultants in Lynn, MA; and Victorian Collectibles in Milwaukee, which has based a reproductions line on a stash of 19th-century wallpaper rolls found at a Wisconsin general store. Cvetan also pored through the historical society's large furniture collection, choosing carved, wicker or bentwood pieces for the museum's 10 rooms. Nett reports that the society has been able to bring out objects "that had been sitting in storage for decades. A lot of them were made by local craftspeople, or belonged to the families of '48ers." The Timm house's Eastlake bedroom set, she says, "came from the family of Edward Schildhauer – he was the engineer who invented the Panama Canal locks."

The team of craftspeople who worked on the museum is also local, Nett adds: "Nobody except the architects traveled more than 50 or 60 miles to get to the job site. So much of the funding had come from the region, so we wanted to give back to the community by commissioning the work here." Bryan Albert of Wauwatosa, WI, stenciled lacy scrollwork on the living-room ceiling and New Holstein-based Designs by Carol fabricated the window treatments. Crown Services of Kiel, WI, hung the wallpapers, restored the faux graining and re-painted the exterior in the original palette, based on research by Chicago, IL-based paint analyst Robert Furhoff.

At the museum's re-dedication ceremony in July 2007, Herman Timm's nonagenarian granddaughter Virginia Timm Meyer cut the ribbon. Hundreds of visitors took tours led by costumed docents. "There had been such pent-up curiosity about the interior," Cvetan says. "People had been trying to peer in for months. It's turned out glorious; everyone is awed at the transformation." 

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