The inside of the old brick house in east Bismarck looks like somewhere dignitaries should be housed, with its dumbwaiter, adjoining staircases with elaborate woodwork, splashes of stained glass above doors and ornate light fixtures. But the outside of the 115-year-old warden's residence at the state penitentiary shows its age. The bricks, made by long-ago prisoners of the institution, are worn in places and some of the decorative features of the architecture have fallen off during years of harsh North Dakota climate.
The old building has outlived its usefulness to the North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. The prison warden is no longer required by law to live there, and since former warden Tim Schuetzle's retirement in 2010, the house has been used as office space. By the end of the summer, the division using the old bedrooms and living rooms as offices will move to a new administration building a few steps away.
A $64 million construction and renovation project at the prison includes tearing down the stately old house sometime this fall. However, local history buffs are hoping the house can be moved to a new location - or, at the very least, that the treasures inside can be saved for future generations to see.
"I think it has to be one of the most beautiful historic homes in the state," said Elizabeth Lucas, a "concerned citizen" who has been involved in the preservation of the former North Dakota governor's mansion in west Bismarck.
Dick Frohlich, director of plant services for the prison, began a recent tour of the house at the south entrance, which features an enclosed porch. Jim Christianson and Walter Bailey, of the Bismarck Historical Society, Dawn Kopp and Kate Herzog, of the Bismarck Downtowners Association, and Lucas came to see the house in person, to see whether it can be saved.
Once through the porch, stained glass decorates the entry through the front door into the vestibule. The main floor encompasses 2,400 square feet, including a kitchen built in 1987, the formal dining area, three living room areas that adjoin sliding wood doors, the covered porch and a full bathroom.
A wide oak staircase sits in front of those coming through the vestibule. The home's old former dining room is to the right. A stained glass light fixture hangs above the table. The room is connected by a manual dumbwaiter to the original kitchen downstairs.
Out the north end of the formal dining room, one comes to the east entrance and to a second staircase, which adjoins the first up a flight of stairs. Farther north is a kitchen, which used to be a bedroom. The main-floor bathroom is down the hall on the north wall.
The entire west side of the main floor holds the three living room areas, which can be closed off to be their own rooms or opened up to one large room. Each room has expansive windows looking out into the prison's parking lot.
The home's age is more obvious in the basement. The brick foundation is crumbling and engineers evaluating the house had to drill 6 to 8 inches into the wall to find hard spots, Frohlich said. If the house were to be moved, its main floor would be cut above the 2,200-square-foot basement.
"Clearly, you wouldn't want the foundation that's here now, because it's just red sand," Frohlich said.
The same bricks that are crumbling in the basement are holding up the rest of the house.
"It's not of a good quality," Frohlich said of the bricks, noting even the best wouldn't pass quality standards now.
The second floor, which covers 2,200 square feet, holds the home's bedrooms, now being used as offices along with the living rooms on the main floor. Several rooms have stained glass over the doorways. The rooms are spacious, and there is another full bathroom directly above the one on the main floor.
Up a narrow flight of stairs, the attic is 2,200 square feet of cold storage, filled with antique furniture of all kinds. There are cabinet sewing machines, dressers, hall trees, couches, magazine racks and other odds and ends, enough to fill several houses of normal size.
The attic is one of the most troublesome parts of the house for anyone who would consider moving it. While the roof was braced when it started kicking outward around the time Frohlich started working there, it's still not in great shape, with pockets of dry rot throughout. Frohlich said the roof possibly would need to be removed before moving the rest of the building, and the house's four chimneys, only one of which functions now, definitely would need to come down for the trip.
"This is the area that would scare me if it were moved," Frohlich said.
Moving the house would be difficult for many other reasons as well, though they are not insurmountable. Frohlich said he researched the matter about five years ago, and moving it then would have cost at least $250,000. The walls are 18 inches thick, and movers usually charge by the pound, Frohlich said. In addition, bridges may need to be reinforced to handle the weight, and other obstructions would need to be considered.
The Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation determined it couldn't afford to move the house at such a cost, when a family could be moved into a new home faster and cheaper, Frohlich said. He said the house's demolition cost likely will be $20,000 to $25,000, meaning it would be at least 10 times more expensive to move it than tear it down.
If no one takes on moving the building, the department will remove all of the items of historic value, surplus usable furniture, and possibly sell anything the state cannot use. Removing the staircases and other features inside also is a possibility, Frohlich said. The house has to come down or be moved, for security reasons, he explained.
"We would very much sell you the house for a dollar," Frohlich told the group touring the home. The corrections department would take care of any asbestos abatement. But that $1 would come with a contract spelling out that the house has to leave.
"Once it's yours, it's yours," he said.
Christianson, also a Realtor, estimated such a house would bring $250,000 to $400,000 if it were sitting in Bismarck's Cathedral District. Lucas believes it could be worth close to $1 million moved and fixed up.
While members of the tour tossed around some ideas for saving the home, they are aware they are up against a time crunch. Plans to move the home must be made in a matter of months, not the years it could take to raise enough money to move it and restore it. Bailey said are sometimes available for restoration of historic homes, but the federal financial situation means those funds are less available than they used to be.
The most likely path to saving the house would be for a private buyer to agree to pay for the moving and restoration costs, either for private use or for donation.
"We'd love a private buyer to grab it up," Herzog said.
Anyone interested in the home should contact the Bismarck Downtowners Association at 223-1958, and information will be forwarded to the Bismarck Historical Society.