The years have scarred the 117-year-old Section Foreman House in Wayzata, with its flaking paint, leaky roof, boarded windows and yard strewn with litter and dead fish — so much so that community leaders feel the time has finally arrived to restore it.
The long-neglected building, owned by the city since 1988, stands only yards from Lake Minnetonka on land tentatively designated for a future park, part of a $15 million lakefront beautification plan called the Lake Effect. Enthusiasts hope the house might become a visitor’s center for the park.
The current design calls for the Lake Effect ultimately to include a boardwalk stretching along several blocks of lakefront between the Wayzata Train Depot and the Section Foreman House. Construction of the Lake Effect’s first phase, which doesn’t include the park, will begin this fall.
But funding sources for the house restoration, along with the park itself and other lakeside areas, have not yet been determined.
And while the depot, listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1981, was exquisitely restored in the early 2000s with marble floors and solid wood benches, the future of the Section Foreman House — a stark, unadorned building even in its heyday — is less certain.
“It’s kind of the underdog,” said Nate Leding, chairman of the Wayzata Heritage Preservation Board. Leding, who acknowledges he’s “very passionate” about restoring the house, said that “anything less than preservation and rehabilitation … is really a failure to this community.”
The most immediate need is basic repairs to keep the building from falling further into decrepitude. But City Manager Jeff Dahl said no money has yet been allocated for the job. “We’re trying to get some community partners to help us out,” he said.
In addition to historical importance, the Section Foreman House — or at least the land it stands on — has considerable cash value, said real estate agent Dan Gustafson, a member of the Heritage Preservation Board. With its 275 feet of shoreline, he estimates the property is worth more than $2 million.
“If you or I owned this property, the mailbox would be filled with orders from the city telling you to clean it up,” he said.
Ole Stafney slept there
The Section Foreman House was built in 1902 for the person in charge of keeping a 20-mile section of railroad tracks in good repair and cleared of debris.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, trains carried both freight and passengers into Wayzata, helping the city grow from a tiny village into a resort destination.
In early railroading days, such dwellings were commonplace. Others around the country have been restored. But Wayzata’s is one of the few, and possibly the only one in Minnesota, that still stands in its original location, Leding said.
“I think it should be preserved for something that’s educational, something that shows what life was like at one time in our community,” said Deanne Straka. While doing genealogical research about 10 years ago, she discovered that her great-grandfather Ole Stafney had lived there while working as the section foreman in the early 1900s. She has a photo of Stafney and his family in front of the building.
Leding worries that residents may not fully appreciate the historical value of the house, one of the oldest buildings in Wayzata.
“You’ve got the depot on one side, and this other building with just as much historical significance on the other side, and nobody’s paying attention to it,” he said.
Many residents may not even know the house is there. Though visible from the parking lot behind a busy Starbucks, it’s on the other side of the railroad tracks, its gray-green exterior camouflaged among trees and brush. From a boat on the lake, however, the shabby house stands out among the multimillion dollar mansions that crowd Minnetonka.
Some say residents have shown more interest in restoring the house as the Lake Effect plan approaches the initial phase of execution. “It’s as close as it’s ever been to happening,” said Sue Sorrentino, a member of the Wayzata Historical Society’s board.
“We have just had an outpouring of support from volunteers, contractors and citizens and people who are interested in making sure that this thing gets taken care of,” Gustafson said.
Andrew Mullin, chairman of the board of the Wayzata Lake Effect Conservancy, a group collecting donations for the beautification project, said he felt certain that initial steps to stabilize the Section Foreman House will be completed by next winter.