New Ulm has always embraced its heritage. Now the question is, how much is it willing to pay to keep a piece of it?
Built in 1861, the Kiesling House on Minnesota Street is one of three downtown buildings to have survived the Dakota War of 1862. It’s the only wood-frame residence of the time remaining in Brown County.
During the second battle of New Ulm in 1862, the house was filled with hay and readied to be torched in case more than 600 Dakota warriors breached a barricade. It’s likely the house sheltered some defenders of the city during the heaviest fighting, which claimed 34 lives and wounded 60. After the second battle, 190 structures in town were destroyed and only 60 remained, including the house.
But today, to say it is in a state of disrepair would be an understatement.
Its clapboard siding has rotted away in many places. Any attempt at painting has been met with abject failure. Some of its windows are more a suggestion than a reality. Its interior flooring is warped. Its doors need to be replaced.
In 1970, the family-owned home was purchased and donated to the city. After several exterior restorations, it has served several roles, including housing the local Chamber of Commerce and various nonprofits.
These days, from Memorial Day to Labor Day, visitors can learn about early pioneer settlement, hear about the Dakota Conflict and observe re-enactment of heritage trades, chores and activities.
Now New Ulm faces the debate over its repair.
City staff have outlined two options: Use wood, or use lower-maintenance non-wood materials that would cost $55,000 less than wood over the next 50 years. But if non-wood materials are used, supporters say, the building could lose its historic status.
The city’s Park and Recreation Commission has recommended the cheaper option, concerned that applying for federal and state grants for the repairs could limit local control. The city’s Heritage Preservation Commission last week recommended the more costly approach.
The house has a champion in Kathleen Backer, a former executive director of the Brown County Historical Society who manages the house through a special lease arrangement with the city. To her, the extra cost makes sense in a community where immigrant heritage and settler history play such an important role.
“Me being from the fabric of historic preservation, I see it rather simple: You go according to the preservation guidelines for us to follow,” she said.
Ultimately, the five-member City Council will decide the house’s fate, likely at an Oct. 3 meeting.
Mayor Robert Beussman, who won’t have a vote, says he is torn and thinks obtaining grants for restoration would help soften costs to taxpayers. The house plays a significant role in town, particularly during the annual commemoration of the battle, he said.
“I would like to see it stay as natural as it was,” he said. “We’ve lost too many historic buildings.”
To be sure, New Ulm has not been shy about preserving its historic charms. Hermann the German (otherwise known as the Hermann Heights Monument), for instance, has dominated the city’s skyline since 1897. In 2003 the 32-foot statue was taken down and the monument refurbished at a cost of around $800,000.
“We take so much pride in our history. Everything we do, because of that German heritage, aspires to that higher standard,” Backer said.
“It takes me back significantly when I hear that we are pursuing the cheapest route rather than a route of integrity.”