The old house on Boutwell Road once was known as a “hospitable mansion” that hosted sleighs full of townspeople from nearby Stillwater for holiday entertainment.
Today that house, built in 1847 and expanded through the 1870s, struggles to revive memories of those long-lost days.
What stands in the way of saving the Rev. William Thurstan Boutwell’s legacy as one of Minnesota’s earliest influential citizens isn’t so much the passing of time, however, as the rising costs of restoration and declining public interest in preserving history.
“We cannot sit by and watch another historical building go the way of demolition,” said Brent Peterson, executive director of the Washington County Historical Society. “This is one of the oldest houses in the oldest county in the state. We’re losing history at a rapid rate. Soon people like Rev. Boutwell could be lost forever.”
So the county historical society has taken on the job of restoring the house with a semblance of historical accuracy and then selling it to someone who wants to live there and will consent to a legal easement that restricts future modifications.
“Our goal was to save the house, not make a museum out of it,” Peterson said.
None of the money to buy and restore the house is coming from taxpayer funds, except indirectly. Some comes from rent the Minnesota Department of Transportation is paying through June 2018 to use a Stillwater building owned by the county historical society for its St. Croix River bridge construction offices. Private donors also contribute.
The expense of restoring the house — on top of the $600,000 spent to buy it and its 5-acre plot — continues to mount after a summer porch collapsed into a cistern hidden under the kitchen floor. Peterson said the projected $400,000 renovation now could cost twice as much, a steep amount to raise in private donations.
Even so, he said, “We’re this far into it, we can’t go back now.”
The house and what’s left of Boutwell’s farm sit on a road named for him in northwest Stillwater. Housing developments have crept closer in recent years, but the Boutwell family cemetery across the road remains on open city-owned land.
Many historic buildings across Minnesota face threats of demolition or damage from fires, tornadoes, neglect and development, said the Minnesota Historical Society’s Michael Koop.
“I think there’s as much interest in preservation as 20 years ago,” said Koop, who works with 55 heritage preservation commissions statewide. “Historic properties sometimes don’t last forever. We can’t save everything.”
Stillwater enjoys a special place in Minnesota history, Koop said, because of its scenic qualities and compact yesteryear downtown, “giving it an identity, a sense of place.”
Boutwell was a Presbyterian minister whose influential reach extended to St. Paul, where he was chaplain of the Minnesota Territorial Senate, and northern Minnesota where he had land dealings.
He built the house after completing missionary work at Leech Lake with the Pillager Band of the Ojibwe, Peterson said, and farmed about 260 acres around the house.
In Washington County, Boutwell helped organize churches in Stillwater, Marine on St. Croix, Afton and Cottage Grove. Among them was First Presbyterian in Stillwater, which continues today. He was dedicated to founding communities on the principles of law and religion, Peterson said.
“He just wanted to make sure things got done and got done right,” he said.
The front portion of the house as seen today was the original structure. Typical of many houses in the Stillwater area, rooms subsequently were added in back, giving William and Hester Boutwell space for entertaining and for their growing family, which eventually numbered eight children.
This fall, a descendant of the Boutwells toured the house. Steve Parkhurst, of Cloquet, Minn., said he appreciated Peterson’s determination to preserve the family’s history. Parkhurst, 67, said the Rev. Boutwell was his grandfather’s great-grandfather.
“I got glimpses in my mind, standing in the parlor and picturing him looking out from that bay window and walking around the grounds,” Parkhurst said of his visit. “It was a wonderful experience standing in the house that he built. I would love to see it saved. I know it’s a huge project, but I’m a strong believer in historic preservation.”
The Boutwell House has survived at least one close call. In January 2015, a demolition company tore off a side porch and began ripping into its back bedrooms. As the story goes — and Peterson swears it’s true — Home and Garden TV personality Nicole Curtis arrived at that very moment and paid the contractor to quit the work.
Then the county historical society bought the house, its outbuildings and land. In ensuing months carpenters enclosed the damaged back end of the house and gutted the interior, which had been remodeled extensively under various owners after descendants of the Boutwell family sold the house about 1919. Worn patterns in the original flooring shows where the residents walked to their bedrooms.
Removing the brick cistern — used to collect rainwater for use in the house long ago — will cost the historical society more than it anticipated. And yet the historians march on, inspired by a legacy that includes the holiday parties at the house. An early newspaper item told of Stillwater residents “gliding over the glassy surface of the snow, ensconced in buffalo robes,” en route to a Boutwell party.
Diane Parkhurst, Steve’s wife, has taken a strong interest in the Boutwells, particularly Hester.
“This is living history,” she said. “It fleshes them out and gives them full character. To stand where they stood and walk around the house where they did ... not everyone has supporters for their family heritage.”