Brent Peterson stood outside a partially demolished house in Stillwater on a sunny afternoon last week and gazed at the mess in front of him.

The back of the house was destroyed, the windows throughout were boarded and the interior was littered with shards of glass. What’s more, the house had been vacant so long that a dead cat was on the floor in a bedroom upstairs.

As bad as the house looked, however, Washington County sees only a gem.

Last week, the Washington County Historical Society bought the historic Boutwell House, built in the 1870s, and two outbuildings and about 5 acres of land for $600,000 with hopes of restoring the home and selling it to a family or local organization.

Peterson, the society’s executive director, said that an additional $300,000 to $400,000 is needed to complete the renovation. If all goes well, he said, the society will finish the work by this time next year.

The Boutwell House and a granary will both be preserved, he said, while the historical society is still deciding what to do with a milking barn, built in the 1940s.

“The biggest part was not to get it torn down,” said Becky Pung, one of the society’s directors. “They’re not going to go in there and make it look like 2015.”

The house was in the process of being razed for new development when Nicole Curtis of HGTV’s “Rehab Addict” stopped the demolition in January to give potential buyers some time to save it. The house was home to William T. Boutwell, a Presbyterian missionary from New Hampshire who helped name Lake Itasca and organize the local Presbyterian Church. After his death in 1890, Boutwell was buried in the family cemetery across the street from the home.

After three months of conversation, Peterson said the society’s board of directors voted and approved a plan to buy the house.

“We were tired of saying someone needs to do something,” he said.

The nonprofit organization made an offer, Peterson said, with money from reserves, including interest accrued on the group’s endowment fund and money it made from the new Washington County Heritage Center, situated on Greeley Street in Stillwater. The historical society purchased the building in 2013 and rented it to the Minnesota Department of Transportation, Pung said.

“We wouldn’t have been able to purchase the Boutwell House without MnDOT,” Peterson said.

Community members have jumped at the opportunity to help save the house, Peterson said, and are already texting and e-mailing him asking what they can do to help. One possibility, he said — hosting several public cleanup days.

Peterson said he also has been in contact with Curtis’ representatives to see if there is something she can do to help raise awareness for a cleanup. The historical society has also created a GoFundMe page seeking $350,000.

Renovation will begin once money is raised for repairs. Peterson said the society will apply for local grants and ask the city to waive some fees — including those for a construction permit and to hook up the house to city sewer and water — to keep costs to a minimum.

Peterson said the historical society is either courageous for taking on the task or “damned fools.”

But, he added, “at least we did something.”


Blair Emerson is a Twin Cities freelance writer. Her e-mail address is