MANKATO — The house stood on a bluff overlooking the Minnesota River for more than 150 years. Made of locally quarried limestone, it was built in 1858, the same year Minnesota became a state.
And it was about to be torn down.
Then a local preservationist and an energetic young builder stepped in and painstakingly rebuilt the house, with reclaimed materials and historic construction techniques.
Now it's a cozy and beautiful home for a retired nurse who says she can't imagine living anywhere else.
"People just thought of this as a dump," said Caleb Wundermachen, 32, who bought the house in 2015 with his life savings of $7,000 and spent five years putting it back together, beam by beam and stone by stone.
When it was finished, "People said, 'Where has this house been?' " Wundermachen recalled. "And we said, 'It's been here all along.' "
The home, on N. 6th Street in downtown Mankato, was built in 1858 by Joseph Schaus, a mason who was helping construct other buildings in the young city. By the early 21st century, it had fallen into disrepair. Rather than attempt to save it, the city prepared to tear it down.
"The city lacked vision. They didn't see the possibility," said Tom Hagen, a retired teacher who's restored several other historic homes in the area. "They were anxious to have it come down."
Hagen and other preservationists fought to stall the demolition. Finally, Hagen and Wundermachen persuaded city officials to sell the house out of tax foreclosure and let them undertake a renovation.
And once the city changed its mind, it got behind the project, giving Wundermachen a $50,000 loan that was forgivable if he invested an equal amount of time and money into the house.
Assisted by Hagen, Wundermachen did most of the work himself, gutting the home and rebuilding the walls. Each stone had to be shaped or "dressed" with a hammer and chisel, then lifted into place and mortared.
Wundermachen recalled lifting the stones, typically weighing 40 to 50 pounds, and carrying each one step by step up a scaffold.
"We didn't do anything the easy way," he said.
Hagen found historic windows through a friend on the East Coast and helped with the interior woodwork — butternut and walnut that the pair cut and milled from trees on Hagen's property in North Mankato.
They furnished it with historic pieces and added a few modern touches for efficiency, such as spray-foam insulation and floors with radiant heat.
Wundermachen already owns a home in North Mankato that he built of reclaimed wood and stone with Hagen's help, so he had to get permission from the city to rent out the renovated stone house rather than occupy it.
Finding a tenant wasn't hard. Rosemary Brekke, a retired nurse, was aware of the project and eagerly volunteered to rent the 1,100-square-foot home, with two bedrooms and 1½ baths, moving in early last year.
"I like old," she said. "This resonates with what I like. This is strong, it's secure, it's comfortable.
"I came here and I said, 'Oh, this is a little Rosemary place!' "
Wundermachen and Hagen shared a chuckle as they recounted how people's opinions have changed now that the home is finished.
"My relatives said, 'I don't know why you bought that place,' " Wundermachen said. "Now they ooh and aah over it.
"There's no quality in new houses," he added. "It's all plastic and veneer and garbage.
"The guy who built this had a third-grade education, and it's lasted 163 years."
John Reinan • 612-673-7402