Washington Evening Journal

Fairfield Ledger   Mt. Pleasant News
Neighbors Growing Together | May 22, 2018

Volunteers saved the Blair House

They served as guardians of a community treasure
By John Butters | Jul 13, 2017
In March of 2017, the State Historical Society of Iowa announced that Blair House had received the Adrian D. Anderson Award for outstanding historic preservation.


Scheduled for demolition in the 1970s, Washington’s Blair House was saved by a group of volunteers committed to its preservation.

In March of 2017, the State Historical Society of Iowa announced that Blair House had received the Adrian D. Anderson Award for outstanding historic preservation.

Restored by the work of many hands, Blair House stands an example of volunteers’ ability to transform a house, a street or a community through the power of personal commitment.

There are many good reasons for someone to share their time as a volunteer. But to “have fun” might not be at the top of the list for projects as large and complex as Washington’s Blair House, an architectural gem from the Victorian era.

Virginia Bordwell, president of the non-profit organization that owns Blair House, said she couldn’t begin to count the number of hours that volunteers have invested in the years spent renovating the 1882 home.

“We don’t spend so much time now on repairs, as at the beginning when we were scraping and painting walls, repairing plaster and putting up wallpaper,” she said. “We spend more time now on financial issues.”

But in the beginning, volunteer labor initiated the repairs that eventually fixed the roof, windows, floors and walls of the aging house.

Blair House served as a private home for only a dozen years, after which it became in turn a clubhouse, a firehouse and the town’s city hall until 1972. Currently, it operates as a house museum with space available for lease.

Its many incarnations left the home in rough shape: a challenging project for the volunteers who hoped to preserve it for future generations.

Every project needs its champion and guardians. Bordwell mentions local historian Mike Zahs as a point person for the restoration. But there were many others as well, she said.

The number of volunteer hours invested in the house is incalculable, she says, even subtracting the time spent in repairs and replacements.

“Even if you have the work done by a contractor, the amount of time spent in decision-making is substantial. There are meetings with the board and meetings with architects. The email tracking with those involved is extensive,” she said.

Meetings called to devise restoration plans for an historic building can be lengthy. Because board decisions involve the nuts and bolts of the work to be performed, a large amount of research on the project is necessary. Experts might need to be consulted.

Interior design and restoration requires choices of colors, fabrics and materials appropriate to the design and purpose of the rooms.

Exterior repairs involve decisions on materials and period-correct construction methods. It may take a lot of time to find a contractor with the right skills to perform the work. The contractor must also be reputable. and responsible for the outcome.

To ensure a quality restoration, the Blair House board has taken extra steps to guard the home from poorly chosen repairs.

One of those steps was to contract with architect Douglas Steinmetz in 2007 for a condition report on the house. His detailed report was published in 151 pages with another 110 pages of attachments.

Not only did the report function as a schedule of work, it also provided a credible record of accomplishment that has earned the project additional funding from community benefactors. Those extra efforts also enabled the board to obtain state historical tax credits for the house.

However well the committee performs its work, there is yet another hurdle they must clear. In a project as large and visible as the Blair House, the restoration must pass public scrutiny.

Bordwell said she and the board members frequently receive advice from the community on what needs to be done at the house. Much of it is well-intentioned, but sometimes it can be intrusive.

In Washington, Blair House is widely viewed as a success.

“We have received lots and lots of positive comments about how good it looks,” Bordwell said.

While the restoration might not have been always fun, it brought some lasting rewards to those who struggled with it.Among the project’s rewards, Bordwell lists pride in accomplishment, the creativity it inspired, and the board’s professional associations in the preservation of the house. She also values the camaraderie that the board developed.

And then there is the drive-by effect when the house is viewed from her car window.

“It strikes me as a splash of color and a work of art,” she said.

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