The Caretaker’s House at the Winneshiek County Home was built in 1915 as a residence for the superintendent (or steward) of the facility, known in 1905 as the “Winneshiek County Poor Farm and Home for Incurable Insane.” When the house was built, it joined an existing campus including the original superintendent’s home, which became the home for people with tuberculosis and other communicable disease. There were also two large brick dormitory buildings including the 40 by 90-foot North Building built in 1883, a smaller brick “insane” house, a bakery building, large hay barn, and horse barn.
The Caretaker’s House was built for $6,015 by John H. Austad, who was born in Christiansund, Norway in 1856. He learned carpentry from his father, and all of his sons and two grandsons were carpenters. He built 130 homes, 85 barns, and a number of churches in the Decorah area. His biggest contract was the Aase Haugen Home the year before he built the Caretaker’s House. Kornmeyer Brothers local bricks were used.
The Caretaker’s House is situated on what was once a 400 acre County Farm at Freeport east of Decorah. The house is a Prairie Box or American Foursquare with a footprint measuring 36 feet on each side, with an 8 by 24-foot front porch. It has a low pitched hipped roof and symmetrical facade. Unpainted red brick in running bond with tan mortar slightly recessed, the house exhibits a double brick string course on all four sides at the level of the second floor and above the second floor windows. Interior windows are original double hung of variable sash designs and muntin placements, including 4-over-1, 5-over-1, 4-over-4, 6-over-1, and the simple sash with 9 lights in the dormer. The foundation is poured concrete, with molded concrete blocks on the exterior wall above ground. Roof dormers have white painted exposed rafter tails.
The interior walls of the house are original plaster, with a few exceptions. The modern kitchen dates from a 1970 renovation when the back porch was enclosed, and has drywall, as do the bathrooms on each floor. The southern yellow pine woodwork has been painted in some rooms, including the downstairs living-dining area separated by a wide doorway with Craftsman style 5-panel pocket doors. Most of the woodwork is unpainted, including floors, and the Craftsman style open banister stairway from the front entry to the second floor. Most doors appear to be original along with all hardware such as doorknobs, doorstops, and hinges.
The house has many unique features, and is also representative of a quality built home of that day. Identifiably Prairie School and Craftsman Style, the house has a high degree of architectural integrity. It feels solid and inviting. The hot water heating system with original radiators will require testing and restoring due to some freeze damage, but may not be as extensive as once thought.
The land area is now 80 acres owned by Winneshiek County, governed by the County Board of Supervisors. Buildings built since 1977 are leased by Wellington Place nursing care and assisted living facility. Only two of the original structures remain today, the Caretaker’s House and the North Building. They are unused and in very good condition, though the Caretaker’s House had freeze damage to water pipes in the winter of 2006-2007, causing it to no longer be rentable and income-producing for the County.
The larger context of the structure’s significance for the role it played in the beginnings of a social service delivery system in our country is a chief concern of people who want to see it retrofitted and reused appropriately. The history begins with a mandate by President Lincoln in 1865 that established County Homes. Its best reuse could offer a home to education about our County Home and Farm history. Finding a way to honor the history of a sustainable farming and growing operation governed by a County Board, that provided a place to live for those who had no other, is a sensible goal.
It can be an asset once again to the County’s economic, historic, and social development. Its restoration can be an educational process for those who need to learn and be employed, and again provide a beautiful backdrop to country living.