Wanda Gag House marks 25th anniversary of restoration

NEW ULM – Long retired, but likely to remain a school teacher in spirit forever, Charlotte Anderson kept meticulous handwritten records of the many, seemingly countless, hours she and husband Hobart put into restoring the childhood home of Wanda Gag; perhaps New Ulm’s most famous artist.

Charlotte also appears to have a great deal of fun pointing out, poker-faced, Hobart’s blunders as a restorer.

Here’s where he cut too deep, she notes, damaging what no one expected to be oak veneer rather than solid oak; here’s where he scraped into some stencil work, covered in layers and layers of paint…

But her purposefully-comical account fails to obscure the incredible amount of hard, detailed work completed by the volunteers; a labor of love selflessly and generously given, to a project of significant public value, which in essence rescued a beautiful community asset in danger of losing its artistic uniqueness.

The two-story frame Gag house was designed in 1894 by German-Bohemian immigrant Anton Gag, an artist in his own right and Wanda’s father. The exterior of the Queen Anne shingle builders style home, with a two-story open turret, was painted in seven different colors. It had seven different shapes of windows and seven areas of stencil. Anton ultimately had seven children.

But over time, the fairy-tale structure sustained many changes in the hands of various owners. By the time “the rescue squad” that included the Andersons came along in 1988, the Gag house had been covered in asbestos siding. A one-story front porch and back porch had been added; the two-story open turret, two front windows and skylights had been enclosed; the alcove had been made into a bathroom; the arch between the alcove and the back bedroom and the closet between the two front bedrooms had been plastered shut; a door had been added to the alcove from the hallway; and the original decorative art had been covered with layers of lead paint, wallpaper and paneling…

Luckily, Kathy Eckstein, daughter of Tony and Harriet Eckstein, noticed one day that the house was up for sale, and mentioned it to her mother. Harriet Eckstein had been instrumental in bringing back to life another landmark, the John Lind House.

Harriet and Vicki Pieser, a fellow history enthusiast, put down $500 in earnest money to buy the Gag house. Four families gave $5,000 each, and another $4,000 was raised in community donations, and a newly-incorporated association bought the house for $24,000 in cash.

The association “knew not” what they are getting into, laughs Hobart Anderson. Another $300,000 would be poured into the restoration, raised through personal donations and grants from charitable foundations. “We never had to go to a bank for money,” notes Hobart.

The restoration committee quickly met with Minnesota Historical Society staff, to determine procedures for restoring the house. The restoration is a supreme and rare example of a project done in strict adherence to historical preservation guidelines.

The monumental effort lasted from 1989 until 2008, involving about 45 core volunteers. Charles Nelson, a MHS staffer, lent crucial advice and expertise, himself falling in love with the house during this process. The primary restorer of the artwork was Dan Tarnoveanu, an artist and conservator from Romania, who had worked on European landmarks.

It is practically impossible to list all the elements of the restoration, so the following is a partial list:

The porches were removed, the two-story turret was opened, two front-side windows in the parlor were uncovered; the roof was repaired and shingled; and new gutters installed. The skylight frames were uncovered and replaced.

Exterior painting was done in documented colors, decorative shingles on the side of the house were replaced, and the original turret was rebuilt, replete with custom-made spindles…

The hand-painted border in the parlor was uncovered, the stucco foundation of the house and window wells were repaired; a new lattice porch in the back was built, the front bedroom upstairs was painted and the woodwork grained…

Finials and cresting were built, painted and installed on the roof.

The dining room wallpaper was removed and stenciling uncovered; the floor was sanded and refinished.

The parlor “free hand” design was totally uncovered; the paint on doors and windows was removed, a new ceiling was installed and painted; the baseboard, walls, floors and heat vents were stripped, sanded, painted and grained.

Walls were re-plastered; an alcove skylight and new floor were installed…

The dining room wainscoting was removed, the border near the ceiling and under the chair rail was uncovered; a section was cut in the false ceiling revealing six layers of paint; the attic floor and woodwork were painted…

The stairway, downstairs hall and the upstairs hall with lions rampant border were restored.

The dining room walls were completely restored to reflect Anton’s geometric designs. The downstairs turret was rebuilt, all joists under the floor and floor were repaired, posts were repaired and spindles replaced…

The second-floor painting room, alcove and children’s bedroom were restored, wall borders uncovered, woodwork stripped, linoleum was removed, and 22 coats of paint were removed in the alcove to discover sculpted plaster…

Volunteers stripped, caulked and repainted the outside again…

The original opening to the small walk-through closet between the children’s and parents’ bedrooms was rebuilt…

The parents’ bedroom walls, ceiling, woodwork and floor were restored, among other things uncovering an upper wall border…

The prairie stone basement gained a fresh appearance, with scaling and grit between the stones removed and the stones cleaned…

The remaining woodwork was restored, via a process called “faux bois” which in French means “false wood.” (Anton used inexpensive soft wood for doors and woodwork. He would then grain it to appear to be expensive hardwood.)

Sections of the false dining room ceiling were removed, determining that some kind of glue was used on the ceiling which caused a chemical reaction that attacked the pigments, colors and drawings by Anton…

Throughout it all, the house never closed to the public, giving the community every chance to feel an integral part of the restoration. Second-graders touring the house could observe volunteers removing paint, “learning a thing or two.” Programming such as open houses, Christmas events, contests, etc., ran concurrently with the restoration. The public flocked to see beautifully detailed Christmas trees themed around each of Wanda Gag’s books. Designed by Mary Ann Zins, these fanciful creations re-acquainted some with, and educated others about, Wanda and her art, once again turning her into a household name.

An exhibit honoring the 25th anniversary of the restoration opened May 23 and will run through summer. It includes restoration highlights and recovered artifacts. Original art on display includes lithographs by Wanda, watercolors by her sister Flavia and oil paintings by Anton.

The Wanda Gag House Interpretive Center and Museum is at 226 N. Washington St. It is open for tours weekends from May 24 to Oct. 19 and year-round by appointment. For more information, please contact wandagaghouse@gmail.com or call (507) 359-2632.

0 0items

Your shopping cart is empty.

Items/Products added to Cart will show here.