What’s So Special About that Farmhouse?
And what does it take to preserve its history?
The one and a half story, wood-framed structure sits just off Highway 141, south of Coon Rapids, Iowa. It could be a farmhouse on almost any Iowa country road: unassuming, practical, a cobbled-together mass of additions and renovations that has served hard working farm families through the years. Mature trees surround the hilltop home, providing both privacy and shelter from the wind.
Why would such a simple rural structure be on the National Register of Historic Places?
Certainly, it is “a classic example of vernacular domestic architecture, featuring gabled rooflines and dormers, wood lap siding and late 19th-early 20th century revival details.”[i]
But the rural areas of the United States abound with such structures, surrounded by assemblages of utilitarian farm buildings. What’s special about this one?
The historic nature of this property goes beyond its architectural details. This is the Garst Farmstead, in rural Coon Rapids, Iowa. First, there’s significant agricultural history here: owner Roswell Garst, who moved here in 1916, was an important innovator and expansive promoter of the new agricultural methods and science that were developed in the 1920s, 30s and 40s – in particular, the new hybrid seed corn developed by Henry A. Wallace. He was a pioneer in converting the family farm into a modern agribusiness.
And then there’s the Kruschev visit. This Iowa farmstead was the unlikely site of a 1959 event that made waves across two major nations, when Soviet leader Nikita Kruschev made a personal, much-publicized visit to the Garst farm. The day brought thousands of reporters and spectators to the farmstead, creating a media frenzy that stopped traffic and all of life’s normal daily activities for thousands of Iowans from Des Moines to Coon Rapids.
Kruschev’s visit helped build bridges between the Soviet Union and America’s heartland during the Cold War and in the shadow of the McCarthy era. Roswell Garst, a self-styled citizen diplomat, did not hesitate to think and act big, even globally, within the theater of life’s universal essential – food.
According to the Des Moines Register, “Garst was a confidante of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, who accepted the Iowan’s invitation to tour his Coon Rapids farm on Sept. 23, 1959. On that day, an estimated 600 members of the international press descended on the quiet farm to witness the unprecedented visit between an Iowa man of the soil and a controversial head of state — who brought along his wife, Nina, and an entourage of at least 90 people.”[ii]
Having a momentous, historic event there doesn’t guarantee that a site will be well maintained over time. In 2004, the Garst family (heirs of Roswell and Elizabeth Garst) formed Whiterock Conservancy to protect the house and its unique 5,500-acre land base in perpetuity. The Garst Farmstead Historic District was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 2009. When the Whiterock Conservancy approached RDG in 2017, the farmstead was overdue for maintenance needs including foundation repairs, waterproofing, roof and window replacement, chimney repair, siding and trim, and landscaping.
The Whiterock Conservancy made a smart move: they brought in RDG early in the process. They didn’t start by asking RDG to design and oversee the needed repairs; instead they asked for help to define what repairs were needed and help prepare application materials for grants and tax credits to help fund the work. Our Restoration professionals knew what was and wasn’t acceptable in restoring the property to its 1959 status.
RDG’s evaluation and assessment of the existing building focused on prioritized repairs. The wood clapboard siding and wood windows and doors needed maintenance and some material replacement. All repairs had to be done in a sensitive manner, respecting the historic integrity of the house. The evaluation report offered guidance and details that helped the Conservancy acquire the necessary funding to proceed.
A successful application to the Historical Resource Development Program (HRDP) grant administered by the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs provided funding for the repairs. These competitive grants help preserve, conserve, interpret, enhance, and educate the public about Iowa’s historical assets. Once funding was secured, RDG developed construction documents focused on roofing replacement, window and door repairs, wood trim repairs, and repainting the entire building.
And thus, the unassuming but highly historic farmhouse is preserved for new generations to learn about and enjoy. The Garst Farmhouse now operates as a bed-and-breakfast at Whiterock Conservancy, with five bedrooms available and numerous gifts from Khrushchev on display.
The Garst Farmhouse story makes it clear: the size and sophistication of a property have little to do with its historic importance, or its value to future generations. A listing on the National Register of Historic Places is a good first step, and RDG can help owners prepare applications for listing on the Register. The next step of preserving the property takes planning, organizing, and – generally – fundraising. A good architect who values the history and knows what needs to be done can define and visualize what’s needed. That kind of assistance early on helps provide content and support for grants, tax credits, or other vehicles to help fund successful projects. Whiterock Conservancy found that assistance at RDG.
[i] Phase I Evaluation: Garst Farmhouse, Whiterock Conservancy, 1436 Highway 141, Coon Rapids, Iowa; Report produced by RDG Planning & Design, May 31, 2017.
[ii] From the Archives: Farmer Roswell Garst brought Soviet leader Nikita Kruschev to Iowa; Des Moines Register, December 7, 2017.