What’s So Special About that Farmhouse?

The rural areas of the United States abound with such structures, surrounded by assemblages of utilitarian farm buildings. What’s so special about this one? And what does it take to preserve its history?

A 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 have served hard-working farm families throughout the years. Mature trees surround the hilltop home, providing both privacy and shelter from the wind.

The Historic Garst Farmhouse in Coon Rapids, Iowa.

Why would such a simple rural structure be on the National Register of Historic Places?

Certainly, it’s “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 so 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 disrupted the 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]

Left to right: Elizabeth Garst, Roswell Garst, Nikita Kruschev, Nina Kruschev and daughters Julia and Randa Kruschev, stand in front of the Garst home during Kruschev’s visit, Sept. 23, 1959, in Coon Rapids, Iowa. Photo: (AP Photo/Des Moines Register)

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 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.

Whiterock Conservancy’s approach to restoration meant early engagement with our team. We weren’t asked to design and oversee the needed repairs; instead, the Conservancy asked for help to define what repairs were needed and requested that we prepare application materials for grants and tax credits to help fund the work.

Excerpt from RDG’s comprehensive evaluation of the Garst Farmhouse.

Our 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 and enhance the public’s understanding of Iowa’s historical assets. Once funding was secured, RDG developed construction documents focused on roofing replacement, window and door repairs, wood trim repairs and efforts to repaint the entire building.

South elevation architectural drawing by RDG.

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; the next step of preserving the property takes planning, organizing, and, generally some level of fundraising. A good design partner who values history and knows what needs to be done can help define and visualize what’s needed. This kind of early engagement helps provide content and support for grants, tax credits or other vehicles to help fund successful projects.

[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.

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