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Preservation group hopes to reignite conversations with DNR about fate of Manfred House

Historic home of famed writer has fallen into disrepair.

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The Manfred House, named after the writer Frederick Manfred, is nestled into the hillside at Blue Mounds State Park. A group of citizens want to preserve the house after the DNR stopped using it as an interpretive center in 2015.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News
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LUVERNE, Minn. -- At Blue Mounds State Park, swallows flit around the Manfred House hunting mosquitos. It’s built into an outcropping of red Sioux quartzite, the roof lending into the terrain. A large cottonwood tree shades the front yard amid the vastness of the park.

This is where Nobel Prize-nominated writer Frederick Manfred lived and wrote for many years. His literary executor Ben Vander Kooi, a friend of Manfred’s son Fred Jr, visited the house frequently as a child.

“We used to play here on the mound,” Vander Kooi said. “So we would go camping among some of the rocks overnight, and we built a treehouse in one of the trees that have since been burned down through prairie fire.”

Manfred sold the house and the surrounding land to the Minnesota Parks Foundation, which later sold it to the DNR in 1972. The house used to be open to the public as an interpretive center, but the DNR shut it down in 2015. The agency said water running down the rockface had damaged the house so badly that it’s unsafe to enter.

Earlier this month, the Manfred House was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

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Vander Kooi, also a member of the Save the Manfred House group, said the longer the building sits, the worse its condition becomes. A decision over the site’s future needs to be had sooner than later.

“The state said it’s not safe anymore, we’re going to close this off,” he said. “Now, that was seven years ago, it is still standing. So, we think that their concern was overblown, and that at least they should let experts in to take a look at this to see what should be done.”

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Benjamin Vander Kooi is leading an attempt to save the Frederick Manfred house located on the grounds of Blue Mounds State Park in rural Luverne, Minn. Vander Kooi has many fond memories of visiting the home over the years, including weddings and writer's workshops.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

The Save the Manfred House group wants historic preservationists to determine what needs to be done to renovate the place. The group says it will fundraise privately and apply for grants to help offset the cost.

Group members and the DNR last met in fall 2021. Bob Welsh, the former DNR section manager of resource and asset management, took part in the dialogue. He said the DNR still doesn’t see complete restoration as feasible. Instead the agency proposed incorporating Manfred’s writing room into a new design and structure.

Welsh said the DNR pitched the idea to the preservation group before the meeting last year.

“They seemed genuinely appreciative and excited to have that conversation,” he said. “But when we met, the line was pretty much drawn in the sand that their position was that the house needed to be fully restored and we were not prepared to make that offer.”

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Frederick Manfred
Courtesy / Freya Manfred via MPR News

The DNR also believed there weren’t any requirements attached to the acquisition of the property in 1972 about the management or maintenance of the house.

What’s the cost?

In 2018, the DNR estimated it would cost about $6 million just to make repairs to the damages to the Manfred House. The preservation group is skeptical about that number. However the cost of the repairs might be higher once the DNR does another review of the site since it’s been sitting for several years.

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Currently, the DNR owns and maintains nearly 400 historic structures, with $50 million in deferred maintenance on historic structures alone. Welsh said there are other projects vying for the same competitive and limited funding streams.

“It’s not just about the Manfred House, it’s about ‘how does the state manage historic structures throughout the park system?’” he added.

But for Frederick Manfred’s daughter Freya, it’s not so much about the building, but the memory of her father that makes her determined to preserve it. Her father’s writing room overlooks Blue Mounds State Park, and all the natural beauty that inspired his writing.

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Water damage seen in the Frederick Manfred House.
Courtesy / Minnesota Department of Natural Resources via MPR News

“The existence of the house proves, I think, to future generations, if we can get it to be fixed up that it proves that not only does the past have some value, but that people living in 2022 can give a gift to the future,” she said.

What concerns Freya Manfred is the DNR seemed focused on demolishing the property as opposed to searching for other ways of preserving the house, the way her father intended. Despite the years of negotiation, she says the Save the Manfred House group is optimistic it can preserve the site and keep her father’s legacy alive.

“I know he saw the house as his gift to the state, even though he himself had to leave it,” she said. “When he was dying in Luverne Hospital, he just kept saying, ‘what can I do more for the arts in America?’”

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This story was written by one of our partner news agencies. Forum Communications Company uses content from agencies such as Reuters, Kaiser Health News, Tribune News Service and others to provide a wider range of news to our readers. Learn more about the news services FCC uses here.

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