Douglas County Historical Society gets a new roof

The project cost $179,000. A higher price than earlier projections because of unforeseen replacement needs and supply chain issues.

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Independent contractor, Julio Munguia, works on the Douglas County Historical Society's new cedar shake roof.
Contributed photo / Brittany Johnson

ALEXANDRIA — The Douglas County Historical Society is preserving the history of its headquarters — the Knute Nelson House — with a new roof.

The roof is made up of cedar shake shingles. A style of roof that closely resembles how it looked in its inception. The old cedar roof hadn't been updated since 1986 when the historical society moved the house to its present location at 1219 Nokomis Street in Alexandria.

The house is the oldest Douglas County structure on the National Register of Historic Places, predating the Douglas County Court House by 23 years. The original construction of the house started in 1872.

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The Douglas County Historical Society's roof renovation began in mid-October of 2022 and was finished by the first week of November.
Contributed photo / Brittany Johnson

Brittany Johnson, director of the Douglas County Historical Society, says the renovation was necessary to prevent the deterioration of the Knute Nelson House and preserve the structure into the future.

"We care for this property for the people of Douglas County and we want to maintain as much historic integrity as possible in our mission to preserve Douglas County’s history," said Johnson. "That includes doing our best through research and consultation with professional preservationists to maintain the historic appearance of the Knute Nelson House from its pre-WWI era of significance."


The roof project cost $179,000 — a higher price than earlier projections because of unforeseen replacement needs and supply chain issues, Johnson said.

"Cost is the greatest obstacle for almost any project involving history or historic preservation. We want to do our work right and we want it to last. That kind of work typically doesn’t come cheap," said Johnson.

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An outdated building practice resulted in rotten rafter tails.
Contributed photo / Brittany Johnson

The historical society began the project with the intent of simply replacing the shingles. But, after inspections, it became clear that the old roof was in need of more extensive repairs.

An outdated building practice — common when the house was constructed — led to the decking under the shakes being built with gaps between planks to conserve lumber. This practice caused sagging in parts of the roof, increasing vulnerability, and resulting in re-decking of the entire roof surface. On top of that, 80 rafter tails also needed replacing, Johnson said.

"Anyone who has worked with classic cars, boats of any age, or historic houses can explain the way you begin a project expecting to work on Problem A, only to discover Problem B, which is the result of Problem C. Work on the historic Knute Nelson House can be similar to that," Johnson said.

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The old cedar shake roof had not been updated since it was moved to its present location in 1986.
Contributed photo / Brittany Johnson

Beyond the additional expected work came the complication of getting the materials to finish the job. According to Johnson, Lumber and roofing materials come in short supply due to recent import restrictions and a summer of two disastrous tornadoes. Another factor of the cost was the roof's characteristic as a steep-pitched roof and that access to the east side of the building is technically three stories — features that require additional labor costs and supplies.

Along with the main roof, the tin roofs over the house's porches were pressure-washed and painted white.

"From a historic standpoint, this building helps tell the story of Minnesota's large Scandinavian immigrant population — including the personal life stories of Governor Knute Nelson and his family" said Johnson. "From a logistical standpoint, this building was entrusted to DCHS to serve as our headquarters... When the preservation and maintenance of history isn’t actively pursued, we lose these historic buildings — as well as historic photographs, oral histories, and other records."


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"The new roof should last 40-50 years with proper care and treatment," said Brittany Johnson. "Beginning this August, we’ll apply a chemical treatment to the shakes to inhibit the growth of moss and fungus, which will promote a longer lifespan and better condition."<br/><br/>
Contributed photo / Brittany Johnson

The roof project was completed last November. To ensure the roof's durability, regular treatments will be performed. The first one is scheduled for August 2023.

"We’ll apply a chemical treatment to the shakes to inhibit the growth of moss and fungus, which will promote a longer lifespan and better condition," said Johnson. "The new roof should last 40-50 years with proper care and treatment."

The next project scheduled for the house will be the gutters. Those will be replaced this spring. They will match the historic photographs that show half-round style gutters used on the Knute Nelson House during the early 20th century.

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Brittany Johnson, director of the Douglas County Historical Society.
Echo Press file photo.

"We even found the 1915 architect’s building specifications instructing local contractors to install tin half-round gutters. Our gutters will be made of aluminum, but we did our best to match a historic tin color," added Johnson. "I think once the half-round gutters are installed, the public is really going to notice the difference. The house is going to feel more sympathetic to its historic era."

Those involved in the roof project include:

  • Julio Munguia and his team
  • Tim Abell Construction, LLC
  • Advantage Seamless Gutters
  • A-1 Outdoors and Remodeling, LLC
  • Tru Lumber
Thalen Zimmerman of Alexandria joined the Echo Press team as a full-time reporter in Aug. 2021, after graduating from Bemidji State University with a bachelor of science degree in mass communication in May of 2021.
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