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Moving inside NL’s Ranshaw House

Historical Society partners on grant for interior improvements
The original staircase remains in the historic Samuel Ranshaw House reception room. The City of North Liberty and interested partners have worked to restore the building for public use. (photos by Lori Lindner)

NORTH LIBERTY– North Liberty’s historic Ranshaw House still needs some work.
The North Liberty City Council at its April 28 meeting approved another grant application to help fund restoration of the turn-of-the-century home owned by the city.
Under partnership with the Johnson County Historical Society (JCHS), the city has requested $75,000 from the State Historical Society’s Historical Resource Development Grant Program (HRDP). The tax-supported state fund was created to help “preserve, conserve, interpret, enhance, and educate the public about the historical resources of Iowa,” according to the state’s website.
If successful, the City of North Liberty will provide $50,000 in matching funds, an amount that was included in the Fiscal Year 2016 Capital Improvements Program for further improvements to the historic landmark.
The Italian Revival-style Victorian home at 550 W. Penn Street was built by successful North Liberty farmer and businessman Samuel Ranshaw in 1908. It was one of the first homes in the area with the modern conveniences of indoor plumbing and gas-generated electric lights. The home was a personal residence and later served as a private daycare center before the city purchased the property in 2004. Members of the North Bend History Committee and city staff championed the historical significance of the building, saving it from demolition and crafting a long-term plan for the home’s restoration and eventual public use. Plans are to open the house as a visitor/history center, offer group meeting spaces, and to provide satellite office space for area youth and social service agencies. The house was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2012.
Assistant City Administrator Tracey Mulcahey said a little over $90,000 has been spent on the home’s restoration: about $60,000 of that has come from grant sources, $10,000 from private donations and $20,000 from the city. Improvements completed over the last two years include new windows, a new roof, repairing the front porch and repainting the exterior.
The HRDP grant now seeks funding for necessary interior improvements: restoring hardwood flooring, repairing plaster walls and ceilings, updating the heating, ventilation and cooling system, updating electrical systems and removing asbestos in the basement.
If the grant request is successful, Mulcahey anticipates the additional repairs will take about one year to complete, making the building ready for public use. Several outside projects remain on the list, such as constructing a parking area and period-designed landscaping, she noted.
“The parking lot and landscaping will come later,” Mulcahey said. Plans are for a small parking lot at the rear of the property. As for landscaping, “the thought is that local farmsteads will donate cuttings from their properties to create a period landscaping appropriate to the house,” she added.
A similar grant was submitted last year. The new grant has been slightly changed, and the JCHS is acting as the applicant this time.
“The opportunity to assist the City of North Liberty not only upholds JCHS’s mission, but it also allows for JCHS to broaden our horizons as an organization and help preserve and restore the Ranshaw House,” said Alexandra Drehman, JCHS Director.
Meanwhile, the North Bend History Committee is still actively involved in preparing the facility for public use, said committee member Mary K. Mitchell.
“The North Liberty communications staff continues to work with the History Committee to conduct and edit oral histories of long time residents,” Mitchell said in an email communication Monday. “Last year, the History Committee began creating historical displays in the large glassed units located in the walkway between the Recreation Center and the Library.  The displays are changed quarterly.”
The current display is titled “Focus on Fashion,” but there will be more displays forthcoming, Mitchell said.
“Those who have lived and worked in the area for many years and those whose ancestors were early residents have documents, photographs and memorabilia that can be shared with the entire community. The North Bend History Committee will gather, organize, preserve and display those stories.”
Though there is still much work to be done before opening Ranshaw House to the public, the outdoor grounds will be the new location for North Liberty’s free Summer Lunch and Fun Program beginning in June. Last year, the inaugural summer lunch program was held on the grounds of the Community Center. The program, staffed by volunteers and largely funded through financial donations and the participation of businesses, restaurants and grocery stores, served more than 2,500 free meals to local children.
“We will serve lunch on the front porch and have the beautiful grounds with all the shade to be able to provide the activities and picnic tables for the kids,” Mulcahey told the council.
The restored house will remain an important part of the vibrant community in many ways, Mitchell added; as a cultural space and family services annex, it complements activities held at the centrally-located community center and library.
“There are many stories waiting to be told about early settlers, businesses, schools, churches, celebrations and memorable events in the history of Penn and Madison Townships and the settling of the City of North Liberty,” said Mitchell. “Most residents who now call North Liberty their home have no knowledge of our local history. Telling the stories develops a sense of community and is important in maintaining our identity.”
Drehman agreed that preservation of the community’s history is vital to all of Johnson County.
“The city’s involvement and desire to restore and preserve the Ranshaw House exemplifies the importance of history in the North Liberty community as well as the Johnson County community,” said Drehman. “By preserving the Ranshaw house, we are enabling future generations to learn and enjoy the history of the area while providing a good example to other communities about the importance of historic preservation. Without proper care and restoration, the Ranshaw house would not be able to survive for those future generations.
“Once a piece of history is gone, it is gone forever,” she concluded.