VINTON — Sharon Happel has long pondered the question: How do you encourage the community to take ownership of a community asset?
Such has been the conundrum with the historic Ray House in Vinton, Iowa, one of three properties owned by the Benton County Historical Society, and the most expensive to maintain.
The Queen Anne Victorian mansion and carriage house, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, were built in the 1890s for businessman Frank G. Ray, owner of a coal and implement business and investor in the Iowa Canning Company, said at one time to be the largest corn canning company in the world.
After Ray died in 1935, the house was sold and turned into apartments, including one over the carriage house.
The Benton County Historical Society purchased the property for $25,000 in 1985 and has since done extensive work on the home.
But Happel, the group’s president, said upkeep has long been challenging. Estimates to paint the 2 1/2-story mansion have been in the “six figures,” she noted, which includes repairing woodwork that has fallen into disrepair.
Vinton residents such as Leah Birker, whose family is working on another Victorian mansion across the street, wonder why it should be such an uphill battle, with 4-H and other groups in search of volunteer work.
“I think it’s just a sad situation,” she said, looking at the fading paint on what was once a showpiece of the neighborhood.
Happel, however, said it’s not as simple as having volunteers paint the exterior. The woodwork has been damaged and needs experts in historic architecture to restore it before any painting can be done.
The Historical Society is in the midst of fundraising for a roof for the historic depot it also owns, which has deferred projects with the Ray House. They also own the historic Horridge House, where their meetings are held and genealogical information is available for the public.
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Happel and other members led an open house Tuesday, June 18, to seek input from the community on the fate of the Ray House.
Past suggestions have included selling the home, but members worry that it could again be carved into apartments or someone would want to install vinyl siding or remove architectural features, disheartening to the group of history advocates.
They have taken out an ad in a local publication and tried other means to encourage participation, “but it’s just crickets,” Happel said of the response.
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The mansion is available for weddings, anniversaries and other events, as well as programs hosted by the Historical Society.
And while residents voice support, what the group really needs is monetary donations and skilled volunteers, she said, those who could either work on the house or lead fundraisers, for example.
As a last resort, the group’s board could consider selling the site, Happel said. “Everything is on the table right now.”
The Benton County Historical Society meets at 6:30 p.m. the fourth Monday of the month — June 24 is the next meeting — at the Horridge House in Vinton, Iowa. The public is welcome to attend. Suggestions also can be emailed to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
See more photos of the Ray House, below, and other historic buildings in Vinton, Iowa.