I came to Northfield in the spring of 2020 when I took the position of collections manager at Northfield Historical Society. Before the permanent move my wife and I came to look at houses in a red-hot housing market. There was an obvious choice as to where we would stay while we searched; the Archer House. We had a room on the second floor and were instantly taken with the historic hotel. Although there were modern amenities it still felt very much like a step back in time. We dined at one of the restaurants in the building and walked Northfield’s downtown and riverfront from the Archer House. If there was any doubt that Northfield would be our new home, it was immediately erased in large part because of our experience at the Archer House. The point of this anecdote is that even for someone who had not spent a lifetime in Northfield, the significance and aura of the Archer House was immediately apparent. What we did not know was that our stay that spring would also be our last experience with the Archer House when, eight months later, it was consumed by fire. The Archer House was not the first nor will it be the last historic structure lost to fire. Regardless of the cause, or the events that contributed to its decay, it was a mortal wound.
Preservation’s Worst Enemy
The summer before I came to Northfield I was working at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum in Grand Rapids, Michigan. While working there one day I heard a report that the famous Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France had caught fire. My supervisor and I then watched in real time as the 800 year-old structure burned. Both of us had the same concern, not of the damage that the fire and smoke was doing, but the millions of gallons of water being poured onto the building in efforts to suppress the blaze. Any good collections manager or preservationist will tell you that water is the greatest threat to a historic object. Yes, fire is obviously a destructive force that historic buildings are more susceptible to than modern structures, but water is the most powerful substance in nature over time. Water breeds mold and fungus, it irreversibly stains paper and photographs, it erodes brick and stone, corrodes metal, and carries small particulates into porous material. Water is the mortal enemy of preservation. Just as water was a major concern with the preservation of Notre Dame, so it was the undoing of the Archer House. The water used to fight the fire and the water from rain and snow melt allowed mold to permeate the building. The longer the insurance fight dragged out, the more damage was done. Water wears away mountains and cliffs over millennia, for brick and mortar it takes only a few freeze/thaw cycles. Because water expands when it freezes, every freeze allows water soaked into brick and mortar to explode them that much faster. In historic preservation, experts can reconstruct historic mortar to bind together historic bricks. When bricks are damaged, such as when the face “pops” they cannot be reused. Recent water issues in a basement storage area at Northfield Historical Society provides an excellent example of how water is the greatest threat to preservation. The discovery of mold behind existing wainscoting necessitated the removal of trim and drywall. Removing the window trim exposed the severe erosion of mortar in the foundation seen at top right. Although the drywall was washed and thoroughly dried prior to removal, mold was still found to be active on the back of the drywall between that and plastic sheeting that was intended to be a moisture barrier. The plastic sheeting instead had the opposite effect, trapping moisture and allowing mold to grow. This is obviously nowhere near the scope of damage in the Archer House, but it demonstrates just how deeply rooted (and costly) water-related issues can be.
Weighing the Cost
In addition to the physical damage to the building the water soaked up by the Archer House turned the remains into a breeding ground for mold and fungus. Mold can be hazardous to historic materials and people alike. It thrives in damp and dark places. Photographs in the structural assessment of the Archer House showed that behind the surviving wallboard were copious amounts of mold. Recently we at Northfield Historical Society encountered a mold problem in the basement in a similar manner; behind damp wallboard was a thriving metropolis of mold. There are a variety of ways to remediate mold depending on where it is located and how extensive it is. A small amount on paper or other substances can be taken care of by thorough drying in direct sunlight (use caution if pursuing this route as sunlight can also be highly and irreversibly damaging). Mold can also be killed on objects by freezing. Most new acquisitions to our historical collection spend a minimum of two weeks in a freezer to eliminate any pests living within, including mold. Chemical solutions are also available, but the most effective way to exorcise mold is by drying. In buildings this usually means holes in the wall at best, or removal of wallboard at worst. In the case of the Archer House, the firm conducting the assessment believed that remediation could occur, but only through further demolition to allow thorough drying. The question (for me) then becomes, what will be left to save? Could portions be saved, if entire walls must come down? Could it be reconstructed to look as it did? Would it feel the same afterwards? Historic preservation is based on principles of architecture and historic context. When preserving a building, historic context (materials, facade, surroundings, etc.) is paramount. Further complicating the matter are federal laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Historic buildings, constructed prior to the ADA, are not required to be compliant with the act. Modern structures, including reconstructed buildings, must meet ADA standards. If only a portion of the original building remains, does that aura of another time still remain? If a replica is reconstructed with the modern additions necessary for ADA compliance, it might look like the Archer House, but the historical significance is gone.
Many of the questions I have asked above are my own and purely rhetorical. I do not pose them to either dispute or affirm the decision to demolish the Archer House, but through the consideration of those questions, I can certainly understand why that is the fate of the famed Northfield icon. I am a preservationist by nature and by profession. Studying and preserving history is my livelihood as well as my passion and it is always painful when a piece of history, big or small, is lost. In my ten-year career I have had to make the decision to deaccession and dispose of items from museum collections. I have had to reject donations to collections because, while I personally appreciated the history of the object, I had an obligation to adhere to a mission and a scope of collecting. Sometimes old things just don’t fit in a museum. I know that it can be hard to let things go, especially when they have hung around for over a century. I always wonder who set foot here, what other hands have held this item, and what is their story? The harsh reality is that sometimes we have to say goodbye, but even though we say goodbye to some things, we cannot forget what still remains. Northfield is extremely fortunate to have not only a historic structure but an entire historic district. A district that includes downtown anchors like the Scriver Building, original structures like the Lyceum, beautiful buildings like Central Block, and a host of historic homes. This does not diminish the pain of losing the Archer House, but it is important to remember the amazing history that still lives in our town. The Archer House must come down, but we can’t let that blind us to the silver lining; there is much in Northfield to be thankful for. Make your tribute to the Archer House by contributing to preservation efforts of the historic buildings we still have. At the very least take a moment the next time you pass one of these buildings and appreciate their construction and their history. They may not be here forever.