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Work underway at house at Itasca Rock Garden

Work has begun on remodeling the house adjacent to the Itasca Rock Garden northwest of Edgewater Park in Albert Lea. 

Dan Smith, preservation project manager with the Kohler Foundation, which purchased the house and the landmark Itasca Rock Garden last year, said the foundation is first remodeling the house so its conservators can stay there while working on the rock garden.

Smith said the foundation is collaborating with Barry Back of Back Acres Construction and Stephanie Kibler of the Freeborn County Historical Museum for the project.

Plans for the house include refinishing the floors, remodeling the kitchen and bathrooms, updating plumbing fixtures, taking out the old carpeting, installing a new roof, windows and doors, putting in a new furnace and water softener and painting the inside and outside. Smith could not comment on the estimated investment by the foundation in the project other than to describe it as “significant.”

Smith said while the main focus this year will be on remodeling the house — it is expected to be completed by Labor Day — the foundation’s preservation team will also be at the site photographing and cataloging the rock garden, as well as clearing any shrubs and brush, and getting the site prepared and prepped for the conservators. 

“We’re really, really excited about working in Albert Lea,” Smith said. “It’s been really great support from family and friends at the site … and we’re really thrilled about coming into town and working there.”

He said the foundation’s conservators are working on another project in Kansas, and once that is finished will be moving up to Albert Lea. He said the project in its entirety should take about two years.

The Wisconsin-based preservation foundation purchased the property after being contacted by Scott Johnson, a grandson of Arthur and Edna Johnson, who had lived on the site and cared for the garden from 1954 to 1985. It was built in 1925 by John L. Christensen and features a main castle-like structure, grottos, bridges and fish ponds.

Over the years, the Itasca Rock Garden became a popular destination for both locals and out-of-town people to explore and visit for photographs, whether it be senior photos, weddings or anything in between. In recent years, however, the garden became overgrown after the property went into foreclosure in 2014.

Johnson said it is like a dream come true knowing that work is beginning on the property his grandparents used to own.

“I think everyone is just overwhelmed that it’s happening,” he said. “It’s one thing to say it’s going to happen, but then when it actually starts, it really sinks in. It’s great to think that this is going to be preserved now.”

Stephanie Kibler, executive director of the Freeborn County Historical Museum said museum staff, volunteers and members are also excited about the restoration project.

“We look forward to having the house renovation complete and welcoming the Kohler Foundation conservators into the Freeborn County community,” Kibler said.

She said she is hopeful the restoration will go well and that the garden will be able to open for tours in the fall of 2021.

“To have this local treasure restored and be able to share the history of the garden is a wonderful opportunity, and we are grateful to the Kohler Foundation for seeing the value in this project,” she said.

The foundation has done preservation in Wisconsin, Louisiana, Kansas, Ohio, Maine and Georgia, according to its website.