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At home on the western prairie

By Staff | Apr 1, 2011

The Belfrage home has many characteristics typical of the early-1900 prairie-style homes including grouped windows and extensive overhangs. The home was completed in 1920 and, according to current owner Winston Belfrage, was the first residence constructed by Holtz and Sons Construction Co. of Sergeant Bluff.

SERGEANT BLUFF – Winston Belfrage, 53, of rural Sergeant Bluff, is a student of history. He may not tell you that directly, but his life’s story and lineage will reveal it. His stories surround life on the family farm and the humble beginnings and continuing-on since his great-grandfather John bought farmland upon his return from the Civil War in 1875.

The Civil War veteran’s son Wilfred – Winston’s grandfather – continued to farm the land and built the Belfrage barn in 1909.

The barn’s early use was documented last fall in Farm News’ Barns of Iowa special edition. In addition to its use, readers were told the story of how Wilfred’s estate was settled in 1969.

After 94 years of Belfrage ownership, the land, the home and the Belfrage barn were in the hands of someone who was not a benefactor of the Civil War-era Belfrage family.

That story emphasized the barn’s deterioration and restoration after Winston Belfrage, great-grandson of John Belfrage bought the property back within his lineage in 1998.

Winston Belfrage thumbs through the original blueprints authored by William L. Steele of Louis Sullivan's Prairie Style Architectural School. Steele studied with 18 other architects with the most notable being Frank Lloyd Wright. Behind Winston is an integrated pass-through buffet that is characteristic of Prairie-Style design.

This is the tale of the two-story, six-bedroom home that Winston remembers well as a child. “My grandpa Wilfred loved to read the paper in his living room chair. He would do it daily,” Winston said.

“I remember sitting on his lap in November 1963 when President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. We watched it on his black and white television.”

It was apparent, however, that the home Winston knew well suffered from the same lack of upkeep as the barn did during the Belfrage 30-year hiatus. “It was in poor condition to say the least,” Belfrage states. “The first thing we needed to do was to strip years of shellac from wood and begin refinishing the wood.”

Belfrage said that the home is primarily comprised of red oak and southern yellow pine stained to match the red oak. “The work took a few months to complete,” he noted. “From August 1998 until February of the next year, weekends and evenings were used just to renew the original wood.”

Other than its worn condition, most of the home remained as Belfrage remembered it from his youth. “My sister was good enough to give me the bed frame and head board that my grandpa bought when he originally had the home built. Of course, the barn being here made it seem as it was before, too.”

One thing, he didn’t count on though was finding the original blueprints and parchment-paper specification book that was given to his grandfather in September 1919. Turning over the prints, he shows his youthful signature “Winnie Belfrage.”

Belfrage said he remembers finding the prints in the attic and signing his name on the back of them when he was seven years old in 1964. “Of course, at that time, I wouldn’t have known the significance of William L. Steele as the architect. My late wife did the research and found out he was schooled with Frank Lloyd Wright. I had seen some information on the History Channel about him.”

Steele was a notable architect in Sioux City in the early 1900s. His masterpiece is considered to be the Woodbury County Courthouse which was completed in 1918. The plans for the Belfrage home were delivered to Wilfred Belfrage in fall of 1919 and the home completed in 1920.

Steele is one of a group of 18 practitioners of the Prairie Style Home philosophy started by Louis Sullivan in the late 1890s. Frank Lloyd Wright and Steele were apprenticed in his Chicago office and schooled at the same time in the same philosophy, which emphasizes architectural elements that incorporate the home into its natural prairie landscape.

Features of these one- or two-story buildings include window groupings, a low-hipped roof and excessive overhang, all of which were meant to blend with the natural prairie landscape, which is prevalent near Sergeant Bluff. It was a movement that was a reaction to the excess of the Victorian era, but one that would end shortly after the building of the Belfrage home and the beginning of the World War I.

Both Winston and wife Eileen remark how they enjoy the numerous grouped windows in their home, which allows for cool summer breezes and plenty of natural light. Eileen emphasizes the point by saying that their home “is cooled with open windows on summer nights. Our home retains the cool while the windows are shut during a hot, summer’s day.”

Another notable element of the home is the large built-in buffet with pass-through doors from the kitchen to the dining room. This stylized cabinetry is another element of the prairie style home as is the kitchen cook-stove chimney through the center of the home and sun porch lined with period lead-glass windows which have begun to pour downward during the home’s 90-year existence.

The home has many conveniences rarely seen in middle class homes of the period. Among those are a laundry chute, separate soft water and hot water plumbing, an additional basement shower, closets in each room, and many areas for storage.

“My grandfather was a smart man,” Belfrage said, reflecting on the original design of the home. He said that he’s made a few small changes to the home which includes additional kitchen cabinets, ceramic kitchen floor tile, and the conversion of a three-season porch to an all-year entry for the home. Otherwise, the home is just as he remembered it when he sat on his grandfather’s lap five decades ago.

The upstairs bathroom with its original concrete floor, herringbone tile and cast iron tub stand as a testament to the resiliency associated with the home’s lineage as does the refurbished woodwork throughout the home.

Belfrage dismisses any effort to recognize his hard work stating, “It’s the farm blood, you know. Grandpa was handy and I seemed to have gotten it from him.”

Contact Doug Clough at douglasclough@gmail.com.

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