Decorah Historic Preservation Commission (DHPC) has been collecting an inventory of buildings designed by architect and former Decorah City Engineer Charles Altfillisch. Working to identify all remaining buildings and homes designed by Atlfillisch in Decorah, the DHPC will launch a brochure and website (also accessible via smart phone) in February 2022 with a full collection of information on the Altfillisch properties’ locations and history.
“Altfillisch had a major impact on the way Decorah looks today and how we experience it,” noted DHPC member Mark Muggli. He designed many buildings in and around the Decorah area, designing all the Luther College buildings and local school buildings from 1926 to 66. A glimpse at his work includes the Preus Gymnasium at Luther College, Decorah City Hall, Allamakee County Courthouse, Postville City Hall, and schools in Decorah, Waukon, Ridgeway and Calmar.
When DHPC began the Altfillisch project, commission members met with Atlfillisch’s three grandchildren, who still own the family’s Mound Street home. They went for a driving tour of Altfillisch homes they remembered. “Every week or two, one of the commission members would get a call, then they’d say, ‘We’ve found another one’,” remarked Muggli.
Many people contacting the DHPC have shared family photos of the homes prior to any modern renovation or additions. Some families living in Altfillisch homes have offered on-site tours of the interiors, as well. The commission fact-checks each call to verify its provenance and inventories any interiors they can as well as exteriors. “If we have old photographs and the home has been renovated, it’s good for us to know. Most homes are not well-documented inside,” remarked Muggli.
Many exteriors have changed over the years as well. Muggli explains “Where Impact Coffee [Decorah] is now, it was two buildings, merged into one façade in 1925, and right next door is a remake of a 19th century building. It changes people’s view around them as they look at the range of buildings he did.”
Altfillisch was born on March 27, 1891, in Bellvue. He graduated from the University of Iowa in 1914 with a degree in engineering. and worked for a few years before enlisting in the army during World War I. Altfillisch spent 1918-19 in France as a member of the 29th Engineer Battalion. Upon returning home, Altfillisch moved to Decorah, and married Leila Ervin Marsh; their daughter, Gretchen, was born a year later in 1922.
Upon moving to Decorah, Altfillisch joined his friend and former classmate A.N. Hanson, then the City Engineer of Decorah, in creating the architectural firm Hanson and Altfillisch. In 1925 Altfillisch traveled to Pittsburgh and enrolled in design courses at the School of Architecture at Carnegie Tech.
In 1926, Altfillisch completed the plans for the Preus Gymnasium at Luther College, the firm’s first major project. Altfillisch went on to design many buildings in and around the Decorah area.
Hanson and Altfillisch continued their work together until Hanson’s death in 1932. Altfillisch was subsequently appointed City Engineer of Decorah and served in this position until 1955. As city engineer, Altfillisch was perhaps the single most important figure in the development of the flood control plan that brought the dike system to Decorah in 1951. Altfillisch retired in the 1960s and passed away in Decorah in 1978.
In 2018, the Decorah Historic Preservation Commission presented its annual award to five well-preserved homes each representing a decade of Altfillisch’s design work in the area held in the Decorah City Hall, also designed by the architect.
With such a long-running project nearing completion, the commission has looked at what they should do when the Altfillisch brochure and website are complete in 2022 to which Muggli responds, “Let’s have a party.”
Anyone with information about Charles Altfillisch’s work should contact Commission Chair Mark Muggli at email@example.com or call 612-720-5795.