Restoring a piece of history – ‘Horn House’ renovation preserves structural integrity

A vintage photograph taken in front of the Horn House was captured at a Christmas party back in 1872. The historic Winneshiek County home is being renovated and will be featured on a nationally-known cable network. (Photo courtesy Winneshiek County Historical Society)

By Roz Weis,

A vintage photograph taken in front of the Horn House was captured at a Christmas party back in 1872. The historic Winneshiek County home is being renovated and will be featured on a nationally-known cable network. (Photo courtesy Winneshiek County Historical Society)

Why would a nationally-known cable television network select a Driftless area home to feature during a renovation for an upcoming broadcast?

Danielle Dotzenrod of Decorah credits the rich, significant history of her rural Decorah home, which dates back to the mid-1800s.

The details about the renovation are being kept top secret for the time being, as a production team completes filming.

Danielle grew up on her grandfather’s dairy farm in Winneshiek County. At age 16, she represented the United States in an international modeling competition. Her career blossomed, and after working as a fashion model in New York, she became a television host in Los Angeles. She has since returned to northeast Iowa and has been working on other renovation projects in the area with her dad, Jimmy Dotzenrod. Those efforts have included the transformation of a 1973 train caboose into a rental property. Her company, BEHUMANE, sells leather to designers sourced from ranches having high animal welfare and regenerative agriculture standards.

Historical significance

The historical Horn House, which boasts an old ballroom, complete with original piano, has sat empty for the past several years, and the ongoing remodeling has been challenging.

Danielle said she spent the winter and spring months doing what she calls “destruction/discovery” and is now in “construction” mode.

“Everyone who has had the house has loved it, and they’ve done their best with improvements,” Dotzenrod said. “But it was time for a full-blown remodel.”

Dotzenrod is passionate about the historical importance of the residence.

“I’ve learned so much about this house,” she exclaimed.

“This is the only house of its kind on the National Historic Registry in Winneshiek County that is situated in the rural countryside,” she said, “as opposed to being in Decorah or in town.”

The house was built by English immigrant Henry Harcourt Horn back in 1869. It is situated a few miles northwest of Decorah. The residence has a detailed, rich history. Horn wrote a book about settling here in Winneshiek County, and he penned several pages about the home’s construction. The book’s title is “An English Colony in Iowa” and tells the story of the voyage to America, the journey westward and much more.

His riveting musings about the train ride to Chicago, Ill., and Milwaukee and Prairie du Chien, Wis., were capped by his first view of the mighty Mississippi River.

Horn’s travels by train ended in Ridgeway, where he found a “Concord Coach” waiting to take him and several other passengers on a one-hour trip to the town of Decorah – his final destination.

In detailing his journey to Decorah in the fall of 1868, the then 23-year-old Horn wrote that he traveled here by train and coach and that he found a “an English colony with some living in town and others on farms scattered over the country roundabout.” He found a boarding house with about a dozen other boarders and began exploring the town.

“The quantity and class of goods displayed was astonishing,” he wrote. “The storekeepers were keen, bright and up-to-date … they received us with great, cordiality, exhibited their wares, but made no attempt to persuade us to buy.”

He found “well-to-do families, many of the younger set,” in an area north of town.

“It was quiet and peaceful,” he shared about the Decorah vicinity, “free from noisy brawlings and disturbances. No place of its size within a reasonable distance could show a cleaner record…the absence of the railroad is a contributing factor in keeping away hobos and other undesirables.”

He wrote that Decorah was “a model town” boasting a good wagon factory, a fair-sized flour mill, a woolen mill and a cracker factory.

Horn also boasted of the “fine Luther College overlooking the town.” He shared his observances over his years in Decorah, as the railroad came to town.

After a short time, Horn purchased a farm in Canoe Township, Winneshiek County. He described the farm as a “well timbered, with comfortable amount of rich bottom land.”

Horn returned to England in 1869 and married. They later returned to America.

His writings also detail the establishment of the opera house in Decorah.

“It was of ample dimensions, well-lighted, good acoustics, and would have been a credit to a town thrice the size of Decorah.” 

Other amusements around the Decorah vicinity back in that era included horseraces, ice-skating, and the much-anticipated heralding of “the circus” when it came to town.

“Everyone who had a quarter to jingle on a gravestone produced it from some hidden recess,” he wrote. “Children’s banks were rifled ruthlessly, chickens gave up their lives in countless numbers, sometimes even a pig was sacrificed to furnish cash for the great event.”

The Horn House

The Horn House, as it is affectionately known, is a Georgian structure constructed of red, clay brick reported purchased from an establishment in McGregor. The house was built on a foundation made of stone around 1869, boasting grand, tall windows. The use of brick and stone reflected in the home were carried out by English bricklayers and carpenters. History of the home includes details about the main house and a servant section. 

The historic home features several crowning features from the Georgian period, with 12-foot ceilings on the main floor and 11.5-foot ceilings on the upper floor, two chimneys, wide eves and classic arched windows. The doorway of the Georgian home was one of the central features of the façade.

In his book, Horn detailed a Christmas party hosted at their home in 1872, with guests sitting around the large fireplace, dancing in the ballroom until the early-morning hours, and a dinner of plum pudding and mince pies voted “a triumph of the culinary art.”

A photograph of those in attendance at the Christmas party has been unearthed, and it has been forwarded to the Winneshiek County Historical Society. The guests, numbering around 25, posed for the photographer in the front of the Horn House, with a baby being held high in the air.

Historical records indicate Horn moved back to town in 1873, and as he states, “it did not take very long to convince me that farming was a snare and a delusion, so far as I was concerned … whereupon I sold it and moved into town.”  

It is estimated that the historic residence was originally built at a cost of close to $12,000. His house in town was estimated to cost $600.

Helping Dotzenrod and her boyfriend Jim Wicka with the extensive remodel are her father, Jimmy, and her stepfather, Mark Sweitzer.

Magnolia Network program

Danielle’s renovation will be featured in an upcoming episode of the TV series “In With the Old,” airing on Chip and Joanna Gaines’s Magnolia Network later this year.

The series follows designers, builders and old-home enthusiasts with a passion for transforming abandoned structures across the country.

Danielle said she anticipates some parts of the rich description of Horn’s life and the historic residence, as well as the significance to Decorah area history, will be shared in the episode.

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1 month ago

How interesting and exciting to hear the history of this home! I can’t wait to see the restoration on Magnolia. Let us know when that will happen.