Local architect comes home to support home county, rural economic development

Jordan Gerard/SGh Miranda Moen stands in front of the 1878 home for sale in Houston. As part of her Crystal Creek Canyon Lodge Citizen-Artist Residency, Moen hosted a community workshop at the home. Attendees learned the history of the home and features of architecture common to rural areas. They also gave Moen feedback on what they liked and did not like about the house.
By : 
Jordan Gerard

Freeburg resident Miranda Moen is relishing her chance to explore rural architecture with a citizen-artist residency with Crystal Creek Canyon Lodge in Houston.

Recently, she hosted a meet and greet event and community workshop to get feedback from county residents about what they want to see from an architect in a rural community.

“I want to come back home and serve the people I grew up with,” she said. “We can have dignified design too. A person who is trained can assist with that.” 

Those things include such things as historic homes that can be made livable again or repurposed into another venue, affordable housing and more activity to help small towns thrive. This type of development would keep our neighborhood alive, she said. 

Moen is currently pursuing her Master of Architecture degree and Master of Design in Sustainable Environments at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa. She especially enjoys studying Norwegian architecture and visited Norway last year. 

While in Norway, she discovered a homestead of her ancestors on her father’s side in Telemark. She also visited the Oak Ridge Church at the Immigration Museum in Norway. That church originally came from the Black Hammer area, was relocated and reassembled in Norway.

Upon her return to the U.S., she also noticed remnants of Norwegian architecture northwest of Caledonia.

“I come here to a unique spot, and it’s something that is keeping our community alive and what is ours,” she said. “I want to be a part of that, of what our grandparents knew.”

Growing up, Moen enjoyed taking drives in the countryside with her dad Andy Moen. Barns, homes and outbuildings were beautiful to her, even if they were in ruins.

She also enjoyed finding her ancestor’s house in Houston County, who settled in the area around the 1850s. The home was built after their first pioneer cabin.

Moen also wants to change the way people think about architecture, which for a small town can be daunting.

“Oftentimes people think about high rises and urban buildings, but it’s a whole lot more,” she said. “To me, it’s everything that is around us. I grew up with farmsteads and history and a human reflection of homes.”

She added that her architecture would feel like that, “not a foreign piece of art you can’t touch.” Affordable housing in the area would be made livable and the homes should not be “something we just build to sell.”

Moen says people resonate with detail, but not old detail, so how do you reinvent a style? She likes the work of Wenche Selmer, a Norwegian architect whose style brought the feeling of nature indoors.

One way Moen plans to reinvent styles is to ask the community what their housing needs are and then change the format of the house to fit that.

As for the client interest, Moen says it’s hard to break the stereotype of a large-city architect who might design skyscrapers and modern buildings, but she believes individual people want the same things as she does in small towns.

Another barrier to having an architect for a small town is budget, however Moen admits she probably won’t be a rich architect.

“That’s not my goal here and not the angle I’m going to be designing from,” she said. “I’m going to find a different way to do a project or contract style. I want to produce for people that cannot afford an architect.”

Another way Moen wants to work for rural communities is to develop housing for people 55 and older, ones whose kids are out of the house, still able to get around, social security won’t cover the house or it’s already paid off and no longer need a large home.

On Thursday, June 28, the community workshop was held at 301 E. Maple St. in Houston. 

The setting was an 1878 homestead, complete with house, barn, granary and summer kitchen.

This house is currently for sale and the original owner’s great-nephew, Brian Forsyth, has collected just about every material needed to restore the house to its 1878 state.

Nels Forsyth, who worked for Mons Anderson in La Crosse, built the house. The house was built before the railroad came to Houston. Nels passed away in 1935 and the house was passed down in the family.

In 1980, two sisters lived there, Coralyn and Edna. A friend of Forsyth’s bought the place and lived there until he passed. The house was then sold to another owner and is now back on the market with Keller-Williams Real Estate. Forsyth owns the barn.

The house is still in its original integrity and has held up fairly well. Cement contractor Ole Nelson’s stamps are still seen in the brick sidewalk that borders the property on the street sides.

Workshop attendees talked about what they liked and didn’t like about the house. They also tried their hand at architectural sketching, with guidance from Moen.

Discussion also centered around creating a group in the county to work on preserving historical sites and boosting tourism.

Moen says the house is typical of a three-room plan often seen in pioneer homes and in Norway.

The three rooms would be the kitchen and living area, bedroom and pantry. Oftentimes, an area was built off to the side of the house for a funeral area, as Forsyth’s father remembers. However, that space could be used for a studio or nook today.

When families needed more room to expand the house, they added on rooms and homes took on a unique look. The chimney would still be centrally located to heat the entire house.

The house also features servant’s quarters and the original staircase a maid would have used. Today, that area could be a children’s playroom or another bedroom.

“We don’t want to copy history, but we want to connect to it,” Moen said. “I see heritage built into the community all around us.”