Minnesota Local History

Minnesota Local History Blog.

Minnesota Local History Blog.

Advice and help with building history capacity.

The Minnesota Historical Society’s Local History Services helps Minnesotans preserve and share their history. This blog is a resource of best practices on the wide variety of museum, preservation, conservation, funding, and non-profit management topics. We’re here to help.

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Dealing with Ice Dams

By: Ryan Maciej | Preservation & Facilities | February 17, 2023

Minnesota’s northern inland location exposes it to considerable annual temperature and moisture fluctuations along with prolonged winters. Snow and icy weather can easily occur annually from October through May with excellent ice dam conditions often lasting for weeks.

Within the last five years, many parts of the state of Minnesota have had unusually good conditions for the creation of ice dams with conditions that have not been seen in many years. This blog post looks at why they occur, how to prevent damage from occurring, and how to repair damage.


First Snow. Arthur T. Kerrick.

First Snow. Arthur T. Kerrick. Works Progress Administration: Public Art Project. 1935-1942. Source: MNHS.

What are Ice Dams?

Ice dams are created when heavier ice and snow buildup melt during the day and refreeze at night. After several days of melting and freezing, it is not uncommon for a ridge of ice to develop causing ice and water to back up and work up under the roof shingles, developing small pools and areas of water. This water comes through the roof and attic as liquid, damaging the building structure as well as, eventually, the finishes and contents underneath. This can be especially problematic for owners of historic buildings where it can be difficult to find craftspeople who do proper repair work and/or museums who have irreplaceable collections that could be damaged by moisture, mildew, and mold. 

The warm air that can rise at night through an underinsulated attic can keep water in a liquid state for longer periods of time and allow greater pooling and infiltration through the roofing materials to occur. 

Icicles and Ice Dams on Roof of Building, 1515 South Ninth Street, Minneapolis, 1951. Source: MNHS.

Icicles and Ice Dams on Roof of Building, 1515 South Ninth Street, Minneapolis, 1951. Source: MNHS.

Preventing Ice Dams

Although there is some disagreement concerning how to prevent ice dams and it is virtually impossible to guarantee that an ice dam will not occur, ensuring that the following steps will occur will considerably minimize the risk of one:

Make it a practice to observe your building on a regular basis. This way conditions such as ice dams and other problems can be kept to a minimum because heavy snow loads, ice formations, water pools, and large icicles are observed early in the process.

Keep snow depth on the roof to a minimum utilizing snow rakes and other tools. Shoveling was more often done historically and can still be the preferred choice on flatter more expansive roofs found on warehouses, other industrial buildings, and large stores. Snow rakes and shovels of a variety of materials and configurations are available; rakes and shovels should feel comfortable to hold and be effective and yet gentle to use. Consider hiring a professional for snow raking and shoveling and for flat-roof snow removal. 

Reducing snow depth also helps prevent unusually heavy snow loads from burdening a roof, creating sagging rafters and other deflected roof infrastructure. Many sources, however, recommend only removing some of the snow when it is fairly deep, removing it more towards the front edges of the roof, and taking care not to damage the shingles beneath or the gutters in front of the roof. Otherwise, frequent raking can actually cause more damage than benefit.

Another option can be to turn down the heat slightly in areas of buildings that are not being used so there is less of a temperature difference that would create the melting of ice and pooling of water. This pooling of water builds on the upslope of an ice dam and eventually seeps through the shingles, the underlayment, the rafters, the insulation, layers of lath and plaster and/or plasterboard, and down through the finishes.

The Cycle of Ice Dams in Minnesota. Source: Ryan Maciej, MNHS.

The Cycle of Ice Dams in Minnesota. Source: Ryan Maciej, MNHS.

Attic areas should also be sufficiently insulated so that there is less of a temperature and humidity difference that would cause melting ice to occur between the snow or ice pack on the roof and the outer asphalt shingles on the roof. Ensure that the attic areas next to the roof are well insulated so that it costs less to heat and cool your building and so that the freeze/thaw cycles are minimized. Ice dam areas where moisture has occurred should have dehumidifiers going as resulting mold and other problems could occur if there is water and moisture buildup.

Consult one or more professionals of relevant teams to ensure that ice dams are prevented,  managed, and resolved to the extent possible. Insulation contractors, historical architects, conservators, and preservation specialists each have specialized and general knowledge that can be useful for dealing with ice dams and their damage.

Snow and Ice Rakes

When considering options for snow rakes, consider one that has a non-abrasive head, that is durable and sturdy. Snow rakes can have soft edges, come in brighter colors for visibility, and be of a variety of materials and configurations. Ones featuring telescoping designs can be beneficial when one needs to quickly go from a near angled surface to a more distant highly sloped surface, for instance. Telescopic ones can sway more so some people prefer ones that screw together for improved stability.

Late Spring

Thankfully by late spring most if not all ice dams have slowly subsided. Unfortunately, they have often left their wake on the building infrastructure below. Although April and May can still bring snowstorms, having repeated warming spells will melt the snow and ice and wash the remnants of the ice dams away. This often becomes a prime time for evaluating buildings for potential repairs.


Taking a look into the attic and the upper levels of a building, as well as along the exteriors and interiors of the perimeter walls, will help one isolate potential issues from starting or advancing.  Check for wet and moldy surfaces as well as discoloration. Consult with appropriate professionals as necessary to identify treatment plans. If in doubt, seek a second opinion. 

Contacting structural engineers for more complex engineering issues, historical architects for buildings, architectural historians and preservationists/preservation planners for historical and general preservation guidance, and conservationists for conservation advice, as needed, is helpful for obtaining a more thorough and well-balanced view of roof conditions.

Related Sources for More Information:

Dealing with and Preventing Ice Dams. University of Minnesota Extension Services.  

National Snow Load Information. USDA Forest Service and Missoula Technology Development Program.

Preservation Brief 4. Roofing for Historic Buildings. National Park Service.

Preservation Brief 39. Controlling Unwanted Moisture in Historic Buildings. National Park Service.

Preservation Specialists Directory. Minnesota Historical Society.

Weatherize: Insulation. Office of Energy Saver. U.S. Department of Energy.

Seasonal Window Considerations and Treatments

Windows have of course long been called the eyes of buildings as they are usually a leading character-defining feature that transmit light but also illuminate an important component of the Industrial Revolution and construction. They tell us a lot about their host buildings, such as their owners and their tastes and interests, as well as styles, uses, and alterations over the years.

Comstock House exterior window.

Comstock Historic House, Moorhead, Minnesota.  Source: MNHS.

This Minnesota Historical Society (MNHS) museum property was constructed in 1883 for a prominent Red River Valley family who was active in railroad and educational pursuits. Storm windows paired with regular sash windows help provide thermal protection from the prairie elements.

The multibillion dollar window replacement industry is able to dedicate considerable funding to try to convince people that only replacement windows will eliminate drafts. However, here in a state with weather as diverse and dynamic as Minnesota’s, people have long thought of ways to make their buildings as weathertight as possible. These options allow people to continue to enjoy the effects of the painted wood frames and the unique types of window glazing like crown, cylinder, and faceted glass that would otherwise likely end up in a landfill.

“Unlike historic windows, new window assemblies cannot be repaired; they can only be replaced once again. The sustainable choice is to repair historic windows whenever possible.” National Park Service 

Of course, the main requirements that window structural integrity rests on are regular observation and maintenance. Repairs should be made as soon as possible. Finding professionals who are experienced at window repair and rehabilitation is very important. National Park Service’s Preservation Brief 9 and 13 along with Preservation Tech Notes Windows 1-22 are excellent starting resources when considering window care and weatherization. More effective than having weathertight windows is ensuring that, especially, ceilings and attics are insulated and, less so, exterior walls are insulated too. 

Storm Windows 

“A 2002 study confirmed that installing a storm window over a historic window can achieve a similar thermal performance to that of a new low-E vinyl replacement window. This experiment conducted by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory also noted that remaining air infiltration around the historic window and storm assembly is a matter of occupant comfort rather than energy efficiency.” Weatherization: Windows and Doors National Park Service 

The use of storm windows, which have supposedly been around since the eighteenth century, can be effective year round, while only changing to screen windows the locations that need to be opened for ventilation during the summers. Thankfully, there are exterior and interior storm windows that come in a variety of materials, colors, and finishes that can complement historic buildings. Storm windows should match the overall style and color of the main windows they are serving. Speaking with a historic architect or building preservation professional can be of considerable assistance when navigating the many options to find suitable ones for the subject building. 

Sometimes, some of the storm window suppliers are from more obscure manufacturers. Often finding the most in-kind type of storm window may require contacting the manufacturer who will hopefully find the best match through a deep array of options. Existing storm windows should be retained, either on the building or in storage, as often as possible. Many of the finest historic storm windows even included true glass dividers of wood and stained glass margin lights. 

Storm windows significantly reduce the amount of sound that is transmitted through an opening. A single-pane historic window with a storm window provides greater noise reduction than a double-pane replacement window because there are two different systems instead of one; having two different systems provides a noise break. Some storm windows also integrate or have a basic surface for applying a UV-protection film or privacy glass, film, or safety glass.

Blue Goose Cottage exterior near a lake with two people on the front stoop and a screened rear porch.

Blue Goose Cottage, Idlewilde, Lake Osakis, Osakis.  Source:  MNHS.

This 1940 photograph of this resort cottage shows how screen windows and screen doors were utilized in the summer months to repel insects while allowing cross ventilation.


Most commonly wood or metal, these devices, when closed shut over windows, can help weatherize the openings in a considerable way. However, they should not be utilized unless they were featured on the building historically. Adding features that were never there on the building creates a false sense of history. However, when there is photographic or physical evidence they had been utilized, there are regional manufacturers, repairers, and restorers of this feature, including here in Minnesota. 


Usually more useful in summer than in winter, these exterior window coverings are usually made of some type of cloth but also can be made of metal or other materials. They often keep out the sun in the summer but also can find a way to reduce wind and rain in the spring and fall. In commercial buildings, they would help keep interiors and window shoppers more comfortable and reduce HVAC costs. 

Boy standing with a bike in front of a building with scalloped awning.

T.F. Cann Window Shades and Awnings, Seventh and Hennepin, Minneapolis. Source: MNHS.

This 1899 photograph shows an interesting scalloped awning on the porch of this building.

Treatments / Accessories 

Using drapes, curtains, and sheers, as appropriate, to minimize drafts and temperature fluctuations while providing privacy, defining views, and creating the right ambience has long been considered an economic option for reducing temperature changes, solar fading, and sound transmission within a building. 


Drapes are usually of very heavy fabric that is tightly woven and effective at greatly reducing drafts and separating heat and cold.

Governor's Reception room with large desk and chairs in the foreground with three windows covered with decorative pelmets and drapes in the background.

Governor’s Reception Room at the Minnesota State Capitol, St. Paul, Minnesota. Source: MNHS.

The decorative drapery and pelmets (located at the tops of the window openings) provide for dramatic and decorative shading of light and weatherproofing in this landmark, which was constructed from 1896 to 1905.


Curtains are slightly more lightweight than drapes and can be effective for filtering light and sound and helping to provide a lesser amount of weatherproofing. Made of a variety of fabrics and fibers that have transitioned from natural to synthetic over the years, curtains also help provide decoration and privacy.

Four women sit at a table working with sewing lightweight fabric.

Handicraft workers making curtains for Gillette Hospital, St. Paul.  1936.  Source: MNHS.


This thin gauzy material is more minimally effective at weatherization but is often considered beautiful in window treatments while providing some privacy. It is utilized together with curtains or drapes and is sometimes used all by itself. Historically, materials such as cotton and linen were used while in recent years polyester and nylon have been featured.

A decorative Victorian parlor features various pieces of furniture and two sash windows.

Historic Forestville, Minnesota.  Source: MNHS.

The sheer curtains and blinds provide a layered appearance that gives versatility to regulating temperature, light, and privacy in this decorative nineteenth-century space.


Blinds have been utilized for centuries to enhance solar and heat gain in the winter and minimize solar and heat gain in the summer, with more natural materials like linen and wood being replaced with plastics in recent years. Horizontal blinds are usually designed more to control light and heat gain while vertical blinds are utilized for privacy unless they are closed. 

Roller blinds come in a variety of colors, privacy levels, and patterns. Some of the blinds are available with an open weave and some with UV protection built into the material. Historically, material such as linen and cotton was utilized. Some of the more modern roller blinds material includes polyester and vinyl. Some of the material used to make blinds is thicker and occasionally quilted to provide additional solar and thermal protection.

Related National Park Service Preservation Briefs and Tech Notes

Preservation Brief 3, “Improving Energy Efficiency in Historic Buildings”
Preservation Brief 9, “The Repair of Historic Wooden Windows”
Preservation Brief 13, “The Repair and Thermal Upgrading of Historic Steel Windows”
Preservation Brief 44, “The Use of Awnings on Historic Buildings: Repair, Replacement and New Design” 
Preservation Tech Notes Windows 1-22

History Where It Happens– Historical Markers in Minnesota

By: Elizabeth Koele | Interpretation | May 9, 2022

You might spot historical markers at interstate rest areas, local and state parks, or at simple pull-offs along the road. They come in different shapes, sizes, and materials, but all share a similar purpose–to draw attention to history. They stand as a reminder that history happens everywhere and isn’t solely confined to museums and historic sites. There’s countless stories to tell and an unlimited number of places to tell them.

Many states have prolific historical marker programs, with thousands of markers spread across their landscapes. Here in Minnesota, we also have plenty of markers to go around and a long history of erecting them.

History of the Minnesota Marker Program

Minnesota’s historical marker program was inspired by the exponential increase in automobile traffic and expansion of the trunk highway system in the 1920s. The Minnesota Historical Society and Minnesota Highway Department (a predecessor to the Minnesota Department of Transportation) joined together to mark historic locations and capture the attention of tourists traveling across the state along new roads.The earliest markers took the form of steel plates, painted white with black lettering. The signs were placed just along the road with the intent that motorists could read the content without halting their journey, undoubtedly made possible by naturally slower traffic.

A pair of people stand before a white metal sign framed with a log mount. The marker is titled "Christmas Lake"

Christmas Lake historical marker in Shorewood, Minnesota. Circa 1939. Image from Minnesota Historical Society Collections

Gradually, the program began to erect more substantial structures to display the markers. Throughout the late 1930s and 1940s, New Deal groups like the National Youth Administration (NYA) constructed elaborate brick or stone “shrines” to frame metal plaques. This marker style required visitors to stop and get a closer view to read. As time progressed, these “permanent” markers continued to evolve into plaques mounted on more straightforward plinths of concrete and stone.

For those traveling around Minnesota today, they’ll mainly encounter markers erected in the last fifty years. Beginning in the 1960s, the marker program shifted away from complex construction to simpler aluminum signs cast by Sewah Studios, an Ohio company responsible for creating numerous states’ historical markers. These less-intrusive markers led to a greater variety of locations–moving beyond major highways. MNHS continued to steadily erect new markers in this style until the early 2000s, when a reduction in funding paused the program.

Surveying Markers

A twenty-year break can create a lot of questions. Where are the markers and are they still there? What do they look like and what do they mark? There’s some catching up to do, and this is where I come into the picture.

For the last several months I’ve been traveling the back roads of Minnesota, hunting for historical markers. Pulling from past records and sources like “Minnesota History Along the Highways,” I compiled a list of markers to search for–a little over 200 markers erected by or directly connected to MNHS.

The next challenge was determining where to search for the markers. Some were easy to track down on maps and crowdsourced websites, while others required scanning Google satellite and street views or even piecing together clues from photographs. Once located, I travel to a marker and record GPS coordinates, take extensive photographs, and note its physical condition. The photos also allow me to transcribe a marker’s text later.

A vertical stone structure surroudning a dark metal plaque titled "Christmas Lake"

Christmas Lake historical marker in Shorewood, Minnesota. Surveyed October 27, 2021. Photo by Liz Koele.

At this point in the project, only a small handful of markers remain to be surveyed. Next steps include taking a closer look at their stories, processing the collected survey data, and preparing a report with recommendations for the future of the marker program. In the meantime, stay tuned for updates on the MNHS historical marker program in the future.

Historical Markers Near You

Despite the focus on the state marker program, there’s no monopoly on markers in Minnesota. MNHS is far from the only organization to erect historical markers. Created by local historical societies, civic organizations, and others, Minnesota is home to thousands of markers beyond those included in our survey.

If you want to explore markers across the state, check out websites like The Historical Marker Database or the Historical Marker Project. Consider getting familiar with your local markers and keeping an eye out while traveling. You might be surprised by what you find!

In Memory of Denis Gardner, 1965-2022

By: Todd Mahon | Preservation & Facilities | May 6, 2022
Composite image: Left to right: Denis with beard and scarf; Denis in baseball cap with Saint Paul municipal grain terminal head house in background; Center: Denis with Minnesota State Capitol East stairs behind him; Denis at his desk at MNHS

As noted in the May 4, 2022, edition of the Local History News, Denis Gardner, Minnesota’s National Register Historian, passed away unexpectedly on March 4, 2022. His work with the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) and his important research and writing about Minnesota’s historic places brought him in close contact with many in Minnesota’s history network. 

His professional work in the field began in 1996 as a historian for Minneapolis’s Hess Roise and Company. With that work, he developed a strong connection to the National Register of Historic Places through various projects with the firm. He struck out on his own and worked as an independent consultant, researching and writing nominations for properties to be listed on the National Register. With this deep experience, as well as his published books, Denis became a National Register Historian with SHPO in 2011, where he managed the National Register program for the Minnesota Historical Society. In 2018, SHPO, along with Denis, transferred from MNHS to the State of Minnesota. 

Denis leaves behind an impressive record of work that will benefit Minnesotans for generations to come. He wrote books about the state’s bridges, the construction and restoration of the Capitol building, and books about the state’s other National Register properties. He conducted countless book talks, lectures, and programs at local history organizations across the state. 

These contributions to the historical record and sharing it with so many people are perhaps only matched by the friendships that he forged with many of us. Denis was… a character. He often had us all laughing at his small quirks and independent attitude. Melinda Hutchinson, Grants Specialist, said, “Denis was a wonderful guy--intelligent, dedicated, witty. He put up with all my sassy remarks and good-natured ribbing. In return, he called me one of his favorite people. He was one of mine, too, and I will miss him.” Carolyn Veeser-Egbide, our Grants Office manager, noted Denis’s (extreme) enthusiasm for bridges when she said, “I have fond memories of him, especially stories involving his love of bridges. His knowledge of Minnesota resources was impressive, and he could easily recall many details when most of us would need to look them up. I’ll miss him!”

And miss him we do. We still have moments of reaching for the phone to call him or drafting an email to ask him a question. There are still so many things that are “good questions for Denis.” It’s a reminder that his duties will be taken over and continued, but he will not be replaced. Thanks for being a great colleague to all of us, Denis, and thanks for leaving behind a legacy for Minnesota to benefit from. 

There will be a memorial service for Denis in the L’Etoile du Nord vault (room B015) at the Minnesota State Capitol on Saturday, May 14 at 11:00 am. 


Holiday Inclusion in your Posts

By: Joe Hoover | Local History | Mission & Management | Community Outreach | January 28, 2022
Watercolor of a fireplace with holiday icons built in and around it. A person in Kwanzaa hat and garment and a mummer are acting as architectural columns holding up lintel above mirror. Santa Claus and St. Lucia act  as architectural columns holding up mantal above the fireplace. On the fireplace mantel is a Kwanzaa cup, a Menorah a Dreidel, a Christmas Tree. In front of the fireplace to the left is a Yule goat. A red stocking hangs off the fireplace mantel in the center.

Take a long look at your postings around the winter holidays. Are they fairly Christmas-centric? Do Hanukkah and Kwanzaa feel like add-ons? Or worse, are they simply ignored? Some history organizations strive to strike a balance but most do not.

For nearly ten years each week as part of my work in the Local History Services office at the Minnesota Historical Society, I put out the e-newsletter ‘Local History News.’ Much of the e-newsletter functions as a digest of what local history organizations around Minnesota are posting on their social media accounts.

Each week, I review posts on over 300 history organizations with Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts to capture news and events of what is happening in the world of Minnesota’s local history community to add to the e-newsletter. Years of doing this have left me with some insights from the long view of seeing what is posted.

Another holiday season is behind us and in my years looking at posts I have noticed a pattern. Each holiday season, I see hundreds of posts on Christmas, yet little-to-no posts recognizing any other holiday during that time. This year I decided to do a little unscientific counting to see how posting on the holidays adds up. This shows some curious numbers.

I counted years from 2018 to 2021 doing simple keyword searches for each holiday. To keep my time and project manageable, I limited my scope to only searching Facebook and the 76 county historical societies that have a presence on that platform.

It is not surprising over four years Christmas dwarfs other holidays in the number of Facebook postings it gets - 1461 by my count. But what is surprising is the lack of acknowledgment by history organizations to other holidays of the season in their Facebook posts. The next highest is Hanukkah with only 13 posts and Kwanzaa (or Kwanza) gets a total of 7 posts over four years. Typically the postings are done by the same organizations. Usually, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa are in a message that ties it with Christmas such as “Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah!” rather than a stand-alone message about the holiday. Yule, which was mentioned 4 times was always tied to Christmas. Standalone  "Happy Holidays" messages occurred 49 times in four years.

Holiday Season Posts by County Historical Societies
(or Kwanza)
2021 376 35 11 3 1 3 1 1
2020 333 25 10 7 0 4 2 2
2019 407 25 13 0 0 0 1 1
2018 345 14 15 3 1 0 0 0
TOTAL 1461 99 49 13 2 7 4 4
Average 365.25 24.75 12.25 3.25 0.5 1.75 1 1

Outside of the Holiday Season

If you’re going hard into the Christmas season it is only fair to look at a few of the holidays outside of it. Enter: Easter, Passover, and Ramadan.

It can be said of Christmas it is a commercial holiday (similar to Halloween and Valentine's Day both of which also receive a lot of posts), and that reflects the majority of posts by history organizations, most being tied to events, gift sales, and requests for donations. Only a small amount of the 1461 posts can be considered non-commercial and posted in the true recognition of the holiday. The number of Easter posts gives a better idea of posting on the holiday rather than using it to raise funds. Between  2018 and 2021 I counted a total of 99 posts from county historical societies on Easter. Far less than the 1461 posts for Christmas. However, the other during that time Passover and Ramadan received only 4 posts and 1 post respectively from county historical societies.

Other Holiday Posts by County historical societies
2021 35 1 1
2020 25 2 0
2019 25 1 0
2018 14 0 1
TOTAL 99 4 2
Average 24.75 1 0.5

Holiday posts by the Minnesota Historical Society

If I am going to count the postings by county historical societies it is only fair that I include the Facebook posts by the Minnesota Historical Society. Between  2018 and 2021 I counted a total of 47 posts on Christmas using the criteria used for county historical societies; 10 posts for Hanukkah; 4 posts for Kwanzaa; 0 posts for Yule; 4 posts for Easter; 2 posts for Passover; and 1 post for Ramadan. Posts with Happy Holidays messages numbered at 9.

Holiday posts by the Minnesota Historical Society
2021 7 3 2 0 2 1 1 1
2020 5 3 1 0 1 1 1 0
2019 16 2 1 0 4 1 0 0
2018 19 2 0 0 2 1 0 0
TOTAL 47 10 4 0 9 4 2 1


History organizations have goals beyond Christmas nostalgia, warm fuzzies, and income generation. Social media posting needs to reflect that. Don't stop celebrating Christmas or using it as a seasonal fundraiser as many do, but acknowledging other cultures in a diverse society is significant. History organizations work teaching local cultural information. In doing that work, it is important to bring attention to cultures, not in the mainstream and help examine cultural assumptions held by the local mainstream population. We are a Christmas-centric society where 90% of Americans celebrate Christmas (54% celebrate it as secular). However, your non-Christmas holiday posts can make observers of other religions outside of Christianity feel welcomed and celebrated by your organization. Posts on non-Christmas Holidays also acknowledge to your social media followers there are active cultural traditions different from their own in and outside their community.

How I counted…

The posts had to have happened during the holiday season they are associated with, postings such as “Christmas in July” were not counted. Comments in the posts where people mentioned the holiday when the post did not contain mention of the holiday were not counted either. The numerous postings of Christmas photos, Santa photos, Christmas tree photos, Christmas card images were not counted either if the post did not say Christmas in it (I suspect that it could double the Christmas count). Many other religious holidays, most notably in the fall, were not counted.

Looking for a list of holidays and religious observances? The University of Minnesota's Office for Equity and Diversity keeps a very comprehensive list »

Creating a Disaster Response Kit

By: Megan Narvey | Conservation | December 21, 2021

Imagine that overnight, a pipe bursts in your collections storage room. You get to work in the morning, and one of your shelving units is soaked. You make sure everyone is safe, turn off the water, and activate the call tree described in your collections emergency plan. Thankfully, your emergency plan has detailed instructions on how to salvage and dry out the wet collection items! But first, you’re going to need to find some polyethylene sheeting, towels, blotting paper, a spare table, a clipboard, a pencil, nitrile gloves, a mop, a fan, and a flashlight. How quickly are you going to be able to gather your supplies?

Response speed is essential when salvaging collections materials in a water-based emergency situation. Very few types of materials in museum collections are immune to water damage. The longer something is wet, the worse the staining or bleeding dyes will be, and the more likely things will become warped, corroded, or moldy. Personal safety must always come before collections are salvaged, but once the situation is safe you will want to act promptly.

The first step to take to reduce the impact an emergency will have on the collection is to develop a collections emergency plan. After you have your emergency plan, the next step is to create a disaster response kit.

What is a disaster response kit?

A  disaster response kit is a collection of tools, equipment, and other materials that can be used to respond to a collections emergency. The kit should include enough supplies to fully respond to a small emergency, or to adequately respond to a larger emergency until more supplies can be purchased. It may be stored in a fixed location, such as a supply closet, or it may be mobile so that supplies can easily be moved to the needed location. The kit might be a small one for use in a single storage space; a larger one for your entire organization; or an even larger one to be shared between multiple organizations in a region.  

The contents of the kit should be specific to the needs of your organization. If you live in a flood prone area, you may want to focus efforts on preparing for that situation. Similarly, if your collection consists mostly of books and paper items, then your kit should be aimed at the needs of these materials. 

What does a disaster response kit contain?

Your disaster plan should help you prepare the contents of your kit by answering the following questions:

  • Which emergency situations are the most likely to occur? 
  • Which emergency situations would have the biggest impact on my collection? 
  • What materials in the collection are most at risk in an emergency situation?
  • What techniques and materials would be needed to recover the affected collections?

In general, a disaster kit should contain the following key components: a container, documentation materials, instructional documents, personal safety equipment, tools for scene/environmental control, collections salvage supplies, and other tools. Here are some examples of what you could include in your kit.


  • Backpacks
  • Wheeled crates
  • Plastic storage bins
  • Milk crates
  • Mobile trash can
  • Cabinets with doors/wheels
  • Push carts

Documentation Materials

  • Name tags
  • Clipboard
  • Notepads
  • Mechanical pencils, Sharpies, grease pencil, pens
  • Tape measure
  • Tie-on labels (paper or Tyvek)
  • Adhesive labels
  • Disposable camera

Instructional Documents

  • Emergency Salvage Wheel or other salvage guidelines
  • Copy of disaster plan
  • Floor plans
  • Gallery case access guides
  • Priority object locations
  • Loan agreements
  • Object damage reports

Other Tools

  • Wrench
  • Screwdrivers
  • Hatchet
  • Utility knife and blades
  • Nylon or polypropylene rope
  • Cable ties
  • Scissors
  • Crow bar
  • Flashlight with batteries
  • Waterproof extension cord/power strip
  • Wet vac
  • Fans
  • Dehumidifier
  • Portable generator
  • Folding tables

Personal Safety Equipment

  • Safety goggles
  • Disposable apron
  • Hard hat
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Disinfectant wipes
  • Reusable respirators or N95 masks
  • First aid kit
  • Nitrile gloves
  • Work gloves
  • Drinking water

Scene/Environmental Control

  • Temperature and relative humidity spot checker
  • 6-mil polyethylene sheeting
  • Garbage bags
  • Duct tape
  • Caution tape
  • Mop and bucket
  • Door wedges
  • Fire extinguisher
  • Walkie talkies
  • Head lamp with batteries
  • Work lights and extra bulbs

Collections Salvage Supplies

  • Polyethylene zip top bags
  • Cotton string
  • Nylon monofilament
  • Plastic wash tubs and trays
  • Paper towels
  • White cotton rags
  • Unprinted newspaper
  • White cotton terry cloth
  • Wax paper
  • Freezer paper
  • Reemay
  • Mylar
  • Corrugated plastic board
  • Screens
  • Clothes pins/plastic clips
  • Clean brushes
  • Wood blocks or similar for stacking and propping things off the ground

More considerations

  • Disaster response kits require upkeep and maintenance. 
  • Some components of the kit will expire (nitrile gloves, first aid kits, batteries, etc.) 
  • Kits should be regularly inventoried to ensure that all the tools and materials you expect will be there when needed.
  • Many (not all) of the materials are consumables and will need to be replaced after use.
  • Ensure that your organization has a strategy to keep your kit sustainable over the long term. 
  • The creation of a disaster response kit can be funded with a Minnesota History and Cultural Heritage Grant! Read more about these grants at this link, and by watching the video below.   

More resources

MNHS Grants Manual - see page 71 for specific details about creating a disaster response kit.

Connecting to Collections Care webinar: Collections Emergency Kits

Conservation Center for Art & Historic Artifacts: Emergency Supply Kits

Conserve O Gram: Emergency Cart for Salvaging Water Damaged Objects

MNHS: Disaster Response and Recovery Resources

Historic buildings: Identifying and Reading Architecture

By: Tamsin Himes | Local History | Preservation & Facilities | June 28, 2021

Image by Tamsin Himes

As a design reviewer at the Minnesota Historical Society, I am lucky that as part of my job I get to see a lot of interesting and varied architecture from around the state. I have enjoyed a front-row seat to some fantastic preservation projects. Helping people who are passionate about their built history and seeing those preservation projects progress and succeed is exciting and fulfilling. 

Another part of my job is being able to identify architectural features and read buildings. For me, this isn't merely a part of my job that I enjoy -- I feel it should be important to anyone interested in the history of their community or in built history in general. I’m passionate about preservation and I believe that the more we understand about architecture, the more we will realize its importance and will be invested in preserving it.

Why does this matter? 

You might ask "But wait, can this actually help me? Why should I invest time in learning about random architecture creatures?" There are actually a ton of benefits to being able to "read" architecture. Here are three (of the many) ways knowing how to identify architecture and recognize features can help you. 

1) It can help identify a general window date of construction.

2) It can help you identify construction methods and techniques 

3) It can help you understand the significance of the building 

Note: this blog post is focusing on exterior elements and features -- there is a mountain of information about the layout, plan, interior design and features of a building that also help to identify it. But that would be another blog post altogether.

Identify date of construction. Often there are papers, drawings, photographs or other documentation that can pinpoint the date of construction of a particular building. But sometimes there is no tangible documentation and so we have to rely on observation of the building to give us clues. (Side note: If you’re planning on doing some major preservation work to your building, then we highly recommend consulting with a historic architect who has the expertise to analyze your building completely). But for an informal study of a building, if you have the ability to see key identifying features, then you can more often than not, place a building in a window of time when that architecture style was most prominent. For example, Second Empire (1855–1885), Craftsman (1905–1930), Queen Anne (1880-1910).

Construction methods and techniques. If you have an idea of the time period in which a building was built, then you have valuable insight into the construction of the building as a whole and techniques or materials that were likely used. Examples of this could be lath and plaster, roofing materials/techniques (such as slate, wood shakes or shingles, etc), different types of stone or brick patterns that indicate specific masonry techniques, mortar type, or asbestos-containing materials. All of this is valuable knowledge to those who are involved with historic architecture. 

Understanding Significance. An important part of working with built history is understanding how the building interacts with and contributes to its surroundings. Does it contribute to an important time in the community? Does it represent some iconic art form? Does it provide physical evidence of a change or progression in the historic economy? These are all aspects of architecture that you can understand better if you know how to read the architectural elements of a building.

So, how does one get started in learning how to read historic buildings?

An easy place to start is to choose an architectural style that you like and learn some basics about it. You can start with a Google search or a reference book. Here are some great resources that may be helpful: 

Books: “A Field Guide to American Houses” Virginia Savage McAlester. “How to Date Buildings” Trevor Yorke. “American House Styles” John Milnes Baker. Digital resources: Architectural Styles of America and Europe (architecturestyles.org), Pevsner’s Architectural Glossary (a mobile app), and don't forget Google! 

Let's take Gothic Revival for instance. After a quick read/search I can find a few key features of this architecture style: cross gable, steeply pitched roof, one-story flat-roofed porch, tall vertical windows, the classic gothic arch, and decorative barge-board detailing. There are many others, but these are a few of the most prominent.

Once I know these few features I can practice identifying them on buildings, like this:

Note: reading/identifying buildings and their features is far from cut and dry. Often there are elements of several styles in one building. But if you know the basics, then you can learn to pick apart buildings and read their stories. 

By far the best way to start is simply to notice the architecture around you. Go on a walk, drive or run and look at the architecture that is in your neighborhood or town. You’ll be surprised how easy it is to identify some buildings and many of their features. It's the best way to practice SEEING architecture because so often the architecture closest to us that we see every day is the same that we do not really see. Or at least do not notice. Also, look at your own house -- even if it's modern, you’ll probably be able to see elements taken from older styles and nods to major architectural movements.  

You may have heard writers say they don’t know what they think until they write about it -- or artists say they don’t know what they’ve seen until they paint it. That is how I feel about architecture and having the words to describe and name features and building types, So often we don’t know what we're seeing or experiencing until we can identify and name it.


Questions about this blog or requests for future blog posts? Contact us at localhistory@mnhs.org

Modifying Historic Properties for Increased Accessibility - Panel Conversation

By: Todd Mahon | Preservation & Facilities | June 11, 2021

Webinar Recording from June 3, 2021

Moderators: Julia Larson and Todd Mahon. Panelists: David Fenley, Minnesota Council on Disability; Ray Bloomer, National Park Service's National Accessibility Support Program; and Bill Wright and Bess McCollough with Collaborative Design Group, Inc.


A conversation among accessibility and design professionals about the intersections between accessibility and historic preservation.

David has been with the Minnesota Council on Disability since 2014. He transitioned from legislative work to ADA education and outreach throughout Minnesota. David, a certified access specialist, informs entities across the state about Disability awareness, ADA obligations, Minnesota’s Accessibility Code, digital accessibility.

Ray works with the National Park Service’s National Accessibility Support Program. He has significant experience in training and consulting on accessibility in historic sites, both in physical and programmatic accessibility.

Bill is an award-winning designer, and a leader of CDG's Preservation and Adaptive Reuse practices.

Bess is a Senior Designer and Project Manager at CDG, specializing in Preservation, Adaptive Reuse and Universal Design practices.

This session was one of four from a half-day workshop focused on accessibility in historic buildings. 

  1. Disability and The ADA: Cultural, Demographic, Legal and Technical Implications
  2. Accessibility to Historic Sites; the Decision Process
  3. Strategies for Accessibility Improvements to Historic Properties
  4. Modifying Historic Properties for Increased Accessibility - Panel Conversation

Strategies for Accessibility Improvements to Historic Properties

By: Todd Mahon | Preservation & Facilities | June 11, 2021

Webinar Recording from June 3, 2021

Bill Hickey, Principal and Bess McCollough, Architect with Collaborative Design Group

Description: This session will consider strategies for increasing physical access to historic structures. Universal Design concepts will be reviewed, with methods and construction approaches illustrated through review of case studies.

Bill is an award-winning designer, and a leader of CDG's Preservation and Adaptive Reuse practices. Bess is a Senior Designer and Project Manager at CDG, specializing in Preservation, Adaptive Reuse and Universal Design practices.

This session was one of four from a half-day workshop focused on accessibility in historic buildings. 

  1. Disability and The ADA: Cultural, Demographic, Legal and Technical Implications
  2. Accessibility to Historic Sites; the Decision Process
  3. Strategies for Accessibility Improvements to Historic Properties
  4. Modifying Historic Properties for Increased Accessibility - Panel Conversation

Accessibility to Historic Sites; the Decision Process

By: Todd Mahon | Preservation & Facilities | June 11, 2021

Webinar Recording from June 3, 2021

Ray Bloomer, Accessibility Specialist

Description: The process of deciding how to make historic structures and sites accessible to people with disabilities, must consider multiple factors. This session will discuss types of structures, types of changes to be considered, limitations and uses of the structures, along with what to do if all areas of historic structures cannot be made accessible. This session is intended to provide participants with guidance in order to successfully strike a balance between accessibility and preservation.

Ray Bloomer works with the National Park Service’s National Accessibility Support Program. He has significant experience in training and consulting on accessibility in historic sites, both in physical and programmatic accessibility.

This session was one of four from a half-day workshop focused on accessibility in historic buildings. 

  1. Disability and The ADA: Cultural, Demographic, Legal and Technical Implications
  2. Accessibility to Historic Sites; the Decision Process
  3. Strategies for Accessibility Improvements to Historic Properties
  4. Modifying Historic Properties for Increased Accessibility - Panel Conversation