Charles Altfillisch Acknowledgements & Notes

A good number of the Altfillisch building identifications and the supplemental web materials are the work of the Decorah Historic Preservation Commision (DHPC). Because this information isn’t intended for scholarly purposes, we have only sometimes indicated our source material, which includes Robert H. Davis’s Decorah Visitor’s Guide (1996); Gillmer and Eleanor Seegmiller’s Decorah: City of Springs (1998); Elizabeth Lorentzen and Ed Epperly’s Decorah Walk Into the Past signs (2015); the 1977 NRHP nomination for Broadway-Phelps Park Historic District (a collaboration between local researchers and the State Historic Preservation Office); the 2017 Decorah Commercial Historic District nomination (authored by consultant Jan Olive Full and based partly on the work of local volunteer researchers, including DHPC members); the 2021 Luther College Campus Historic District nomination (also authored by Jan Olive Full and based partly on the work of volunteer Luther College and local researchers, including DHPC members); individual NRHP nominations; the Charles Altfillisch materials in the Winneshiek County Historical Society, Decorah Genealogy Association, and, especially, the Luther College Archives; and considerable independent research with other sources, including the Decorah newspapers, now more easily accessible because of a digitization process coordinated by the Winneshiek County Historical Society and Luther College. Note that all interior photographs are used with owners’ permission.

We have not systematically recorded the builders, plumbers, electricians, and other tradespeople who constructed the buildings that Charles Altfillisch and his firm members designed. But it should be noted that Altfillisch and A. R. Coffeen, classmates in the engineering program at the University of Iowa and lifelong friends, worked together on a great many projects, including some residences, and a large number of the commercial, public, and educational buildings in Decorah. A. R. Coffeen became a national contractor, with many bridge contracts in the East, especially Pennsylvania. But his firm continued to do work in Decorah up through the end of Altfillisch’s design career.

As we have noted in the brochure, it is often difficult to determine whether Altfillisch or one of his firm’s other architects conceived and completed a particular design. In 1998, architect Don Gray left the following chronology of the Altfillisch firm as an introduction to the firm’s “Project Book, 1921-1998.” Gray notes that the project book was given to Luther College in 1994 and updated in June 1998. The complete book is now held by the Winneshiek County Historical Society among Don Gray’s papers.

1921 through 1957

  • Principal: Charles Altfillisch

1958 through 1959

  • Principals: Charles Altfillisch, Roger M. Olson, Donald L. Gray, Jack D. Thompson

1960 through 1963

  • Principals: Charles Altfillisch, Roger M. Olson, Donald L. Gray, Jack D. Thompson

1964 through 1966

  • Principals: Roger M. Olson, Donald L. Gray, Jack D. Thompson

1967 THROUGH 1974

  • Principals: Roger M. Olson, Donald L. Gray, Jack D. Thompson, Allan R. Lynnes

1975 through September 1986

  • Principals:  Donald L. Gray, Allan R. Lynnes

October 1986 through June 30, 1998

  • Principal: Donald L. Gray

(Thanks to the Luther College Archives for permission to reprint this chronology.)

As precise as Gray’s listing of the firm’s formal history, it does not include all of the nuances of these architect’s collaborations. For example, from 1921 through at least 1928, Altfillisch shared office space with City Engineer A. N. Hanson and may have collaborated with him on projects like the 1921 Germann house and the 1927 Rohne house. During that same time, however, Altfillisch evidently worked independently on projects like the 1921 Oneota Golf and Country Club remodel of an existing farmhouse/clubhouse, and the 1926 Luther College Preus Gymnasium. A. N. Hanson died unexpectedly in 1932 and Altfillisch was then named City Engineer and continued as an independent architect. (A. N. Hanson was born in Decorah in 1892 and graduated from the University of Iowa in 1913, where he became a close friend of Altfillisch and Coffeen.)

It should also be noted that the Altfillisch firm also included architects not included as partners or “Principals.” As detailed elsewhere in this web content, William A. Lockard, for example, joined Altfillisch in 1945, was in 1949 listed as the firm’s “chief designer” (Altfillisch is listed in 1949 as the firm’s single architect), but in 1951 established his own Decorah architectural firm. In 1957 Lockard left Decorah to establish an architectural firm in Phoenix, Arizona.

One of the Altfillisch grandchildren commented that the various Altfillisch firm partners and assistants were affectionately referred to as “the boys,” and that they would often in later years gather around the Altfillisch home to hash out project details. This grandchild also sometimes had the impression that “the boys” were in the 1960s ready for Altfillisch to retire completely. Note that Altfillisch is listed in the firm name through 1966, but that he is listed as a principal architect only through 1963. We have included a few buildings in the brochure from the mid 1960s that are widely credited to Altfillisch (e.g, the Luther College Tower dormitories), even though he was then no longer listed as one of the firm’s principal architects.

Altfillisch designed buildings in many different styles, presumably partly to satisfy client’s wishes and perhaps partly because of his own developing artistic inclinations. The two homes he designed for his family, and that he lived in his whole adult life, neatly epitomize his residential architectural development. (For fuller information on these two houses, see the supplemental materials on this website.)

The 305 Fifth Avenue house is a quintessential revival building--in this case, a Dutch Colonial revival--drawing on both historic precedents and contemporary versions of those precedents. During this first period of his career from 1921 through the late 1930s, Altfillisch designed Dutch Colonial houses (like 305 Fifth Avenue, and the larger 609 W. Broadway), New England Colonial (401 E. Broadway, 100 Pleasant Hill), Cape Cod (310 Riverview Dr., and 504 Fifth Ave.), English/Tudor Cottage (900 Pleasant Ave., 407 E. Main St., 408 High St.), and other related styles. Of course there are differences between these wonderful houses, even when they are part of the same basic style group--and it’s the differences that make studying them enjoyable and illuminating.

But in the late 1930s, Altfillisch began to design in more contemporary styles. Scholars can identify precedents for these new American styles, but overall these new styles explore a new design vocabulary and seek individual solutions to specific design requirements. Among Altfillisch’s earliest experiments are the 1936 International Style Duplex at 606 Vernon St. and the 1938 International Style house at 212 High St. A larger-scale model for both is the 1937 Streamline Moderne Municipal Swimming Pool. Altfillisch’s 1957 house at 801 Mound St. is a culmination of his design development.

A number of people have noted that the kitchens in almost all Altfillisch houses were small. One owner of a 1950s house said bluntly, “Altfillisch was a fine designer, but he designed bad kitchens.” These small kitchens are perhaps partly a reflection of the time period--the kitchens in Victorian houses were often large, and many contemporary kitchens are huge, but many 1920-70 houses of all styles had small kitchens. Still, one of Charles’s grandchildren says that they often heard him say that he intentionally made kitchens small in order to save wives from needing to care for large spaces. The comment reflects the gender roles of the period, but it may also show sensitivity towards women who in earlier times were responsible for large, sometimes unmanageable kitchen spaces.

As noted in the house descriptions below, most Altfillisch houses of whatever period have at least one fireplace. Some larger homes have two. The houses often also have built-ins of various kinds--desks in bedrooms and kitchen areas, special utility drawers in kitchens, telephone nooks, second-story linen closets, and laundry chutes.

Because we have focused on Altfillisch’s Decorah buildings, we should make a general note that he designed a wide range of buildings through the Upper Midwest, including power stations in Clermont, Sac City, and Waucoma; town halls in Fayette, Lawler, and Ridgeway; county buildings; creameries in Decorah, Fayette, Waterville, Festina, and Ludlow; banks; a great many schools, which Altfillisch once said were his greatest strength; and many dozens of church, commercial, and residential additions and renovations.

From the beginning of his career, Altfillisch seems to have been assiduous in gaining recognition for his building projects. Even among the 4” x 6” 1921-27 project cards donated to Luther College Archives by the family in 2021 are listings of magazines that reported on individual properties. The 1922 Leytze house (704 W. Water St.) renovation, for example, was noted in four publications, and the 1923 Weiser house (609 W. Broadway) was noted in three. Over the years, down to the end of Altfillisch’s career, the Decorah newspapers often included short articles that summarize these national magazine notices about individual Altfillisch buildings.