Charles Altfillisch Biography

The printed brochure includes the key information available on Altfillisch’s life. The following paragraphs include a number of additional items of interest and some additional photographs. We have made no attempt to list all of Altfillisch’s honors, responsibilities, and memberships, nor does this listing include information on the buildings described elsewhere in these Supplemental Web Materials. As in the rest of our supplemental web material, we have not provided full source citations.

  • Charles Altfillisch was born in 1891. His parents were Anton Altfillisch (1839-1926) and Henrietta (Etta) Lottman (1847-1910) (, both born in Munich, Germany (email and conversation with granddaughter Susan Tone Pierce). (Several sources, including Altfillisch’s obituary, say that he was born in 1892. But the gravestone, his handwritten 1917 draft card, and many other sources make it certain that 1891 is the correct date.)
  • According to information on, Charles spent his childhood in Bellevue, Iowa. There is a record in the Luther College archives of his graduation from Bellevue High School in 1909. Census information recorded on says he lived with his sister Josephine in Denver in 1910. This was perhaps related to his mother Henrietta’s death in 1910. Whatever the reason, there is a gap year between his 1909 graduation and his 1910 matriculation at the University of Iowa.
  • Altfillisch earned a degree from the University of Iowa in 1914 in general engineering. In an interview recorded late in his life, Altfillisch mentioned that he also took courses in “design and structural design.”
  • At the University of Iowa, A. R. Coffeen acted in 1914 in a play “written and managed” by Altfillisch, in which “Charles Altfillisch as ‘Dorothy’ [Edicate] scored a big hit. His acting was so girlish that every time ‘her’masculine voice rang out a visible shock ran through the audience” (U. of Iowa Yearbook, 1914, p.365). A year earlier, In 1913, Altfillisch played “Dorothy Bon Bon, A Popular Co-Ed” in a similar production. “‘Chuck’ Altfillisch as Dorothy was as demure and as femininely graceful as any co-ed, and wrought much havoc among the young sports” (U. of Iowa Yearbook, 1913, p. 435)
  • In 1914 Altfillisch was doing general engineering and hydraulics in Dayton and Miami, Ohio. A year later he worked in Chicago for a railroad (Altfillisch Interview).
  • In a brief history of his career written late in life, A. R. Coffeen wrote this: “In 1915, I was appointed [Decorah] City Engineer; primarily to represent the city on a sewer project. At about the same time, Charles Altfillisch and the late A. N. (Hans) Hanson became associated with me; and during this period, we did considerable design and construction of work, out of our office; principally small bank buildings, creameries and residences. This association with Chas & Hans extended through 1921 except for parts of 2 years when they were in service…. I believe both Hans and Charlie went off to the war in ‘17” (Coffeen, “Brief History”).

1918-19. Altfillisch served in the U.S. Army in France, and traveled there and in Germany (Shank, Iowa’s Historic Architects). A. R. Coffeen is listed on Altfillisch’s draft card as his “employer” (Coffeen company records). “In World War I, he served in the 29th Engineer Battalion, which did the surveying and mapping for the American forces in France. He was in the Flash and Sound Division, which determined the location of enemy troops based on the timing of flash and sound of artillery” (Susan Tone Pierce email, March 2018).

  • “Except for a short time before World War I and a short time thereafter, I have been in some way associated with Charles Altfillisch, architect, first as a co-worker on construction work, later in the office on architectural design, and now for many years carrying out some of his plans in the erection of buildings, or in a lesser degree, in engineering work. I wish to thank Mr. Altfillisch for his assistance and friendly cooperation” (Decorah Public Opinion 1949 Centennial Edition advertisement for A. R. Coffeen Co.).
  • In his taped interview, Altfillisch said that he began his topographical survey for the Dry Run project in 1919. A. N. Hanson’s 1932 obituary says that Hanson returned to Decorah in 1920 as City Engineer to work with Dry Run flooding and “summoned Charles Altfillisch, a former classmate at college, to assist him.”
  • On 5, 1921, Altfillisch married Decorah native Leila Ervin Marsh (1897-1988). Our supplemental web materials on the 305 Fifth Ave. home prints the newspaper announcement of their honeymoon and their return to their new, Altfillisch-designed home in West Decorah.
  • The Altfillisches had one child, Gretchen (Oct. 16, 1922-2015). In 1945 she married Philip Tone (1922-2001) from Park Ridge, Illinois. Together they had three children: Michael (1949-), Jeffrey (1953-), and Susan (1958-) (Pierce). The three Tone children all had children of their own. Two of the three Tone children continue to live in Park Ridge, and one of their children (a great-grandchild of Charles and Leila) now owns the house in Park Ridge that Charles in 1951 designed for his daughter Gretchen and her husband Phil (the house had two later additions also designed by Altfillisch).
  • In 1922-23 Altfillisch testified both for the prosecution and the defense for the 1921 shotgun murder of Charles and Irene Van-Brocklin at their farm south of Frankville, Iowa. The trial was covered extensively in the local and regional press. Altfillisch displayed “Topographical survey and map of the [murder] scene” (File # 2203 project card), showing roads, buildings, and precise distances in order to clarify everyone’s movements on the night of the murder. The accused B. F. “Frank” Kneeskern was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment, but in November was granted a new trial and requested a change of venue. Altfillisch also testified in this second trial in Charles City in 1923, at which Kneeskern was again found guilty.
  • There has been considerable unfounded speculation about Altfillisch’s advanced training in architecture, with various people saying that he studied with Eliel Saarinen at the University of Michigan, with Walter Gropius at Harvard University, or at Yale University.
    In his taped interview, Altfillisch says that he attended Carnegie Tech (Cleveland, Ohio) before designing the Luther College Preus Gymnasium.
    The Carnegie-Mellon alumni office said in an email that they have no record of Altfillisch attending, but they admit that their records for that period are spotty, especially for part-time or short-term students. The course records and Registrar’s summary in the family records, however, now preserved in the Luther College archives, show six courses in drawing & design in the School of Architecture at Carnegie Tech in the summer of 1925.
    The Decorah Public Opinion (June 10, 1925), states “Charles Altfillisch...departed today for Pittsburgh, Penn., where he has enrolled in the summer school at Carnegie Institute of Technology. Mr. Altfillisch has registered for the courses in architecture given in the college of Fine Arts. The session will last eight weeks.”
    The Decorah Republican (June 11, 1925) included the following article:
  • In 1928 Altfillisch designed the University of Iowa Theta Xi Engineering Fraternity House. As students, Altfillisch, A. N. Hanson, and Roy Coffeen had all been Theta Xi members. Altfillisch later also designed the University of Iowa Crippled Children’s Hospital (1950), Burge Hall Women’s Dormitory (1956), and the Kinnick Stadium Press Box (1957).
  • In 1929 Altfillisch designed an “English Cottage” style brick-veneer home for O. A. Tingelstad in Parkland, Washington. Tingelstad had taught at Luther from 1901-28, before serving as president of Pacific Lutheran College (University) from 1928-1943. In 1937 Altfillisch also designed a large library classroom building for Pacific. (This major project for some reason does not appear on the Complete Project List.) He is also said to have developed a campus plan for Pacific Lutheran, and may have designed other buildings for them. In a 1943 letter to the Luther College Board chair, Altfillisch says that Pacific Lutheran “still insist that I act as consultant for them, after I resigned the position of architect because it was too far away” (LC archives, Main Building, Box 6 “Correspondence”).
  • In 1932 Altfillisch was appointed as City Engineer, continuing with his architectural work (Altfillisch interview); this occurred at the sudden death of A. N. Hanson, who “was associated with Mr. Altfillisch for many years, sharing office quarters with him until his death” (Hanson Decorah Newspaper obituary).
  • In 1932 Altfillisch joined the Iowa Board of Architectural Examiners (certificate found in Mound St. home garage, now in Luther College archives), where he served for many years (Shank, Iowa’s Historic Architects).
  • In 1933 Altfillisch pushed Decorah towards requiring building permits, and in 1937 helped develop the first Planning and Zoning Commission. As City Engineer, Altfillisch provided a list of building permits to the Decorah City Council every two months. He was also active as a member of the Iowa Building Code Commission.
  • A June 24, 1937 newspaper article (below) says that Altfillisch “has been appointed a supervisor for the graduate scholarship competition of the New York University School of Architecture and Allied Arts,” had recently been reappointed to the State Board of Architectural Examiners (of which he was a past president), and has been named president of the Iowa Chapter of the American Institute of Architects.
  • During the 1930-40s, there are various newspaper articles about positions that Altfillisch had been offered in other cities that he declined in order to stay in Decorah.
  • In 1938 Altfillisch designed the Moderne-style Allamakee County Courthouse in Waukon, Iowa.
  • In 1942 Altfillisch contributed to the war effort by engaging “in planning Army Camp housing” (Decorah Public Opinion, July 1, 1942).
  • In 1951 he was selected for the “Fellowship Award in the American Institute of Architects.” (A 1954 note in the LC archives says that Altfillisch is one of two architects so honored in the state of Iowa. His obituary says that he was the only person in Iowa, and only one of thirty-nine architects nationally so honored.
  • In 1952, Luther College presented Altfillisch with an honorary doctoral degree (LL.D.).
  • In 1955 Altfillisch resigned as Decorah City Engineer.
  • In 1962, the Luther College Board of Regents named Altfillisch as “College Architectural Consultant” on the occasion of his having “retired from the architectural firm of Altfillisch, Olson, Gray and Thompson” (Board minutes).
  • When Crown Prince Harald of Norway visited Decorah in 1965, there was a major public reception. The “Platform Party” and “Guests of Honor” included about twenty-five people, including “Dr. Charles Altfillisch, Medal of the Royal Norwegian Order of St. Olaf, and Mrs. Altfillisch.” In May 1968, Altfillisch was “presented,” as holder of the St. Olaf Medal, to King Olaf V of Norway during his visit to Decorah.
    We have not yet identified on what occasion Altfillisch received the St. Olaf Medal. But there is an indirect connection of Altfillisch with Norwegian royalty considerably before the 1960s. In 1939, Crown Prince Olaf and Crown Princess Marta (of PBS’s Atlantic Crossing fame) came to Decorah for a royal visit. From 1907-47, the Norwegian Vice-Counsel, Dr. Trond Stabo, lived at 404 Fifth Ave. (According to David Nelson’s 1961 college history, Stabo was for thirty years a Luther College Trustee, for thirty-three years the college physician, and in the mid 1920s a member of the Preus Gymnasium building committee--Preus was Altfillisch’s first Luther building.) In preparation for the 1939 royal visit, Stabo had Altfillisch install a new Norwegian-style corner fireplace and mantel in 404 Fifth Ave. and to design a piece of Norwegian art to be hung over the fireplace--both are still in place. Altfillisch also reconfigured the ground-floor walls in order to create a dining room large enough to host a dinner party in the royal couple’s honor. Friends loaned glassware and silver, and the dinner was reported to be a great success. (There is no record of whether Altfillisch attended the dinner.) A later resident of the house said that Stabo also on this occasion painted the house exterior, but didn’t paint the back elevation because he knew that the royal guests would never look at the back of a house.