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North House Folk School master plan could bring changes to historic waterfront structure

The North House Folk School campus has seen a lot of changes since the school’s founding in 1997. The school has made improvements to the 1930s-era forestry buildings, purchased neighboring properties, changed driveway and pedestrian access to the school, and more, over the years. Is there more to come for the waterfront campus? WTIP checked in with North House Executive Director Greg Wright to learn more about the folk school’s “Master Plan.”

The master plan is an internal document, developed by school staff, board members, and community partners. At this time, a focus of the master plan is the possible creation of a harborside classroom on the Dockside Fish Market property, purchased by North House in December 2017.

The harborside classroom could mean changes to the historic Scott fish house, a structure on the National Registry of Historic Places. As owners of the property, North House Folk School has a number of options. The folk school could ask that the building be removed from the registry, something that Wright stresses the school is not considering.

Instead, North House Folk School is working with the Minnesota Historical Society, LHB Engineers, and the Cook County Historical Society to develop a historic structures report. The report looks at the current condition of the structure and what sort of “treatments” could be put in use to preserve the old building. The report will give suggested treatments, ranging from just letting the building stand exactly where it is with no changes to moving the building to another location.

Wright notes that thanks to the work of former owners Harley and Shele Toftey, the building is currently stable. But those improvements, while necessary, were not historically correct—for example, the old fish house now has a metal roof. Wright said the Folk School could continue to make changes like that to keep using the building—but at what point would the Scott fish house lose its historic look?

The historic structures report will help North House Folk School look at the possibilities—how could a restoration or relocation work? What would it cost? Who would partner with this project?

There are no answers at this time, said Wright. He said North House is about 75 percent through the process. Asked when the community can expect some sort of decision on the future of the Scott fish house, Wright said the folk school hopes to have more information for the community in the spring.

WTIP also asked if future development of the waterfront campus impacts the Fisherman’s Daughter or North Superior Fisheries. Wright said no, the goal is for those businesses to continue to thrive on the Dockside property.

Yet another piece of the master plan puzzle is the little Yellow House that serves as a welcome desk and gift shop, which North House Folk School also owns. The structure has foundation issues and is not really set up for the entry to the campus. Plans have begun to remove and replace the Yellow House with something more suitable and welcoming, Wright said.

Other changes and additions to the North House Folk School campus since 1997 include the purchase of the former Superior National Forest headquarters building in May 2016, across Highway 61 from the main North House campus. The building provides office and classroom space. North House also rents a section of the building to a commercial enterprise, North Shore Title.

In October 2021, North House Folk School purchased a parcel of land across from its main campus, west of the former Forest Service building. Part of the lot is undeveloped and the upper portion was cleared when an old house was removed. Any development of that property will be another challenge for the folk school, as there are concerns about Anishinaabe burial sites on the land. In a previous WTIP interview, Wright noted that North House is very cognizant of that. The folk school has reached out to the Minnesota State Archeologist’s Office and the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa for assistance before any construction begins.

For now, Wright invites anyone who would like more information on historic fish houses on the Grand Marais harbor, including the Scott fish house, to take part in an online event on Thursday, January 27. The event will be co-hosted by North House Folk School and the Cook County Historical Society. WTIP will share information on how to attend that presentation when it is available.

WTIP’s Rhonda Silence spoke with North House Director Wright about all this. Here’s their conversation.