One Man's Quest to Restore the Humble Homes of American Icons
Dan Riedemann, of Nineteenth Century Restorations, LLC, poses with a sign outside Johnny Carson’s birthplace before the restoration.
Woody Guthrie, Nina Simone, and Johnny Carson are just three of the many American legends to be born in small, modest homes in America’s heartland, far away from the bright lights of the bustling cities where they would one day perform. Two of these three homes are still standing, serving as a testament to the fact that great things can come from humble beginnings.
Dan Riedemann, who co-owns Nineteenth Century Restorations, LLC, with his wife, has taken on the task of restoring each of these homes to their original, historically accurate appearances. For the past four months, Riedemann has been restoring Johnny Carson’s childhood home in Corning, Ia., a 1,000-square-foot house where Carson spent the first three years of his life.
Riedemann is the son and grandson of carpenters, and his love for history began at a young age. As he pursued a career in carpentry and built his skills, he decided to specialize in historic preservation.
“I didn’t want to go home having just slapped together a [new] house -- that never appealed to me,” Riedemann, 45, says. “It’s something that’s in your blood -- you’re just born with a love for anything old and an appreciation for anything old.”
He's still transitioning into his role as a celebrity birthplace restoration guru. Last year, he got in touch with board members of the Johnny Carson Birthplace Society in Corning. Their hope was to restore the home to the way it looked when Carson was born there in 1925, with the hopes of eventually turning it into a house museum.
“The house was on the market and vacant for four years,” Riedemann says. The society also bought vacant lots for a visitors’ center, and the house itself will be decorated as it would have been in the year of Carson’s birth. Riedemann hopes to complete the project within the next week.
Riedemann's current hope is that his work on each of these projects will be picked up as a yet-to-be-named show on the History Channel. He's been working with former ABC and A&E producer Scott Richardson to develop the concept, and the work on Carson's house was documented for use on the show.
"I don't want to be a how-to guide; we've got Bob Vila for that," Riedemann says of what he hopes viewers will take away from the show. "We're more of a why-to -- it's more about the story. There are so many amazing stories out there, the lengths people have gone to to save these little structures."
After completing the work on Carson's birthplace in Corning, Riedemann will be heading home to Lawrence, Kan. for a much-needed break before heading to Okema, Ok. to start reconstruction work on Woody Guthrie's birthplace. The house had been dismantled by a previous owner, but the original wooden building materials were preserved, making for an uniquely challenging project that will, if all goes well, serve as a future music venue and focal point for the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival, held in Okema every July. He has already signed a contract to begin restoration work on Nina Simone's home in Tryon, North Carolina, and will be starting fundraising efforts this summer. Future potential projects include the birthplaces of Lucille Ball and Jimi Hendrix.
"On each of these projects, the big picture is creating a place for the community to enjoy," Riedemann says, adding that he uses local labor and locally-sourced materials to give back to the communities of each of these stars as much as possible. "It takes a village."
He hopes that by seeing these homes, visitors will understand that American history can be made in even the most unexpected places.
Ed. note: An earlier version of this story stated that the funding for the project came from the Iowa Travelers and Visitors’ Bureau. The funding came from a variety of sources both public and private, including private grant dollars and a Community Attraction and Tourism grant through Vision Iowa from the Iowa Economic Development Authority.