Sarina's friends help her paint the exterior
March 23, 2016

Preserving the History of Granite Falls, Minnesota

An Interview with Local Preservationist Sarina Otaibi

  • By: Katharine Keane
  • Photography: Sarina Otaibi

For most college students, summer is for internships, weekend trips to the beach, and recharging from 10 months of studying. But for Sarina Otaibi, the summer before her senior year at Stetson University was instead dedicated to purchasing, relocating, and restoring an 1878 Italianate house in her hometown of Granite Falls, Minnesota.

Otaibi went on the win the Emerging Leader award from the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota before pursuing her master’s degree in historic preservation. Today Otaibi’s roles include Granite Falls City Council Member, Granite Falls Historical Society President, Preservation Alliance of Minnesota board member, and Chair of Bluenose Gopher Brewery—all in addition to her day-job as the communications and program manager of the nonprofit Clean Up the River Environment (CURE).

We sat down to talk to Otaibi about her path to preservation and what makes historic places so special.

How did you get started in preservation?

At 17 I moved from Saudi Arabia to Minnesota. My mom is from Granite Falls and when I moved here she purchased a historic octagon house that was my great aunt’s. While going to high school and living in that house, I really learned to appreciate the historic value of the place and [its] uniqueness; it was built with eight sides to it and there aren’t any houses like that, or very few, in Minnesota.

It needed work, so on my weekends I would start working on it and I learned that I loved seeing the transformation. I did things like restore the wood floors, peel wall paper—simple things like that to make it look more beautiful and restore the original features of the house.

I really started loving old houses. And growing up with my mom especially, she loves history, so I got a lot of it from her. She’d always talk about loving old houses so it was really something that was passed down to me.

Sarina outside her church

Sarina outside her Granite Falls, Minnesota church.

What makes saving these places so important to you?

For me, I [think of it] as a way of a community telling its story via these structures. I know when I move to a new town, the way I get to know that community is through its structures and the history behind them: the people who lived in them and the businesses that were located in them. I do think that when they’re removed then you miss out on a big portion of [the history]. [To be able to] walk into a downtown building that was built in the 1890s and know that there were so many businesses in it before—you learn so much about a community that way, it’s just more tangible.

What are some ways the preservation community can better engage with local populations?

I sometimes think that there’s a disconnect between the people that live in a place and how they want to preserve their structures compared to the very strict way that a historical society might want to. It [perpetuates] a negative view of preservationists in general.

I think if a local community has a local historical society—which I know my community does and I am on its board, and we don’t do a good job of this—[they should provide] better education of preservation guidelines for people to understand why certain decisions are made.

I’m surrounded by really small cities, populations of 3,000 people or less, and it’s just hard to find the resources to support ideal preservation projects. Sometimes you just have to do as much as you can with as little resources as you have.

Sarina with her mom Mary Gillespie

Sarina with her mother Mary Gillespie.

Sarina's childhood home the Octagon house

The Octagon House built in 1884.

What is your dream project?

I am not going lie, I feel like I’m living it right now. When I was getting my master’s degree [at University of Maryland, College Park], it was my dream to restore an old church and live in it. And it was really cool that when I graduated I had that opportunity right away.

My mother purchased the building a couple years before for pretty cheap, $7,000. It [had been] sitting empty for over five years and it had a few issues that scared some buyers away; it needed new water hookup to the main line city water and people assumed that was going to be quite a bit [of money]. She didn’t know what to do with it; she just didn’t want to see it torn down because it was the church that her grandmother went to. So when I moved [back to Granite Falls] I said, one condition is I take on that church. So she just gave it to me for $1.

What has that project been like?

When I first moved here in 2012, I didn’t have the water hooked up, I just had a big water container and I had somebody deliver water. I had to do major electrical and plumbing updates to the building. I added two new furnaces to the place and new duct work so that I am able to control heating in certain parts of the church when it’s not in use. I put a new roof on and painted the entire structure. I redid an entrance on the side that was falling into itself and did a lot of cleaning of the inside to make it habitable. I was living in the basement—it’s just a big studio space for the most part.

Since then I’ve had some community events in the upstairs main space and that’s been really rewarding for me. There is nothing better than rehabilitating or restoring a structure that people assumed was going to sit empty for a long time and or be demolished.

I’ve had over four or five hundred people there for house concerts and different events. It’s great to hear their stories; one lady came up to me and said that she was the last person to have her wedding in that space so she had great stories. I am stopped quite often when I’m in the yard and somebody pulls up to talk to me about the place. I’m sure a lot of people have memories in it because it was a public space.

I try to have something going on once in a while so that people from the community can access it or look at it.

Exterior shot of church

Scandinavian settlers began construction of the church in 1881.

What are your plans for the space since you have moved out?

I am rehabbing the loft area because eventually I would like to [host] people, kind of like an Airbnb style where I have people stay nightly if they want. I want to try to make an income off of it put that money back into the church because I still need to do windows and different aspects of the place. It’s definitely not done.

What advice would you give someone embarking on their own restoration or preservation project?

I tend to tackle projects that can be a lot of work and so I would say first start off with cleaning and painting. I know that sounds weird but if you just clean and add paint to an old building or room, whatever you’re doing, it [automatically] gives the space a lift. Then everything else you do in stages because it is going to take way longer than you expect.

Katharine Keane is a former editorial assistant at Preservation Magazine. She enjoys getting lost in new cities, reading the plaques at museums, and discovering the next great restaurant.

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