Laura Johnson and John Rutten both share a love for home remodeling. Each has a background in construction and years of experience creating beautiful spaces. Together, the couple has taken on the task of remodeling a large home in Fergus Falls, known to many locals as the “Cow House.”
Built in 1901, the house has a long history behind it including surviving the infamous cyclone of 1919 that destroyed much of Fergus Falls. Johnson said, ‘Two blocks from here was devastated and we survived.” Many locals now remember the house as being referred to as the “cow house” because of a previous owners cow statue that stood in the front yard. “The cow went back to the original family,” Johnson said.
Unfortunately, after a long period of no one looking after the house, the home began to deteriorate. “When I bought this one it was a distressed property, extremely. We had about a semi-load of garbage that had to go out of here. It was a hoarder house. It was a squatter house,” Johnson said. “There was a lot of criminal history behind it so it was really a very bad situation. And the house was so distressed that basically no bank would touch it.”
Despite its history, Johnson and Rutten were excited to get their hands on the property. Johnson said, “We saw it and thought, ‘It’s a complete piece of crap, let’s buy it!’” Rutten works in construction and owns Hard 2 Handle LLC. Johnson used to have her contractor’s license and now works in real estate. Rutten’s two sons both work in construction and have lent a hand in the renovation process as well. “So we are kind of a construction family,” Johnson said.
Johnson herself has renovated over 30 properties in her lifetime. Since renovating her first home when she was 18 years old, she has moved to a new place approximately every two to three years to redo another house. “I was flipping before flipping was a word,” Johnson said.
The couple started the renovations in October 2013. Considering the rough history of the home, Johnson and Rutten needed to gut the house down to the studs. This meant cleaning the house out of all the piled up garbage that had collected over the years. The two would have to wait two years before they were able to actually move into the home after crucial, initial projects were completed.
The first detail that likely stands out to onlookers is the exterior color of the home. The house is painted a dark lavender color which surprisingly, isn’t the first time Johnson has used this color. She renovated the house on West Lincoln Avenue in Fergus Falls and painted it a similar purple color thinking that no one would ever want to buy a house with such a unique color. To her surprise, a buyer came to her door and asked to buy, loving the color of the house. Johnson and Rutten refer to that house as the “big purple house” and their current property on Cavour Avenue as the “bigger purple house.”
Expanding the house was one of the biggest tasks. Johnson and Rutten connected to the home to the existing garage, converting the former garage into their current kitchen and adding a guest bedroom above the garage. Walking through the front doors, one will see the original hardwood flooring throughout. “There is 70 hours just of sanding in the floors,” Rutten said. Looking upward to the ceiling in the first level living room, there is a tile wallpaper reminiscent of an earlier time. Small but crucial details such as these are seen throughout the home, connecting it to its rich history.
Listing every single project that Johnson and Rutten have done with the home would be lengthy. Some of the other major tasks completed include redoing the staircase, putting in all new electrical and plumbing systems, creating custom air returns and adding on the upper level above the garage to create a guest room.
One aspect of home renovations that Johnson and Rutten are passionate about is recycled materials. “The rule of thumb is you don’t throw anything away until the project is done,” Johnson said. She said that most everything that had to come out of the house as construction wen ton was recycled. “Everything that we put out was taken by crafters and people who do renovations.”
Even the paint in the house is recycled. “Other than the white paint, every bit of paint on every wall is recycled paint from the recycling center,” Johnson said. “We just mixed the paint.” This created a fun element of surprise for the couple as they didn’t quite know what color they would end up with. However, the exterior purple shade was intentional. “I wanted something that would stand out,” Johnson said.
Walking upstairs, one will notice that the footprint of the upper level is practically identical to the first floor. Johnson and Rutten rent the upstairs out to their roommate who has their own kitchen, bathroom, laundry, living room and bedroom. All of them share the new guest room that can be used for whoever needs it.
Many features of the original home were kept including original lead glass windows and built-in shelving that was added in the 1960s. One cupboard in the master bedroom which originally held a large Lazy Susan was transformed into a small office by Johnson and Rutten.
Johnson and Rutten focused on supporting local businesses throughout the renovation process. “We try to keep most of the project local,” Johnson said. “So it helps the community in the sense of just putting money back into it.” All of the building materials were provided by Cullen’s Home Center in Fergus Falls where Johnson used to be a designer.
Following the advice of experts around you and getting a variety of ideas in the picture are two of the pieces of advice Johnson and Rutten gave for those looking to renovate a home “Laura has a saying that if you have two people that think the same way the whole time, one of you is useful because you’re not thinking different,” Rutten said.
When asked why she choose to renovate this house rather than just build new, Johnson said, “It’s a cool old house that had character and it was going to take someone who had done it a few times.” She continued, “When you know what you’re getting into and when you know what it can be. … It’s worth saving.”
Although there are still tasks to do and details to complete, the transformation of the “Cow House” or the “bigger purple house” is obvious and impressive. The work Johnson and Rutten have done has changed the course of this otherwise forgotten home to turn it into the home it is today.