At first glance, stepping into the W.H. Over Museum Sunday seemed like visiting an old friend.
Everything seemed familiar at first. “Old Betsy,” Vermillion’s first fire truck, is still in the lobby, greeting people as they step into the building.
It doesn’t take long, however, to notice notable changes have occurred during the last year when the COVID-19 pandemic forced the museum to close. Some exhibits have been changed or moved. It’s easier for visitors to “flow” through the museum’s exterior.
Eventually, those visitors will encounter the museum’s new exhibit: the restored Thompson House fireplace.
Many Vermillion citizens may have referred to the dwelling by a different name over the years: “The Pink House.” The residence, which had stood on Vermillion’s Main Street next door to the “Inman House,” which now serves as the home of the University of South Dakota president, featured a pink quartzite façade and at some time, the remainder of the house was painted to match the color of the stone.
The house underwent many changes over the year. Two years prior to its demolition, the structure had contained four apartments and eventually came under the ownership of the University of South Dakota Foundation.
In the fall of 2020, the Foundation announced it was going to demolish the nearly 130-year-old house. The Foundation agreed when the Board of the Friends of the W.H. Over Museum suggested salvaging items from the building for an exhibit.
That effort eventually led to the new exhibit that is now part of the museum. The new display resembles a small room. The oak floor of the A”room” if from the Thompson House, as is two decorative lights that hang overhead. The doors to the “room” also are from the house and one of the walls of the exhibit is mostly filled with the fireplace.
The fireplace, sometime in the past, was painted, Stone said. He and fellow board member Evelyn Schlenker, who took the lead in saving the fireplace from the house before it was demolished, also were involved in much of the work to restore it.
They write about their adventures in a booklet entitled “Restoring the Thompson House Fireplace at the W.H. Over Museum.”
The fireplace was dismantled in pieces at the Thompson house. Amber-colored fireplace surround tiles and hearth tiles were removed individually as were the oak mantle and over mantel, four large ceramic corbels and the caste-iron firebox insert and it bronze-plated surround.
You wouldn’t know the fireplace is more than a century old, in part because of the efforts of Schlenker and Stone, and, in part, because of the quality of the material.
The ceramic tile that surrounds the firebox insert, for example, looks like the same type of tile you would find in a high-quality building supply store today.
Schlenker found herself diving deep into research to learn as much as she could about the various components of the fireplace.
The mantle had been painted white and some efforts had been made to strip some of the paint.
Schlenker and Stone worked to finish removing the paint and discovered, to their good luck, that a portion of the original mantle had been covered by sheetrock.
Being untouched by paint, it still possessed the mantle’s original color and they used that as their guide as they refinished the beautiful wood.
“We had a guide of what color the stain was,” Schlenker said.
“We could match it,” Stone said.
“First we cleaned everything, and then sanded, cleaned again and he (Jim) picked the perfect color.”
After it was stained, a polyurethane was applied to add another layer of protection to the wood.
Stone and Schlenker believe the mantle may have been built around 1910 or earlier. They don’t know where it was built, or what company is the source of intricate, artisitic features in the wood.
Schlenker said the fireplace insert was made by a company named Pureless Manufacturing
“We know that because we saw the company name embedded in the cast iron,” she said.