At age 19, Zach Russell has saved a historic building.
It was January when Russell heard that the Apple Trees Museum in Perkins Park in his hometown of Burlington, Iowa, was going to be torn down. The first-year student wasn’t sure he knew how to save it. But he had to try.
“I thought I might be one of the only people with the guts to step in,” he explains. “It was my duty to do it. It’s a part of the history of the park, which would be lost if the building was gone.”
The Apple Trees Museum is the small remnant of what was once a 39-room mansion begun in 1867. It was built and added to over the years by Charles E. Perkins, the president of the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad. He built a railroad than ran from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains. And he built the Apple Trees mansion for his wife and seven children.
The Perkins family sold the house—nicknamed “Apple Trees” because it was built in a former apple orchard—in 1939. Since then, it has been used by various organizations in Burlington, most recently as a museum by the Des Moines County Historical Society, which moved out in 2009. The Perkins family stipulated in a contract that it be torn down if the house ever fell into disrepair. This year, the city decided to take action on the house, which is abandoned and crumbling a bit at the edges.
But Russell could see beyond the cracks and the dust. He knew the building was a true historical gem that only needed a few updates. Growing up, Russell lived just two blocks from the house. In the winter, he would hang out in the park with his friends in below-zero weather. And in the summer, he would tour the house with the city’s day camp, where he was a counselor.
“My whole life is pretty much a memory of the park,” says Russell. “It’s a beautiful house with a good history. Why not utilize it?”
That question got him thinking about the many uses the house could be put to. Although only four rooms are left of the original 39, there was space for a community center or an event venue for weddings, reunions and proms. The rent from these affairs could pay for the utilities and the administrative offices upstairs.
He wasn’t sure how to begin, but Russell knew he had to do something. He first wrote a letter to the editor titled “Save this historic building,” which ran as the lead commentary of the day in the Burlington Hawk Eye. The positive responses led him to create a Facebook group. The memories and calls for action on the wall inspired him to start an online petition, which garnered more than 200 signatures in a few days.
“Every time I walked in the door, I was mesmerized by the history of the building,” Russell wrote in his editorial. “From the moment I stepped foot in the building, a curiosity seemed to grow inside me. This curiosity made me want to learn more about my past, the past of Perkins Park and the past of the city of Burlington as a whole.”
Russell attended a city council meeting on February 4, where he made a plea for the building’s life. He was given 60 days to come up with a use for the building and begin fundraising. He needed about $75,000 for the repairs, which included new paint, an air-conditioner, handicap-accessible ramp and bathrooms and repairs to the porch. It was a small amount of money considering the age of the building, but it seemed huge to Russell.
Still, Russell and his supporters began calling for donations. They didn’t need to come up with the entire sum, just enough to show there was growing interest in the house’s revitalization. They raised several thousand dollars. On March 4, the city council voted to give Russell six more months. He thinks it’s enough. He believes he has saved a part of his home.
“This is one of the buildings that built my town,” he says. “I’ve loved Burlington my whole life. I want to live there forever; it’s home to me. There’s just no place I’d rather live.”
Supporters of the renovation recently started a board of directors for the project, called the Apple Trees Trust. Russell is serving as vice president. They are planning a fundraising campaign and various uses for the house, including nonprofit offices on the second floor.
Pursuing a major in elementary education, Russell hopes to move back to Burlington after graduation to teach fourth or fifth grade. His experiences as a camp counselor inspired his passion for education. And when he takes his students on a field trip to Perkins Park, the Apple Trees building will likely still be there for the kids to see.
“It’s strange doing this so young, but it couldn’t wait,” he explains. “I believe that this project found me.”