Spring Home: Leaving a legacy, a view of the Sprafka House in Detroit Lakes
After nearly 100 years of family ownership, the Sprafkas are preparing to move out of their historic Detroit Lakes home, designed by renowned Polish architect Victor Cordella and completed in 1924.
Editor's Note: The following originally appeared as the cover story of the Detroit Lakes Tribune's Spring Home magazine, which was included as a free insert in the April 13, 2022 issue of the Tribune. Read the magazine in its entirety HERE online.
Correction: The Spring Home magazine print edition incorrectly credited Michael Achterling as the photographer behind the magazine’s cover photo of the historic Sprafka house in Detroit Lakes. In fact, that photo was contributed by the Sprafkas and was taken by Lynn Reading. The staircase spiral photograph was also taken by Reading.
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It features 100-year-old original wood, milled by the original owner. A town doctor once had an office in its basement. And it housed three generations of the same family, who passed the property down their family line for 98 years.
“I’m kinda depressed and sad,” says Ron Sprafka, the home’s current owner, looking around the property in early spring. “It just got to be too much.”
Ron and his wife, Sandy, recently sold their historic home, perched grandly on the corner of Summit Avenue and Frazee Street in Detroit Lakes, and will leave their family legacy for the last time at the end of April 2022.
The house sold for $409,000 – quite a bit more than what Ron remembers his dad paid for the place in 1939.
“When (my grandfather, Joseph Sprafka) was dying, he sold it to my dad, and he said, ‘Would $20,000 be too much?’” Ron recalls.
Joseph B. Sprafka came to the Rat Lake area of Becker County from Chicago and became a lumberman in the early 20th Century. He operated a lumber mill and, in 1922, provided wood for the construction of his family’s new home in Detroit Lakes.
Four different types of wood were used during the home’s construction, and all were provided by the Sprafka mill: Red oak is used on the main floor, while birch and maple were used on the second floor of the home. The ceiling beams on the main floor are quarter-sawn oak.
Sprafka commissioned renowned Polish architect Victor Cordella to design his dream home. Cordella had designed more than 20 churches around Minnesota, including St. Mary’s Orthodox Cathedral in Minneapolis and St. Constantine Ukrainian Orthodox Church on University Avenue. The famed architect is most known for designing the American Swedish Institute.
“Summit was the street to be on – that’s where all the big old houses are,” says Sandy Sprafka.
Becky Mitchell, executive director of the Becker County Historical Society and Museum, said the Sprafka house has been “well taken care of” and the renovations have kept the style and sizes of the rooms unique to the house.
“It’s definitely a unique design and, if you ever see a picture of the Sprafka house, you know that that’s the Sprafka house. You don’t see that style repeated in this area,” she says.
Mitchell thinks people will be referring to the home as ‘the Sprafka house’ for years to come, even long after it’s been out of the Sprafka family’s ownership.
“It’s an amazing structure with the big windows, and of course the arches over the basement, and the woodwork is amazing,” says Mitchell. “To have the doctor’s office in the basement, Ambrose’s office, and we actually have a lot of his collection. They’ve donated it to us.”
Ron’s father, Ambrose Sprafka, lived in the house and served as a doctor in Detroit Lakes for many years. Dr. Sprafka had an office in the house’s basement, but would frequently make house calls to patients where they lived. On one such house call, Ron remembers, one of his father’s patients found a human skull and other bones on their farm and his father took the bones back to the house, which made his mother feel uncomfortable.
“It was in a bucket – we all saw it – it was in a bucket in the corner,” says Sandy of the skull. Ron adds, “They had it on the downstairs porch and my mom didn’t want it in the house, so she ended up eventually saying, ‘Ambrose, we gotta get rid of this.’ So she took it out.”
He also chuckles and says one of his friends wouldn’t even walk by the house because of the bucket skull: “When he went to Holy Rosary, he lived over, across from the community center, so he would walk over to that block and then up and then to school, he wouldn’t come this way.”
Growing up, Ron remembers how much fun the get-togethers were at the house when his friends came over.
“We had a little pool table in the hallway there, and we’d play pool,” he says. “And we played catch out in the front yard, and we’d have friends sleep out on the porch because there’s a swing bed out there.”
Ron and Sandy met during their time at Bemidji State in the late 1960s. They married in 1970 and began traveling the world together. Memorably, they once watched the country’s bicentennial festivities from the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art – the same steps Rocky Balboa climbed in the famous “Rocky” movie series.
“We were sitting at the top of those steps, watching the fireworks of the bicentennial,” Ron recalls. Sandy adds, “And we watched the parade.”
Eventually, they returned to Detroit Lakes – after exhausting all of their money abroad, they say – and Ron ended up teaching in the Detroit Lakes school district; something he would do for the next 29 years.
“Six years at Lincoln and the rest at Rossman, 5th grade,” he says. “It’s a fun age group, just interested in learning.”
Ron and Sandy purchased their own home near Minnesota Avenue and Willow Street, and the couple began their own Detroit Lakes chapter together.
In 1980, Ron’s father passed away and, as the decade went on, Ron’s mother began thinking about selling the home. Ron and Sandy decided to buy it.
Ron purchased the home from his mother in 1987. They raised their two boys, Ron and Jim, at the house, and also opened their doors to foreign exchange students over the years.
The couple has hosted seven different foreign exchange students since 1997, and have kept in touch with many of them over the years. The Sprafkas set up the students with their own apartment in the basement of the house, in his father’s old office, while they were staying in Detroit Lakes.
Except for the kitchen, which has been updated with new appliances and utilities throughout the years, the home remains just as Joseph B. Sprafka commissioned it nearly 100 years ago.
One of Sandy’s favorite additions to the original concept was in the remodeled kitchen.
“There was no heat in that room, so when we did the remodeling, we put in heated floors,” Sandy says. “I love them.”
After retiring, Ron and Sandy began thinking about downsizing. They decided to put the house on the market after their sons declined to purchase the home. They accepted the offer from the new owners for the 4-bedroom, 3-bath in February.
“They liked what they saw and that’s what they wanted,” Ron says of the buyers.
On April 28, Ron and Sandy Sprafka will leave their 98-year-old homestead for the last time. They are moving to a cabin on the south side of Detroit Lake.
“But, we are having a hard time leaving,” Sandy admits.
When asked what his feelings will be when he sees the home without a Sprafka under the roof for the first time in its history, Ron said, “I think it’s going to be tough.”