With a background in historical preservation, it’s probably not surprising that Christine Mumm was drawn to the Kleemann House from the time she and husband Clifford moved to Custer in 2005.
The run-down building had a storied past. The third brick structure in Custer, Kleemann House was described in glowing terms by the local newspaper when it opened in 1883. It appears in numerous old photographs and played host to Buffalo Bill Cody and French journalist Edmond de Mandat-Grancey, among others.
But by the time the Mumms arrived in town, Kleemann House had seen better days. Condemned since the early 1990s, it had sat empty for years. Many local folks wanted it demolished.
“It was kind of just falling down,” Mumm said. “It was kind of an eyesore.”
The couple frequently walked past the building, which sits on Custer’s main drag in its original city block.
“I kept saying, ‘Well somebody should do something about that,’” Mumm recalled with a laugh. “One day we walked by and there was a ‘sold’ sign (in the window). And I said, ‘Darn it, we should have bought that and fixed it up.’”
Minutes later the couple sat down for dinner at the Sage Creek Grille.
“My husband threw the keys (to the Kleemann House) across the table at me,” Mumm said. “He had bought it.”
That was around Easter of 2010. “He says, ‘Well, that’s your Easter present,’” Mumm said. “Probably the worst Easter present anyone has ever received.”
Indeed, the first time Christine went inside the building, she was stunned by its condition.
“It was absolutely depressing,” she said. “It was dark because all the back of the building had been boarded up. It smelled. Everything had kind of been stripped out.
“There was really no redeeming feature inside, because it had gone through so much hardship,” Mumm said. “There was a staircase and that was about it.”
The couple found three dead cats in the building’s basement, which had been damaged by fire at one point. The only ‘furnishings’ – an old washing machine, a trashed sofa – were things the last tenants had left behind.
“It was just horrible,” Mumm said. “We just thought, ‘Oh my gosh, what have we gotten ourselves into?’”
The answer was an all-out effort to restore the building’s exterior and rebuild the interior. Christine and Clifford – who works for an international construction company – hired his brother and sister-in-law, Ralph “Booj” and Sherrie Mumm of Sturgis, both of whom had recently retired, to oversee the renovation.
Two years later, the work is finished. The five-bedroom Kleemann House will reopen as a boutique hotel next spring, although the public can get a sneak peek at the place today.
“When we first bought it we weren’t sure what we were going to do with it,” Christine Mumm said. “We finally decided it wants to be what it was originally, which was a small hotel.”
Although few photos remain of the old hotel’s interior, the Custer newspaper ran a complete description of the place when it opened in 1883. The paper described the hotel’s layout and dimensions of the parlor, office, dining room and bar, which reportedly featured “the finest Kentucky whiskies, imported and domestic wines, brandies, cordials and cigars and the best brands of bottle Lager.”
It also noted the second floor’s “numerous large and airy bedrooms, such as cannot be found in many hotels in Dakota,” according to a story in the Custer County Chronicle.
Marks on the floor indicated there were originally nine of those “large and airy” bedrooms. But modern standards and demands have changed a bit since the 1880s, so the Mumms instead built four en suite rooms with private baths.
Workers removed an addition that had been added to the original 30-by-50-foot building. They then added a smaller addition to house a kitchenette, laundry facilities and bathroom, along with a handicapped-accessible bedroom and bath as required under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Inside the Mumms did the best they could, with only some scraps of wallpaper, bits of linoleum and a couple of 1920s-era photos to go by. “We tried to keep it simple,” Christine said. “We tried to add things that we thought were of the era.”
That meant tracking down the Lincrusta wallpaper used on the ceiling and the Encaustic tiles in the hotel entry way. “Both products were used extensively during Victorian times,” she said.
“While it doesn’t look exactly like it would have in the 1880s, the flavor is still there,” agreed Sherrie Mumm, who admits that she and her husband didn’t know much about construction when the project started. “When you’ve never done anything like this before, why, you learn a lot.”
The hotel needed work on the outside, too. The old brick had been painted white and the lower part of the façade covered with faux rockwork attached with nails and chicken wire.
“This was the building’s ‘mid-century modern’ look, when it was known as the General Custer Motor Lodge,” Christine said. “So all this ‘cladding’ had to be removed.”
Old photos served as a guide, and Christine consulted with a professor in historic preservation to choose paint colors.
There is one big difference from those old photos, however. The building originally had a large veranda where guests could relax. At some point the veranda became unsafe and was removed. Now, because Mount Rushmore Road is considered a state highway, the Department of Transportation will not allow the Mumms to rebuild the veranda because it is considered an encroachment.
Other buildings on Mount Rushmore Road have verandas that were not original but added on in later years; however those are grandfathered in and were allowed to remain.
“It’s ironic and irritating at the same time,” Christine said, but the state won’t budge. Instead the Mumms figured out a way to cantilever a small veranda that’s only a few feet wide. “It’s a mini version of the veranda.”
Despite its place in Custer’s history, the Kleemann House isn’t on the National Register of Historic Places. Too much of the “historical integrity” of the building had been lost, officials said.
But the Mumms do have the Kleemann House guest registry from 1883 to 1886, signed by Buffalo Bill Cody himself.
And they have a beautifully renovated building thanks to the efforts of 30 contractors, nearly all of whom were local.
“We have some really fine craftsmanship as a result,” Christine Mumm said. “Everybody wanted it to look good, so they kind of went the extra mile.
“We’re really happy with the outcome.”
In other words, it wasn’t such a bad Easter present after all.