After a long career on the East Coast that included painting a giant 65-foot elephant and a historic Philadelphia house, Len Haabak came back home to finish one final project in Minot before starting the next phase of his life.
Haabak, a painter and Minot native who graduated from Minot High School in 1966, has been doing historical renovation work for the past 30 years, mostly in the Philadelphia and Atlantic City areas.
After graduating high school, Haabak joined the Navy and served in Vietnam before spending five years in Hawaii. After breaking his leg in a skydiving accident, Haabak decided to leave Hawaii and move to southern New Jersey.
Dan Feldner/MDN •
Len Haabak puts the finishing touches on the sign atop the Parker building Oct. 22. Haabak painted 265 window frames on the building during the fall using a suspended painting rig he rented from Minneapolis.
Dan Feldner/MDN •
Len Haabak stands next to the ladder he uses to gain access to the top of the Parker building Oct. 22. The areas Haabak has to climb to get to the top of the building are so tall he has to strap two ladders together to reach them.
Working in the Philadelphia area gave Haabak the opportunity to paint many structures of great historical significance to the United States and several of its founding fathers.
The Powel House in Philadelphia hosted George and Martha Washington's 20th wedding anniversary, and Haabak also painted several buildings in the Philadelphia area that were part of the Underground Railroad used by slaves in their flight to freedom in the 1800s.
He also worked at Bartram Village in southwestern Philadelphia, which is the area where one of the great botanists and horticulturists in United States history lived.
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"This gentleman in the 1700s (John Bartram) used to go all around the world and bring plants back to America and propagate the plants right at this small plot right next to this building I was renovating," Haabak said. "That little plot was the very first rhubarb plant planted in America, right there."
Bartram happened to be good friends with Benjamin Franklin, and received a shipment of rhubarb from Franklin, who was overseas at the time.
One of Haabak's biggest jobs, literally, was Lucy the Elephant, a giant 65-foot zoomorphic wooden sculpture currently sitting on the Atlantic City Boardwalk built in 1881.
"Lucy was my crowning accomplishment, I think. You could put a house inside this elephant, it's so huge," he said. "Of course I painted the inside as well, there's a spiral stairway going up."
Haabak wasn't kidding when he said a house would fit inside of Lucy. In fact, the sculpture was actually rented out as a summer home in 1902 and has also spent time as a restaurant and tavern before becoming the tourist attraction it is today.
"I was the only one in South Jersey who did this solo, this type of work," he said. "And I guess North Dakota as well, probably."
Haabak, who has three grown daughters living in New Jersey, finally returned to Minot a few months ago because he missed the people and lifestyle of the Midwest.
"You can park your vehicle at Menards with the window down and tools (in it) and no one's going to bother it," he said. "You know, people are more friendly, (it's) a little slower here, and I just, I really missed it and I shouldn't have left in the beginning."
It was while visiting his mother in Minot, who used to live in the Parker building on First Avenue Southeast, that Haabak first realized the old structure could use a fresh coat of paint.
"While I was visiting, I just looked at the building and I thought, 'Wow, I would love to paint this building,'" he said.
Haabak gave an estimate to Signal Management Corp. to paint the window frames on the building, all 265 of them, and was hired to do the job. Haabak said he had a great working relationship with Darwin Langseth, the president of Signal, and commends his dedication to help put the luster back into downtown Minot.
"But what's really neat about him (Langseth) was that he trusted me to do the job alone. I mean, that's the only hang-up I had on a lot of these jobs," Haabak said. "They just have issues with, you know, one person doing the job."
The only time Haabak ever hired someone to help him with a job, it almost cost him his life. He said a man he hired to help with a high-rise job had not secured the lines to his suspension equipment correctly, which Haabak only noticed after he was already in place with nothing holding him up but those improperly secured lines. After Haabak carefully made his way back to safety, the man was promptly fired.
For the Parker job, he had to rent a rig from Minneapolis, because there simply isn't much of a need for them in North Dakota. The dearth of high-rise buildings in Minot and the rest of the state is also why the Parker building will be his last job.
"This is my last high-rise job ... because there simply are no more in the area. And when I contracted to do this job, I had to rent the equipment (from) Minneapolis," Haabak said. "They don't rent them in the whole state of North Dakota because most of the buildings are vertically challenged."
Langseth suggested that Haabak use the original shade of brown the Parker had when it was built in 1948. When Haabak went to work, he was shocked to find the gray paint on the window frames was actually the original brown coat applied when the building was built. The sun had bleached all the color out of the paint.
"Another mind-boggling fact was that the windows were never painted from day one," he said. "There's evidence of only one coat (of paint) that was ever put on those windows."
After starting the job in the beginning of August, Haabak finished up in mid-October. Now that his high-rising painting days are behind him, Haabak plans to settle into a new career in Minot. He has already bought a house and is thinking about joining the ranks of workers flowing into the oil fields so he can pay his bills.
"The difference between a starving artist and a 14-inch pizza is that a 14-inch pizza will feed a family of four," Haabak said with a laugh.
The end of his high-rise painting days isn't the end of his artistic pursuits, however. Haabak also paints on canvas and has done several shows in New Jersey. Along with that, he plays guitar and particularly enjoys playing for seniors at the Parker Senior Center and plans to volunteer to play at other area nursing homes as well.
Above all, Haabak is glad to be back in his home town and is proud of all that Minot has accomplished in the 30-plus years he's been away.
"I took a tour at the high school, and man what a vast improvement. They really take care of their people here. And with all the programs, and for the seniors and so forth, you don't see that in a lot of other cities.
"And Minot's just really growing and emerging. It's a great city that's totally changed since I've been here. I'm really impressed with all that. And I'm glad to be a part of renovating downtown, a minor part, a little contribution."