When Jan and I moved to Iowa in 1985 we bought a small acreage in the northern part of the county and thoroughly enjoyed living and raising our two boys Joel and Sam there. We had both grown up on farms, lived in cities in our early adult lives and were interested in getting back to our rural roots. From the time we moved to that lovely spot till the time we moved to Water in 2007 the rural neighborhood had changed quite a lot, there were fewer owner-operator farms, fewer animals on the land, and in general a not so subtle change in farm consolidation. And our love of the place was still there, it was just time to move on, we had planned ahead of time to live on Water.
It started when Jan had an office on the third floor of the Winneshiek County Courthouse where she was employed. She could look out over the town and imagined that it would be neat to live downtown. When she told me about it I initially responded, hopefully kindly, that I thought that was one of the dumbest ideas she had ever thought of. And then I went to her office and looked out over the town. It was a lovely and interesting site; the steeples of the churches close by, the roofs of the local downtown buildings, the streets all laid out on a grid, and lots of trees along the street for a downtown area.
We started looking for property to invest in downtown. We came very close to buying a particular building on Water but couldn’t quite negotiate the price thanks to Jan’s persistence that it was just a bit high and the building was not exactly what we had hoped. We gave that building up and for some time just kept our eyes open. And then Peoples Natural Gas had an ad in the local paper describing the terms of sale on the building at 300 West Water that caught our eye. It was to be a sealed bid sale with no further bidding and an asking price that seemed quite low. We looked at the building.
The first floor was modest office space divided up into small rooms that served the purpose of the company. The basement was dry with a walk out entrance. The electric system would need to be totally replaced as it was partially the very old system known as “knob-and-tube” not installed since about the 1930’s. The plumbing was in poor condition. The roof leaked. The second floor was not inhabitable. The plaster was falling off the walls and ceiling, the floor was sinking in the middle, some of the oak woodwork had been painted, there was no functioning kitchen or bathroom. The last occupants had been the Jaycee’s who had left marks of their existence on the walls with comments about other members. In general, one could quite easily see why the price was low.
But the upstairs had possibilities. The original floor plan had never been redone, it had never really been “remodeled” or modernized, the huge clawfoot bathtub, while not connected to anything, was still in the bathroom. Below the carpet on the floor was a beautiful oak parquet floor. The woodwork was all quarter sawn oak even though some of it was painted. There was a set of pocket doors between two of the large living areas. It had tons of possibilities! We could see beyond the cobwebs, graffiti, painted woodwork, a leaky roof and imagine a spacious, comfortable, apartment with windows on four sides of a downtown building.
On the way out of town for spring break heading to Backbone State Park with the boys we stopped at the gas company and handed in our offer. We had a great vacation and came back to find out that we were the high bidder and were going to be the proud owners of downtown property! We had already worked with Decorah Bank and Trust to agree to back the arrangement. Frankly, without their assistance and trust in us and what we were doing the project would never have worked out. Larry Stevenson asked tough questions about the business plan and costs of renovation. I think the fact that we had done something similar to our house in the country ten years prior probably helped. We seem to have made an avocation of buying old properties and rehabbing them over the years. But this was by far the biggest one I had undertaken.
Needless to say, there were small difficulties with construction along the way but in the end, we had an 1800 square foot downtown apartment that we rented out immediately, moved into about a decade ago and a retail space that has been occupied by several renters, the latest of which is the Blue Heron Knittery. The needles clacking away downstairs do not interfere with our upstairs living. Water has become our neighborhood as I noted in another Imagine Northeast Iowa blog post. We have continued to do small things to make the apartment more to our liking such put in a stair chair lift when I broke a leg several years ago, we had thought we would do that sooner or later and it happened sooner. And we added a small deck on the back side of the apartment where there had been one many years ago.
In the meantime, our financial investment in downtown Decorah has proven to be good. Our building has been nominated as one of the contributing buildings for the Downtown Historic District. We walk on Water on a daily basis and plan to do so for as long as we are able. There have been others who have done similar things on Water and I would encourage folks to consider the joys of living on Water.