It is hard for me to believe that my husband and I have lived in downtown Decorah for almost six years now! It has been a unique experience, compared to the rest of our lives and various homes. Other than married student housing at UNI and University of Iowa back in my early days, my home life always included next-door neighbors, yards, gardens and all the other things to enjoy and take care of when living in a house. My husband, Robert, grew up in northern Maine and California. I have lived all over Iowa, except for the southwest corner. Born in Carroll, I was raised in New Hampton and Storm Lake. My husband, youngest son, Sean, and I landed in Decorah because my oldest son moved his family here from California about 12 years ago. We had first discovered Decorah by coming up to volunteer each spring at Camp Tahigwa. I found Decorah uniquely different from the other parts of Iowa, with its natural beauty of the Upper Iowa River, the sweeping river valley, bluffs, waterfalls, trout streams, as well as Luther College and the vibrant downtown area. It became a family tradition to stop at the Whippy Dip before we headed back home. I noticed that the people of this town were very friendly and welcoming. So I shared this important information with my son, Nick, who was toying with the idea of returning to Iowa. He bought a home here and moved his family here…sight unseen! His boys have benefitted from the excellent schools and sports activities growing up here. I like to say that there is “Midwest nice,” “Iowa nice,” and then Decorah nice.
Life in the ‘Old Armory’
Nick first bought and renovated the ‘Rowley Building’ on Winnebago Street. After dismantling the dry cleaning machinery and gutting the building, it became a law office, a Pilate’s studio, a loft and a wine cellar. When he outgrew that building he sold it and it became retail space. He then purchased the Old Armory Building on West Water Street. To give you some idea of its long history, it has housed a radio manufacturer, a soda pop bottler, a car dealership, a seed company, Burgdorf’s jewelry shop, a probation office, and the original space for the Oneota Community food Co-op, in addition to the current Waving Grains Bakery! Many more businesses and apartments are part of the vast history, too. The large building had fallen into disrepair, but slowly and surely, starting on the top two floors, Nick meticulously and lovingly brought grace and beauty back to this downtown historical building. A large Jim Morrison mural was preserved on the third floor, painted by a former Luther student in 2007. Our home is graced by talented local artists' work, including Doug Eckheart, Paul Corbin, Elizabeth Maurland, Mary Ann Gloe and Linda Elkins. Our crumbling old brick walls and worn wood floors give character to our downtown home. Our view is amazing of the bluffs from our huge old windows. On some days, the mist rising above Dunning Springs can be seen from our North windows.
The hustle and bustle down below us on West Water Street, including tiny school children across the street, visitors of Vesterheim Museum and Folk Art School, college students making the trek from campus for food, ice cream or shopping, as well as the traffic from bikes, cars and trucks on the street are always interesting. I like having Java John’s across the street, where I can grab a cup of coffee or meet a friend. Two ice cream shops are located temptingly nearby. I can walk to and knit at Blue Heron Knittery among old friends, or perhaps make a new one. The Winneshiek Farmers Market and Oneota Community Co-op are conveniently close for grocery shopping. A pharmacy, flower shop, retail stores, library, art gallery and great restaurants are all within walking distance. The Trout Run Trail access is located just two blocks away at the end of West Water Street. Every July my husband and I can watch the Nordic Fest parade from a bird’s eye view without going downstairs or outside.
Within the walls of the Old Armory is yet another micro-community. Besides our home on the second floor, the armory building houses a pub in the basement, an organic bakery, a barber shop, a hair salon, a restaurant on the ground floor, law offices on the third floor and a large loft on the top floor. You may wonder if there are any drawbacks with our living situation. Well, there is nowhere for us to sit outside and enjoy a private conversation or a glass of wine. Our dog used to have a huge fenced in backyard to roam around in and play, and now her outdoor time is spent walking on a leash. Our cats cannot leave the building, because of the downtown traffic. Lastly, we wish we could open our large windows to let in the fresh air and hum of downtown. But all of us manage. It is a big change, but a necessary and welcome change. The tantalizing smells from Waving Grains Bakery greet me every morning when I take Lexi out for a walk. Our dryer on most days smells like brisket from the Old Armory BBQ and the laughter and activity from the barbershop below us is a welcome sound. Having an elevator and single level home has been a godsend for my husband as he struggles with MSA. There have definitely been trade-offs to transitioning to this space, but we have adjusted and embraced our new home in downtown Decorah.
The sense of community here in Decorah is like none that I have ever experienced. When I walk out of our downtown building, before reaching my destination, I really enjoy being greeted by fellow community members, and all of the kind people I have come to know. I’d like to think of Decorah as a town where every community member matters. I love and treasure being a part of the downtown community. From local people who grew up here to college students to young families to transplants like us, we represent Decorah.
Photos by the author.