Octagonal oasis: Hiawatha DIY homeowners tackle indoor, outdoor projects

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HIAWATHA — When Len and Pat Struttmann need a little getaway, they head to Tahiti.

Only, they spell it T.A.H.I.T.I., as in “Take a holiday — it’s time, indeed.”

Their little piece of paradise isn’t in the South Pacific. It’s an octagonal, multilevel island built around a maple tree in their sloping backyard.

This is the second year for their room with a view, behind their one-story home built in 1978 along Cress Parkway. They bought it 20 years later, and it’s been a work in progress ever since.

The clean, all-white interior was a selling point, but the DIY couple have painted every room, put down new flooring in the kitchen 10 years ago, created flower- and vegetable gardens around the backyard, and demolished and put in new deck-style steps at the side door after Pat took one too many tumbles off the smaller concrete steps.

They’re nearing the end of a living room remodel in which they’ve knocked out the original rounded “bumpouts” at either end. The three wall units ate up too much space, and the original tray ceiling designed to rest on top of them made the ceiling too low. So in March, the couple decided to tear them out, pull up the carpet and give the room a light gray coat of paint. Before they could do that, however, the walls and ceiling would have to be resurfaced, since the bumpouts were plastered to the walls.

In a twist of fate, the man they hired to redo the walls and ceiling was pretty familiar with the original work, since he once lived in the house and put up the wall units. And he knew where the electrical sockets were hidden.

That project is nearing completion, making room for flooring replacements around the rest of the main floor and basement. They’re going to hire that out, since Len, 61, said his knees are getting too old for that task. Still, the couple have plenty of sweat-equity in their three-bedroom, two-bath house that sports 1,200 square feet on the main level and another 1,200 in the full basement.

When it’s time to get away from it all, the empty-nesters retreat to T.A.H.I.T.I.

That’s the project where Len put to use all the skills and confidence he gained while helping to build scenery for plays at Cedar Rapids Washington High School when their two girls were in school there, and at Theatre Cedar Rapids.

By day, he’s a software engineer at Rockwell Collins, but he “tries to be a jack of all trades,” working behind the scenes and appearing in shows on several area stages, beginning when he volunteered to set up a website for Washington High School and began photographing the school’s fine arts groups, as well as TCR shows.

T.A.H.I.T.I. evolved in much the same manner. What began as a simple plan to install a white wrought-iron bench around the tree has blossomed into a multilevel deck that’s home to two adult-size, sling-style swings, as well as stools, chairs and whimsical metal sculptures and Wi-Fi. As twilight sets in, tiny solar lights wrapped around the tree begin to twinkle and Len lights votives hanging from the tree to cast more warm glow.

“Dusk is a magic hour,” Pat said.

And now, the Struttmanns find themselves in year 2 of a 10-year project.

“Our goal is to put enough garden in so that I don’t have to mow the lawn in the backyard,” Len said. “It’s all going to be garden.”

The more they thought about the tree-seat project, the bigger it grew, until it became a deck.

“We decided, while we’re doing that, let’s put in flowers for bees and butterflies,” Pat said. Next came four vegetable gardens, producing a bounty of herbs, tomatoes and cantaloupe at the moment.

Len designed the deck’s pie-shaped wedges up to city code, allowing for the slope of the yard. He drew it all out, laid it all out, and used high-grade cedar and stainless steel screws for durability. Each of the eight sections is 6 1/2-feet long by 7 feet at the widest edge, totaling about 20 feet in diameter. It’s a mix of pressure-treated wood near the ground, stained red, and cedar on top, finished with a contrasting dark stain.

He’s not sure just how much it all cost, but estimates the price tag between $500 and $600.

“We purposefully did not keep track because we just wanted to get it done,” he said.

It was worth every penny.

“We were sitting out here one night after it was built, just sitting and reading,” said Pat, 60, a former librarian. “The garden had started to bloom by then and we said, ‘You know, this is a magical place.’”

As followers of TV’s “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” they were inspired by Agent Coulson’s declaration that “Tahiti is a magical place.”

“For us, this is a magical place,” Len said. “It is our get-away-from-everything spot.”

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