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Housing history in Iowa City

Eclectic stylings breathe new life into century-old home

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IOWA CITY — Every room has a distinct personality, yet Asian and Egyptian artistry, leopard prints and crystal chandeliers all abide in elegant harmony in Dr. Donald Black’s historic home.

The English Arts and Crafts structure stands on high ground above the corner of West Park Road and Lexington Avenue, where it has reigned majestically since 1917. Stuart Hobbs Sims, an engineering professor at the University of Iowa, designed the blend of Tudor Revival and Craftsman styles for Dr. Albert Henry Byfield, the first head of pediatrics at the UI Medical School and Children’s Hospital.

The house was the centerpiece on five acres in what is now the Manville Heights neighborhood, not far from City Park and Hancher. The lot has been parceled out over the years, and Black has been striving to have the 4,000-square-foot, two-story structure that now sits on 1.08 acres placed on the National Register of Historic Places. (A state-level review was slated for Oct. 14 in Des Moines; the results were not available in time for this story.)

“One of my goals is to make sure that this house is preserved,” said Black, 60, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Iowa and the fourth medical doctor to live in the home.

“From my standpoint, it’s an honor to have a property that’s listed on the registry. It may not mean anything in terms of what happens to the property down the road, but I think if a property is on the National Register of Historic Places, future owners would be less likely to want to demolish or significantly change the property. ... People interested in art and architecture would probably rally around.”

He and his late partner, John Chadima, bought the house in 2003 and spent a year updating and renovating it inside and out before moving in. Although Black declined to reveal the costs, he figures renovations outpaced the purchase price.

“It really had not had substantial work for probably 40 or 50 years,” he said. “We essentially had to redo everything, from rewiring, replumbing, replastering, redoing the floors, replacing the bathrooms (two full baths upstairs, two powder rooms downstairs). I’m a big fan of original bathrooms. You never find them, because the first thing people do is rip them out. But these were in such poor condition we just had to gut those rooms, and we redid them in 1920s style.”

Other major projects included turning a one-stall garage into a new kitchen — since the garage and existing kitchen were too small to meet the new homeowners’ needs — and adding a two-car garage and a hot tub room and half-bath off the back patio. Vintage touches like installing leaded glass windows in the new kitchen and carriage-style doors in the new garage help the modern additions blend into the home’s history.

EXTERIOR

Black and Chadima also recycled and repurposed as much as possible on the exterior, incorporating a copper light fixture from the UI’s demolished law school, doors from the Salvage Barn in Iowa City and copper gutters and downspouts from the former UI Children’s Hospital. The steppingstones that lead visitors from the U-shaped driveway to the front door came from a patio behind the house, and the bricks came from Iowa City streets.

“We saved everything you could,” Black said.

These are the smaller touches that punctuate the exterior ambience. It’s the overall silhouette that makes a huge historical statement.

The design is the only English Arts and Crafts building that Black knows of in Iowa. One of the main differences between English and American Arts and Crafts architecture is the home’s dramatically sloping roof.

“This is called a cat-slide gable,” he said, “because it goes from one level to the next, and you hardly ever see that.”

Another distinction is the asymmetrical placement of windows.

“So here we have groups of threes, fours and on the other side, there’s a group of five windows, so the plan is totally asymmetric,” he said. “That’s supposed to be charming.”

One thing that wasn’t charming was the bat invasion, although Black talks matter-of-factly about catching and releasing them — without shuddering.

But, after dealing with about three dozen of the winged invaders, it was time to block their entry by replacing the layers beneath the original European-style red tiled roof. Although the underlayment had been replaced several times over the century, two years ago, workers again dismantled the roof piece by piece, made all the necessary upgrades beneath, then reattached the tiles. Fortunately, the Ludowici factory that made those terra cotta tiles still is in operation in Ohio, so any chipped or broken pieces could be authentically replaced at about $10 per tile.

“I’ve seen people tear down houses that have roofs like this and they just throw that stuff in the landfill, because they have no idea they could sell it on Craigslist or eBay,” Black said.

Where the exterior strays dramatically from its English roots is in the two-story porch on the east end.

“This is a completely American invention, to have these dual porches,” he said. “It’s a just regular porch on the bottom level. The top would be called a sleeping porch, and it’s the largest sleeping porch that I am aware of in Iowa. I’ve never seen one bigger. They were not originally screened — I figured the screens were probably put in the ’30s.” He’s had to replace a few, but they all sit in the original window frames.

Interior

Whether you step into the breezeway or through the front door, the first thing you see is world-class art and artifacts purchased at auctions around the country and on travels around the world. Portraits and vases, Egyptian statues, oil paintings and Chinese ceramics add to the eclectic dynamic flowing from room to room.

The new, wide galley kitchen sparkles with a vintage vibe, with refinished wood floors, gleaming subway tile behind the chef’s range, classic gray and white granite countertops, stainless appliances, white cabinets with vintage bin pulls and knobs, and a deep, white farm sink.

A zebra-patterned rug at the sink, minty green walls and a ’50s clock above the sink add a dash of spice — as do the white light globes with an art deco feel. They were salvaged from a building being demolished at the Independence Mental Health Institute, where Black moonlighted in the ’80s.

The original kitchen has been repurposed into a butler’s pantry with an informal dining table and a desk nook.

A more formal feel radiates from the foyer to the dining room, and into the living room painted a sunny yellow, which opens to the porch on one side and the library/den on the other. The living room and den both have fireplaces, almost back to back, but they remain decorative, to keep out the bats.

While the living room features antique formal furniture and a mélange of textiles and artwork, the library has a much cozier feel, where you can sink into a sofa surrounded by bookshelves, nestled among terra cotta-painted walls accented by heavy, dark painted woodwork.

A door in the corner leads to a half-bath added in the ’50s that Black considers “the most attractive room in the house.” The narrow entry hall turns a corner to reveal an old-fashioned toilet tucked away, and a sink on the opposite wall. Most striking is the cream and red wallpaper decked in an Asian motif with trees, pagodas, horsemen, fishermen and banners.

The dining room also has a huge fireplace, surrounded by white trim work; ecru, pink and green floral wallpaper; and light hardwood floors, making a stunning backdrop for the graceful curves of the formal furnishings.

The most whimsical, delightful passage, however, leads to the second floor. From the kitchen, an arched doorway with painted faux limestone blocks opens to an entryway appointed with large-scale, green-and-white Chinese patterned wallpaper, black-and-white marble floor squares, ornate gold accents and a bust of Queen Nefertiti. All are stunning on their own, but add-in a leopard print runner up the stairway, and the foyer packs a visual wallop that lets visitors know they’ve entered someplace very special.

Upstairs lie four bedrooms, including the master suite, two full baths and a fifth bedroom that has been turned into a cozy reading room with an animal print wallpaper. A second, more narrow stairway most likely was used by a housekeeper, whose quarters were converted to a bathroom, storage closet and bedroom/lounge in the 1950s.

As on the first floor, all of the upstairs rooms have their own color schemes and distinctive stylings, accented with fine art pieces and paintings.

Steam heat warms the home in winter, and air conditioning, added in the ’90s, cools it in the summer. One of the more unusual original novelties is a central vacuum system, which no longer works, but the outlets still are visible near the baseboards, hearkening to the home’s history.

While Black has opened his home to guests and fundraising dinners, he has denied past requests to feature the house in print publications. That has changed, in light of news reports about the National Registry consideration.

“Now is the time to open it up and to show people what an exceptional house this is,” he said.

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