IOWA CITY — To reach Joe Coulter’s stone cottage, high on a hill overlooking North Dubuque Street in Iowa City, you have to either take a flight of concrete stairs or climb the long, sloping driveway up to the house.
“You have to be part mountain goat to live here,” he jokes.
It’s one thing to climb this hill today, another to imagine teams of horses ferrying up the split fieldstones used to build the house more than 85 years ago. Last year, Coulter had the lower garage abutting Dubuque Street repaired by Country Stonemasons of North Liberty, which brought in new rocks taken from Iowa pastures to match the home’s original style.
Coulter is only the second owner of this house, built in 1929 by Sylvella and Herman Jacobsen, a dentist at the University of Iowa. When Coulter and his former wife bought the property in 1986, most of the original furniture, art and even books were also put up for auction. Coulter bought much of it, and it still fills the home today. The Jacobsen’s art hangs from the original picture rails, and many of the original light fixtures remain throughout the home. The Jacobsen’s metal fireplace screen sits in front of a massive stone fireplace in the living room, and in the library, Dr. Jacobsen’s green leather chair sits in front of another, smaller fireplace. The library is trimmed with Iowa black walnut wood, from Muscatine, and arched doorways lead from the dining room to the living room and on to the library and a window-lined solarium.
One thing Coulter did change when he moved in was the kitchen — at some point, the Jacobsens had remodeled it with drop ceilings. Coulter raised the ceilings back to their original height and added a multi-colored tile floor patterned in the same style as the solarium.
The house is nestled on two-and-a-half acres of wooded land, with a view of City Park below. Follow a well-worn deer track and you can glimpse a collapsed cave, used in the 1850s by brewer John Englert to store river ice and beer. Coulter said along with deer, he’s seen foxes and coyote in the woods.
“I’ve seen pretty much everything except elk and deer,” he said. “I like being around the critters and being on the hill.”
When the estate was sold by First National Bank after Mrs. Jacobsen died, piles and piles of paperwork and photo negatives were thrown out the back door to be discarded. Coulter saved much of it — the receipts from the original stone workers, architectural plans, letters and family photos, along with artifacts like Dr. Jacobsen’s college yearbooks. The remnants fill binders and boxes, neatly documenting the house’s history. Coulter plans to donate much of this to the UI College of Dentistry and other parts to the Iowa State Historical Society.
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“It’s pretty rare that a house as interesting as this has a lot of documentation,” Coulter said. “As a scientist, I just can’t let that go.”
He has a preservationist’s impulse — “I can’t throw anything away. I like keeping everything just as it is,” he said.
That extends beyond the Jacobsen family to his own history — black and white family photos in the living room show both his European and Native American ancestors — he is a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation of Oklahoma. A University of Iowa professor emeritus in public health, Coulter retired last year but still keeps busy teaching, advising on research projects. He is active in Indian and human right issues and travels the country fly-fishing and backpacking. And, of course, he spends time researching his historic home.
“I just kind of like the idea of knowing about my environment,” he said. “Trying to preserve culture — it just all goes together.”