Home & Garden

Amana couple turn former chicken coop into a sunny garden cottage

A small out-building is decorated for the holidays at the home of Cherie Hansen-Rieskamp in South Amana on Friday, Dec.
A small out-building is decorated for the holidays at the home of Cherie Hansen-Rieskamp in South Amana on Friday, Dec. 4, 2020. Hansen-Rieskamp refurbished a chicken coop that was original to the property after she and her husband decided to stop raising the birds at their home. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
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Late morning sunshine steaming from a wall of south-facing windows transforms a weathered wooden building that sets back a bit from 220th Trail in South Amana. It’s bright and white, cozy and warm inside the space even in early December.

The natural light helped Cherie Hansen-Reiskamp imagine the building’s potential when she and her husband, Gerald, bought the property. What for many decades had been a chicken coop is now the Garden Cottage, an adaptable room for holiday parties or yoga, reiki and meditation.

“The building has a lot of good energy. It’s a very calming space,” Cherie said.

Historic property

The Reiskamp’s bought their South Amana home in 2008. The house, built in 1994, sits on property that was once part of Ackerman Winery. They soon purchased the lot next door, which included the old wooden shed. There were missing windows and many dead animals in the space.

The building was erected before the Great Change of 1932 that ended the Amana communal society. It’s insulated with bricks produced in South Amana during the communal period. The outside is covered in pine board-and-batten siding, replaced with Amana Society timber.

Pre-1932, the building had a wood-burning stove with a chimney next to the only human-sized door in the southwest corner. There was a chicken door at the southeast corner of the building.

Where Cherie visualized a sunny reading space, Gerald saw chickens.

Chickens

They tidied the place a bit, made some repairs, and added an outdoor chicken run. For several years, they raise chickens right next to George Berger’s chicken coop and run. Their neighbor told them that in years past, a fenced area went all the way to the sidewalk leading to the old school next door (now South Amana School House Apartments). Up to 500 chickens roamed the yard back then.

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The Reiskamp’s flock numbered far fewer. About 25 broilers were butchered annually, enough to feed them for the year, plus eggs for sharing.

“They tasted great,” Cherie said. “And we had a lot of eggs; we ate a lot of quiche.”

Raising livestock made it more difficult for them to get away. Every night and each morning, they had to let the chickens and in and out because of hungry wildlife. The building hadn’t been wired for electricity, so this often meant working by flashlight.

When Gerald fell and broke his hand while getting feed about five years ago, they said goodbye to their chickens.

Versatile space

For a short time, Gerald used the chicken coop as a shop. When he built a separate blacksmith’s shop, he ran electricity to the old chicken coop. Cherie jumped at the opportunity to repurpose the space. Their house didn’t have a lot of windows, and she was starving for sunlight.

“Even when it was still a chicken coop, I would go out there in the middle of winter and sit with the chickens, sit right in the sun. That’s how warm it got without any heat,” Cherie said.

With the chickens gone, they added a new roof and then painted the chicken coop inside. They intended to insulate the ceiling, but both really liked the look of the whitewashed, rough-hewed ceiling beams.

The old chicken coop is an odd shape: it seems like a small barn cut in half at its highest peak. The lower side of the sloped roof ends at about 5 feet before soaring to about 9 feet along the southern wall.

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Six tall windows are each topped with a much smaller window. Cherie and her mother sewed long curtain panels from cream-colored painter’s cloths, and Gerald, a blacksmith, made the curtain rods.

Four years ago, Cherie and a friend decorated the building and opened it to tours during the annual Prelude to Christmas Festival. About 500 queued through the small building to see its Japanese-themed holiday decor.

“Everybody loved it. It made them rethink something that could very easily have been abandoned,” Cherie said.

The renovation

Because it was built before the Great Change, all exterior changes to the old chicken coop must be approved by the Amana Colonies Land Use District. The seven villages of the Amanas were declared a National Historic Landmark in 1965.

After years of repainting the original wooden windows, they requested permission to replace the wood with vinyl windows. The ACLUD approved that change and an upgrade from a wooden door to a solid, six-panel steel door. Cherie’s request to install a door with multi-pane windows was turned down.

It costs a lot of money to keep the old buildings up, Cherie said. She had to make sure that what she spent would be an investment in the property. Their property is zoned commercial, which means legally they could run a business out of the chicken coop. Cherie chose to repurpose it as a yoga, reiki and meditation space to hold classes. In 2019, she traveled to India to learn how to teach yoga. She was too busy at work that year to get to work on the building’s transformation.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, she saw an opportunity to do a major renovation. The old floor was broken up and removed, and a new concrete floor poured. After it had cured, Cherie painted it a light periwinkle blue and sealed it. Ceiling lights add an industrial feel to the room. She estimated they spent about $6,000 updating the building this year.

Having spent time in England where such buildings are named, Cherie dubbed the former chicken coop the Garden Cottage.

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The Reiskamps hosted a Halloween party for neighbors and their grandkids, who live four houses away. Everybody wore a face mask. They did a ghost walk and told ghost stories.

Then Cherie and friend Ursula Williams got busy decorating for Christmas. Williams chose German dishes with fat sheep and a sheepherder, edged in green to grace the large table. In line with the garden theme, they used birch-bark paper for place mats and included flowers on the tall Christmas tree. There is a decorative chicken on a large natural sheepskin under the tree as a nod to the building’s former purpose.

The sheepskin and the white wicker furniture will stay after the holidays. Then the space will be transformed into a yoga studio. Someday, hopefully soon, the pandemic will be over, and she’ll be able to invite friends in for yoga classes or meditation, she said.

Years down the road, when she and Gerald move, she imagines that the Garden Cottage could become a one- or two-person home office or a small business.

“It really is a versatile space,” Cherie said.

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