house

Kirkwood house preserves former governor's home

Iowa City couple renovate 150-year-old house

When Sam James and his family moved into a historic old house on Kirkwood Avenue back in 1969, he was in the tenth grade. They were only the third family to live in the house, and he was the second Samuel; the first owner was Samuel Kirkwood, Iowa’s fifth governor, who shepherded the state through the Civil War.

Kirkwood left office in 1864 and moved into the new house in the 1860s, though he would go on to serve in the Senate twice and return to the governorship from 1876 to 1877, as well as serving at Secretary of the Interior under President James Garfield.

All that history was what brought Sam James and his family to the house.

“My dad was a history professor, and my parents wanted to live in the house because it was such a historic location,” James said.

After high school, James moved out and away, but his parents Sydney and Vincent James stayed in the home. Now his mother is the owner and has moved out. About six years ago, James and his wife moved back in.

The 2,800 square foot house was badly in need of renovation work, and James slowly started doing what he could, one project at a time, beginning with peeling exterior paint.

“I just sort of looked around and thought, where do I start? The outside,” he said.

Wearing protective gear to mitigate lead exposure, he stripped the exterior paint himself and repainted. Instead of a single tone, he chose three colors, cream for the siding, green for the trim and white for the crown molding details. He had a historic photo of the house and could see multiple tones were used.

Painting was a perilous task at times, as he tried to reach the highest eaves of the house. At one point, near the end of the project, his ladder slipped and he narrowly avoided crashing to the ground by jumping off onto a first floor roof underneath him.

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His efforts caught the eye of historic preservation officials. In 2016, Sam James and his wife Jean won a 2016 Historic Preservation Award for paint and exterior finishes, presented by the Friends of Historic Preservation, the Iowa City Historic Preservation Commission and the Johnson County Historic Preservation Commission.

James, who studies earthworms, taught at the University of Iowa and now teaches at the Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield. He returns to Iowa City to work on the interior of the house when he can, in between research trips to Brazil — Brazilian earthworms in particular are one of his specialties.

The interior renovations have included things like installing air conditioning and new insulation, as well things like refinishing the wooden floors, removing carpet from the stairs and stripping off layer after layer of old wallpaper.

“The wallpaper layers were amazing. It was like a compost pile — you’d get down to the lower levels and it would be just brown flakes,” he said.

He said the historic house has character, and that’s one of the things he likes about it. There are small touches throughout that remind of the former residents, like a buried water cistern outside the home that was used to collect rainwater, or the built-in original wooden cabinets in the kitchen. He remembers it being drafty and cold when he was a teenager, but said he didn’t mind.

“I liked it. It just felt spacious, but not oversized for us,” he said. “We were a bookish family. In the evenings, my sister would be in one corner with a book and so would my father and so would my mother and so would I.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8434; alison.gowans@thegazette.com

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