In 2011, Beth DeBoom — president of Save CR Heritage, a not-for-profit group that works to preserve historic buildings — saved a 130-year-old house from demolition.
The historic home on Third Street SE in New Bohemia had flooded three times, including in 2008, when the family living inside had to be rescued as the Cedar River rose nearly to the second floor.
Following the flood, the house was completely gutted. The wood was rotten. Dirt covered everything. There were holes in the walls and windows were boarded up.
DeBoom, 48, walked by the house many times thinking it couldn’t be saved.
“It looked awful,” she recalled.
Then, in 2011, the city declared it unsafe for human occupancy and slapped a condemned sign on the door. The home was fated for demolition, which struck a chord in DeBoom, who comes from a family of preservationists.
“It’s a genetic sickness,” she said. “Once you’re driven to do this, you can’t stop.”
She decided to tour the home, and when she saw light streaming through the holes in the staircase wall onto the dusty interior so beautifully, she couldn’t help but reconsider. Years spent touring old homes with her father, a carpenter, developed DeBoom’s eye for what the frame of an old home could become, she said. So she purchased the dilapidated home from the city for $3000 — the price of the land only.
“I probably spent twice what it was worth, but I was able to do so because I would be getting historic tax credits from the state and federal government,” she said.
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With a lot of her own time and money and the assistance of family, friends and other helping hands, DeBoom spent the last three years renovating the home back to it’s original beauty.
They elevated the home two feet off the ground to prevent future flooding, put a new roof on, cleaned and kept the original hardwood floors, repainted and replaced rotted wood and much more.
The upstairs was in horrible condition, DeBoom said. The former occupants left everything behind after the flood, including a fridge full of rotten food. They did their best to wrap the fridge with duct tape before pushing it over the edge of the porch, in the hopes they would never have to see the contents inside. But even wound with tape, the fridge exploded, DeBoom said.
“I’ll never be able to eat Hy-Vee pea salad again,” she added.
In January, the city issued DeBoom a certificate of occupancy.
Now, the beautifully restored home — known as the “heart house” due to its signature Save CR Heritage heart on the front — operates as DeBoom’s salvage business, Little House Artifacts, on the main floor and an Airbnb vacation rental on the second.
Originally, DeBoom intended to rent the second floor one-bed, one-bath space to a long-term tenant, but after seeing the space “turn out so beautiful, she said she “couldn’t stand the thought of turning it over and not being able to see it again.”
After posting the space to Airbnb in March, it received 100 views and two bookings in just one hour, DeBoom said. The first time she handed over the keys, “it was like sending my first child to kindergarten,” she added. Now, though, she loves bringing new people into the space, which has been booked solid ever since.
Reviewers on Airbnb rave about how much they love the creative, antique décor thoughtfully arranged throughout the space — the Edison bulb lighting, refurbished antique furniture, a claw foot tub in the bathroom, historic family photos, the sign that hung on the door when the home was to be demolished, now framed above the Ikea couch, to name a few.
“There’s something about this place that people really connect with,” DeBoom said.
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Stepping into the 120-year-old home now, you wouldn’t know it had been flooded several times, considered unsafe for occupancy and nearly torn down.
“It’s a testament to how resilient old houses can be,” DeBoom said. “They can go through multiple natural disasters and come out looking gorgeous.”