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A Retreat of Their Own
By Tracy Dickinson | Photography by Tim Abramowitz
home :: home & garden :: featured remodels

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When you’re buying a house, looking at it to see its potential—what it could be, not what it is—is a smart idea. But sometimes all you see are the problems: the dated decor, the ugly fireplace, the old electric appliances. Some home buyers, though, can see past all that, and they end up with the home of their dreams.

After several decades of repeatedly relocating as federal employees, Ed Mall and Julie Christian-Mall decided to return to Iowa when they retired. They hoped to find a house that could be a comfortable, rustic retreat to suit their casual lifestyle and the woodsy-themed items they’d collected over the years. They chose a mid-’90s Cape Cod awash in golden oak and brass.

“The house spoke to us,” Julie says. “We joke that we found the perfect house and totally redid it, but what we did was make it work for us.”

Julie’s background in art and design allowed her to see what the house could become. “We wanted to neutralize the oak. We hated the fireplace. And the dated details didn’t work,” she explains. The goal was to make the right changes that would give the house “a different vibe that fit the setting,” which borders U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ wooded land near Saylorville Lake. And they wanted to accomplish that goal without spending all their retirement years—and funds—in the process.
To achieve that, they spent some time transitioning from their old house in Kansas City, getting to know the new space while they shuttled back and forth waiting for the old house to sell. When it did, the first renovation project was to update the new home’s 3½ bathrooms. Each one benefited from new hardware, paint, flooring, countertops, and cabinetry.

The master bath underwent a more dramatic transformation thanks to “wonderful crews” from AAA Plumbing, Plumb Supply, and Quality Marble and Tile. “They were just so fantastic to work with,” Julie says. “We have just been thrilled with the finished product.”

The biggest change took a miraculous five weeks to complete and involved the heart of the home—the kitchen and great-room. Anchored between the two rooms, a massive wall with a two-sided fireplace dominated the original home. The 36-inch-deep wall served little purpose.

“We looked at all sorts of ways to rework it,” Julie explains, “but most of them involved major construction.”

In the end the couple decided to keep the existing footprint but make better use of the space. With the aid of SJM Construction’s design staff, the Malls found a layout that transformed the dated floor plan into the rustic retreat they wanted.

Steve Mall, Ed’s son and the owner of SJM Construction, and contractor for all of the Malls’
remodeling work, says, “Julie had done a lot of research, and we played around with different designs to make sure they were happy with it. I never want a customer to say, ‘I wish I’d done this differently.’ That means I haven’t done my job.”

Now, like the rest of the home, the kitchen boasts woodsy colors, natural products, and an incredible view. The partial wall between the kitchen and great-room has a new stone fireplace with distressed wood mantel surrounded by custom cabinetry. On the kitchen side, a wealth of storage space provides a backdrop for the dining area.

“We custom-mix all our stains and finishes,” Steve Mall says, “so Julie just showed us pictures of the look she wanted, and we matched it.” The painted kitchen cabinets, in fact, have a unique washed, distressed finish that only a handful of professionals in Iowa offer. And Julie had the same tile from the backsplash installed on the fireplace surround in the hearth room as well.

Less than four years after moving in, the couple seems to have reached their goal—they made the right changes. The home fits its setting better than ever.  “We couldn’t be more pleased. It’s nicer than anything we ever thought we’d have,” Julie concludes. That’s a good thing. Ed says they’re not leaving.



SJM Construction


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