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River Bend Reincarnation
By Linda Montet | Photography by Tim Abramowitz
home :: home & garden :: featured remodels

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Call it sweat equity, an investment in the community, or simply creating a great place to live. No matter which description you use, residents of the River Bend neighborhood and some adjacent areas are gradually—and enthusiastically—returning a vital section of Des Moines to its original elegance.
Two years ago, Don L. Curry and Justin W. Hancock saw potential in a rundown Victorian house in the Cheatom Park neighborhood. It was wrapped in three layers of aluminum, asphalt, and composite siding and about to go into foreclosure.

They purchased the home, and today it’s one of the most striking homes in the neighborhood. “All those layers of siding did a wonderful job of protecting the original wood—happily,” says Justin. Ninety-five percent of the exterior is original, he says, including the detail work. Bright blue and white paint and a brilliant walkway of flowering plants give passersby good reasons to stop and take notice.

Talented gardeners (Justin is a Web site’s garden editor and Don owns Loki’s Garden, a landscaping and light construction business), the home’s owners have surrounded it with abundant, lush vegetation.

“It was dense and disgusting,” Justin recalls. From an adjacent lot overcome with weeds, garbage, and alien trees, he and Don established strawberry and blueberry patches, set up trellises to nurture vegetables, and planted flowers. A brick walkway now leads to the gate, and a drought-tolerant, self-feeding clover lawn snakes among annuals and perennials.

Angel’s trumpet, a plant with blossoms that grow more fragrant as the sun goes down, decorates an elevated, pergola-covered deck (complete with porch swing). It creates the perfect spot to relax and enjoy the atmosphere and the view.

Inside the home, another transformation is underway. Glass-paneled Victorian-period exterior doors, hunted down in five different states, now grace the entrances to the main floor, which features 10-foot ceilings, a massive pocket sliding door, carved oak staircase, and regal, tile-lined fireplace.

Previous owners had walled up rooms and closets, added dropped ceilings, and sided over doorways and windows. The kitchen had to be taken down to the studs, says Don. They built new custom cupboards and installed a subway-tile backsplash and tile floor and then spent many hours adding a dozen coats of stain to the maid’s stairway.

Inspired by a beautifully restored stained-glass window, interior colors are coordinated in burgundy, gold, and green. Two more original stained-glass windows bring outside light onto the winding staircase to the second floor.

A dramatic work in progress, the home is a perfect example of what a little love and a lot of hard work can accomplish.

Early Farmhouse
Five blocks north on Ninth Street, husband and wife Chad Vande Lune and Dorothy Hecht have spent four years returning the community’s original farmhouse to its former grandeur.

Separated from the street by a spacious front yard, the stately house sits so far back that it’s easily overlooked. “We think this is one of the older homes in Des Moines,” Chad says. “It sat on 80 acres in the middle of an orchard when it was first built in the mid-1800s.”

“Chad had always wanted to restore an older home,” says Dorothy, “and we liked that it was so old. It had been a boarding house with a shared bathroom and kitchenettes. We  bought it from someone who owned it for just a year. He started the renovation.”

That former owner had removed the paint from the exterior brick and tuck-pointed the mortar, an expensive and labor-intensive process. Chad and Dorothy removed a porch that had been added in the 1950s and then immediately went to work on the main living space in the kitchen and living room.

“All of the walls were covered with paneling,” Chad says, “and the floors had two or three layers of linoleum.” After months of ripping it out and filling several haul-away trash receptacles with debris, plaster walls and yellow pine floors began to emerge. That’s when the home’s original footprint became apparent.

“The original house was much smaller,” says Chad, pointing out the exterior brick and mortar wall he’s uncovered in the front hallway, “and the current kitchen had been walled off.” The couple’s meticulous work opened up a huge archway entrance in the kitchen/living room area—an element that is now a focal point of the home.

Energy efficient ahead of its time, the house has only two windows facing north or west. All others face east and south, letting in abundant light and warmth.

Additional second-floor restoration is already underway, and plans are in the works for an added first-floor bathroom. Flower and vegetable gardens are also in the future, but for now the home is more than livable—it’s a sanctuary. “We love it,” says Dorothy, a musician who spends many hours in the home. “It’s kind of like our own little island back here.”

A River Bend Invitation
Residents of the River Bend area of Des Moines once again open their doors to visitors with their thirteenth annual tour of homes September 12 and 13.       
This year’s tour offers visitors a look at historic homes along five blocks of West Ninth Street, the route of the 19th- and early 20th-century Des Moines streetcar line. The area features many architectural styles, including Victorian, Prairie, Neo-Classical, and Craftsman. 

Tour participants get a unique glimpse of the past, a peek at restorations completed and in progress, and how-to ideas for renovating homes from an earlier era.

Once one of Des Moines’ most elegant and interesting neighborhoods, River Bend has come back to life in recent years. A diverse community of individuals and families is dedicated to restoring these stately homes and creating an attractive, livable neighborhood.

Entertainment throughout the tour includes a River Bend favorite—crafters demonstrating their skills on various home rehabilitation methods. Baked items will be offered for sale both days.

Tour Details

Dates: Saturday, September 12, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Sunday, September 13, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Tickets: Available the day of the event at the United Way building, 1111 9th Street, or in advance at Dahl’s 35th and Ingersoll Avenue location. $10 for adults; $5 for those 6–17; free for children 5 and under. 

Tour Begins: At the United Way building located at 1111 9th Street.

Parking: Plenty of off-street parking is available at the United Way building, where the tour begins.

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