Our New Old House

1918 Bungalow


Des Moines Rehabbers Club February Meeting

 This month’s meeting was hosted by a charming couple, Hal and York. Well, York did all the actual hosting. Their house is a late 1880s Victorian mansion in the Sherman Hill neighborhood. The people who built the house were Jewish and kept Kosher, so they had the house built with two kitchens, one for the Kosher food, and one for the food prepared for guests. This is the first house I’ve seen built like that, but I’m sure there must be more of them out there. It’s something I never thought of until now.

Here’s the house from the outside:


Here York (on the right inside the doorway) and Steve (on the left inside the doorway) introduce the house and give some of its history. The house had been built for a family with ten children (4 girls, 6 boys), then had been a rooming house, then a nursing home for around 60 residents! This is a big house, but NOT big enough for 60 people of ANY condition. Most recent history includes hosting parties for Barack Obama’s staff, family, and friends around the time of the Iowa Caucus. York told some great stories about Sen. Obama challenging his secret service detail to keep up with him as he made his way around the house.

The highlight of the house for me was the set of stained glass windows in the staircase.


York had really done his homework in researching stained glass and he told us that red and purple glass is the hardest and most expensive to make because it uses gold in creating the color. He also pointed out three round pieces that are pretty much priceless because they are blown with lead and the lead makes them crackle like spider web. The third coolest thing about these windows were the hand painted pictures. He explained that those pieces were probably fired six or seven times each because the artist would paint one color on, then fire the piece, then paint the next color, the fire the piece, and so on and so on. Can you imagine? Here are some close-up pictures:





York also had some good insight for other projects around an old house. For example, he explained how to use linseed oil to condition wood. He also explained the difference between using shellac and polyurethane. I was especially interested in that part because I’ve never used either and I’ve been trying to figure out which would be better for the woodwork inside my house.

The most surprising thing about this house was the third floor. The main floor is mostly functional for hosting parties. The second floor has comfortable bedrooms and living spaces that are decorated tastefully in a way that keeps the period style intact but displays the couple’s own modern tastes. The third floor was like stepping into a totally different building! Back in the 1980s whoever owned the house had the third floor redone as an apartment. (Originally, the third floor would have been used as a ballroom.) Whoever they hired as a carpenter to build all the cabinets, closets, and living areas was a genius! The whole area had a very modern feel. You’d never know you were in a Victorian home. Clean lines, modern furniture, and bright, neutral colors made the space feel amazingly open and fresh. I took a few pictures, but wanted to be a little careful since they do rent it to someone and I wasn’t sure how they’d feel having their living space shown all over the internet. 🙂



One of the coolest things I got to see from the third floor were the wooden shingles! Plus, a pretty neat view of the Des Moines skyline.



This trip had a bonus house in it! York’s friend owns the house next door and had given permission for us to look around in it too. The most beautiful thing about this house was the staircase. It amazes me that in over a hundred years of families and tenants living in this house, moving furniture up and down the stairs, and probably kids living here, this ornament never broke off!


The rest of the house is in pretty bad condition, having been split into several cheap apartments over the years and suffering a sorry fate of particle paneling and drop ceilings.   It’s going to be fixed up and converted back to a single family home soon though, so there’s hope for it!

One final note: York mentioned that when a house has been split up into multiple units the law requires there to be exterior fire escapes.  These tend to become eyesores after a while and are one of the main reasons people like to return houses to single family residences.  York explained that one of the things he recommends to people buying houses in Sherman Hill to reconvert back to single family houses is to tear off the exterior fire escape right away.  For one thing, it’s just one less access point inviting vandals if the house is vacant for a while.  And also, the house can’t be listed as a multi-family residence without that fire escape, so it’s sort of a back-up insurance that the house won’t be split up again if you have to sell it or something.

I always learn so much from these meetings!

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2 Responses to “Des Moines Rehabbers Club February Meeting”

  1. February 5th, 2008 at 8:15 am

    Jennifer says:

    Those stain glass windows are breathtaking! I can’t imagine the skill and time that went into each on of those. Truly a treasure!

  2. March 16th, 2012 at 3:10 pm

    Lynn Brown says:

    Is the Des Moines Rehabbers Club still in existence? If so I would like to participate in any way I can. The house showcased in the blog looks very interesting and unique. My home was also built in the 1880s and was in serious need of an upgrade. Instead of selling it and buying a new home I decided that renovation was the way to go. I also live in Des Moines, IA. [Message truncated to remove an ad.]

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