Written by Kathy Weiss
Photos by Reggie Morrow
Nestled among the charming Colonials, stately Tudors and cozy bungalows of River Street in Manville Heights sits a traditional 1928 farmhouse that has been thoughtfully reinvented to reflect the owners’ European sensibilities.
Walls came down to create a spacious living area bathed in natural light. A tiny kitchen was revamped as part of a dining room addition that cohesively merged with the existing space. Ab and Lilian Gratama then cosmetically stylized each room with iconic furnishings and family heirlooms to give it their own unique decorative vibe.
A brief glance inside is enough to know that the inhabitants of this classic five-bedroom, two story situated at the corner of River Street and Magowan Avenue hail from across the seas.
In the kitchen, Delft Blue porcelain shares a shelf with African pottery over an antique farm table from England. A slender glass case in the living room displays a collection of World War II relics handed down from family: A wrist compass, a Rollei camera, model aircraft and other mid-century artifacts. On a nearby table, an ornate 19th century French alabaster clock tells of an earlier time, along with antique lamps from Holland and framed portraits of Ab’s ancestors, circa 1760. In the dining room, an unusual square dining room table crafted of solid white marble is one more telltale sign that this is not a typical American homestead. Many essential furnishings have journeyed with the Gratama family to West Africa and Holland before crossing the Atlantic by ship.
Years ago, as a young graphic designer, Ab was sent to Ghana by the Dutch government to establish a visual communication department as part of a multi-national agricultural development project. There he and Lilian met a professor from the University of Iowa School of Journalism, Joseph Ascroft, who would eventually persuade them to give Iowa a look. The professor encouraged Ab to enroll in a Ph.D. study at the UI School of Journalism. “I was on a visit here to determine whether we would actually pick up in the Netherlands and do it,” Ab shared of how they landed in the Manville Heights neighborhood, just down the street from Professor Ascroft’s home. “We passed this house on the way to the university and saw the sign” listing it for sale by Jackie Blank of Blank & McCune Real Estate. “Jackie took me around and showed me house after house. She was so patient,” he recalled emphatically, his slight Dutch accent giving the words a polite edge. “That same day I said she would have my offer.”
Ab contacted Lilian back in Holland and told her he had found their new home. After Lilian and their children, Marc and Larissa, settled in to their new life, a transformation began.
“Three rooms with French doors dividing them were opened up to create this large living room,” Lilian explained as she led a tour through the comfortably-furnished main level on a recent sunny afternoon. A subdued palette of black on white with dusty rose accents gives the expanded space an uncomplicated appeal, defined architecturally by large windows, two interior square columns and French doors flanked by a wall of space-saving book cases.
Ab slides into his favorite chair, a black leather Eames lounger, and swivels to illustrate his 360-degree vantage point. The scene conveys a domestic abode of worldly sophistication: Books, art, antiques and cherished keepsakes with a different worldview. Important 19th and 20th century furniture designs punctuate the couple’s eclectic style. Beneath a window, a graceful black tufted Chesterfield loveseat sits across from a Thonet bentwood rocker. Large palms and simple vases of cut flowers enliven the relaxed setting.
Lilian and her husband share an appreciation for artistic living environments enhanced by soft light. “We like low lighting,” Ab adds, as opposed to ceiling fixtures.
“The kitchen was originally a lot smaller,” Lilian observes, passing through what is now an efficient and attractive food prep area. Its expansion was part of an addition that produced a formal dining room with two pairs of French doors leading outdoors.
“We wanted more light from the west,” Ab reasoned, pointing to an extensive balcony and porch with sweeping views of a lush garden walkway and neighboring ravine.
The space blends seamlessly with the aged patina of the rest of the home, thanks to an old floor of southern pine salvaged from a theater in Oxford.
Ab recalls his contractor-friend Roger Gwinnup telling him: “If you take it up, you can have it.” So he bought a pickup truck for $500 to haul the wood home. “We had to do it on the cheap,” he remarked with a grin.
Assisting them with renovation was architect Tom Cowen, who has since moved to California. Gwinnup and contractor Charley Kapp handled the construction. “I enjoyed helping with parts of the construction, which taught me a lot,” Ab recalled. “Charley and I put down the pine the floor.” Ab completed most of the interior work himself.
A carpenter in his own right, Ab also designed a few modern pieces of furniture including a square black coffee table in the living room and a low side table with a drop down shelf in the dining room. Downplaying his skill, he drew attention to an antique buffet marred by bullet holes “that survived the Second World War.” Like other treasured heirlooms, the chest has traveled halfway around the world by ship, packed in a container.
Downstairs in the cool lower level walkout basement, the professor of graphic design shows off his workplace. “This is my joint,” he says, standing next to a large “T” shaped surface equipped with three chairs, three Macs and other accouterments of a graphic artist. He designed the workspace using solid core wood doors he bought at a local store, painted his signature matte black finish, and chairs found at UI Surplus.
Two-and-a-half decades after setting foot in their home, Ab and Lilian seem a bit surprised, but happy, to be locals. Their son lives in Chicago, their daughter has a home down the street and like his friend, the professor, Ab can walk to work — “unless I have a lot to carry,” he says.