Space for one: Mike Lensing gets personal with north side bungalow

Written by Kathy Weiss

Photos by Reggie Morrow

In these times of heightened environmental awareness, it’s cool to have less.

Mike Lensing’s little urban oasis on Iowa City’s upper North Side is a study in spatial economy that may inspire others to consider going small.

Cozy and capaciously compact, Mike’s modest mid-century bungalow is a mature guy’s pad where he and Rupert, his pet Yorkie, enjoy peace and quiet — the perfect place to retreat from the busy life of a funeral director.

He bought the 1950s-era home on Fairchild Street about 12 years ago from his ex-wife Vicki’s family. Her great-grandparents had lived in a home on the same property.

That address today is vastly changed from the non-descript cracker box Mike first encountered, with its tiny rooms, narrow sidewalks and austere cyclone fencing.

To make it his own, he added a fireplace in the living room, replaced windows and doors and bumped out the back with a roomy addition where he spends most of his time at home.

As part of a kitchen remodel, a standard three-foot doorway was enlarged and embellished with smooth white columns. Wider white painted trim and millwork, paneled doors and a coved ceiling in the master bedroom boosts architectural interest in what had been a boring conventional footprint. Duffey Brothers Construction completed the improvements and also modified the home’s exterior, adding a front gabled façade and porch. HardiePlank lap siding in sage and terra cotta enhances the home’s vintage character and honors the historic neighborhood.

Touring inside with Rupert tucked under his arm, Mike shares the pros of living small. “It’s manageable and cozy,” he says, noting that he does admire big luxury homes. “But I don’t know what you’d do with all that,” he surmises. “You’d have to have big stuff.”

Infused with personality, Mike’s place reflects the high taste level of a successful businessman who knows what he likes, a guy who shops locally, goes to art fairs and watches HGTV. Framed photos of his sons, Alex and Nick, and daughter, Mandy, are displayed among unusual finds from the Iowa Arts Festival, Decorum and Sister’s Garden in Kalona. His kick back spot is “the other room,” where a wall-mounted flat panel TV screen and high barn-style windows maximize wall space. Furnishings include a favorite chair he’s had since college now in a dandelion print that matches pillows on the sofa. An old trunk, oversized painted shutters, wall sconces and a memory box table that holds his bronzed baby shoes and Lensing Funeral Home keepsakes give the room heart. A life-size ceramic rooster he received for his 50th birthday adds a touch of spunk.

Wall surfaces in every room are filled with framed works of art by Jane Hunt Williamson, Deb Conklin, Ellen Waggoner and many other artists. “All artwork I have — almost everything — has sky in it,” Mike observes. Rolling fields and forests of the upper Midwest, Galena, Ill., and lower Wisconsin are found here, along with a small oil painting of a stormy ocean scene by Kimberly Boulon he picked up on a trip to the Virgin Islands with his kids.

…In the garden, a stand of red Asiatic lilies, coneflower and pots of yellow lantana form a colorful playground for urban wildlife. Since hanging a new feeder, Mike has become a bird watcher. In fact, all creatures are welcome in his personal refuge, except garter snakes. Simple chores like mowing the lawn are a joy, he says, because in a short time, “you can see it done. So many things in life take so much time.”

A wisteria-laden pergola over a cobblestone-stamped walkway leads to his detached garage. Enclosed by a sage-colored picket fence with shutters at the windows, the backyard scene is from a storybook, complete with a pair of green metal lawn chairs set in the shade next to a koi pond.

“I kind of wanted it to look like a cottage,” Mike says of the lush setting planted with hosta, daylilies, sedum, a dogwood and the soft feathery plumes of astilbe. At opposite corners of the back yard, square blocks of limestone set inches apart form a grassy grid with aspen trees to the north and the pond he built at the south, its lines softened by ornamental grasses and a towering river birch.

Beyond utilitarian, Mike drives in and out of a garage with peach colored walls and an oversized mural hand-painted by a friend, former city manager Steve Atkins. A chandelier suspended over his car is a functional and decorative focal point.

“I have a vision of what I like,” he says, although slowing down enough to savor it is another matter.

“Last year when I broke my leg, Rupert and I just batched it,” Mike shared, suddenly introspective. “It was the first time I really sat and enjoyed my house. I am a very patient person with everyone but myself,” he added. “I know I should live in the moment, but sometimes it’s such a struggle.

“I need more contemplation time,” he said. “The environment I’ve designed lends itself to that. I do strive for balance.

“I’m very social — I love being with people,” he says, “but I like just bummin’ at home, too.”

Looking around, Mike sees changes he’d like to make. He’d replace his living room carpet with hardwood, resurface the fireplace with limestone and add egress windows in the basement. A simple shrug suggests that it might not happen soon.

And yet, somehow there’s comfort learning that a man who we turn to in grief doesn’t require more.