Davissons’ Iowa River cottage a midsummer night's dream

Written by Kathy Weiss

Photos by Reggie Morrow

Like visual poetry, this serene river setting is reminiscent of England’s Stratford Upon Avon, home of William Shakespeare.

Low, verdant grassy banks and reflective, slow-moving water form an idyllic backdrop to the little white Dutch Colonial-style cottage that sits along Taft Speedway at the south edge of Iowa City's Peninsula community.

Built in the 1930s, this quaint dwelling has been revitalized in recent years with modern updates, a colorful palette and a sunroom and porch that blend and extend living areas. Apart from new windows, the exterior remains largely untouched, dressed in original bright green shutters with nostalgic cutouts of evergreen trees. This artsy, one-of-a-kind residence is home base for Susan and Gary Davisson, who say living there "feels like we're on holiday every day."

"Susan has always admired the house," says Gary, a native of North English who supplies local building contractors as a sales manager for Advance Millwork of North Liberty. His wife is a former flight attendant who has traveled the globe but now stays close to home and works part-time as a nurse for University Hospitals.

Their former home was a new condo across the road with luxury amenities and twice the square footage, yet Susan couldn't stop thinking about the little house by the river. She watched as buyers and renters came and went and twice tried to negotiate a purchase.

"It just finally happened," Gary said, when they acquired the property in October 2002. "We bought it and at the time it was kind of run down."

The original blueprints to the 1,050-square-foot house show a one-room floor plan and a later remodeling that created a separate kitchen and entry in 1938. Another blueprint from 1939 details plans for further modifications that never transpired. Gary has since completed those renovations, adding the sunroom and adjoining porch on the main level to showcase the river. The rooftop of the addition is now a sunny balcony off the master bedroom, which offers a bird’s eye view of handmade steppingstones leading to the water and City Park on the far shore. A gated arbor at the street entry and lush gardens further enhance the European-style cottage.

What originally may have been intended as a fishing getaway on the outskirts of town some 70 years ago has been transformed into a charming, cozy, conveniently located retreat, just right for two, or six if you count the entire family: Rufus, Lilian, Lyle and Valerie, their Chihuahua, two Dachshunds and cat adopted through Susan’s volunteer work with animal rescue efforts. The home also is a favorite place for family gatherings and even has provided the setting for several weddings.

"Summer is our favorite season," Susan says, a time for boating and fun moments with their children and grandchildren. A tire swing hangs from a shade tree in the yard not far from the concrete stepping stones that were hand made by three generations of family members. They dug holes in the ground, filled them with concrete and then decorated the "stones" by pressing leaves, flowers, shells and rocks into the wet mix. "We must have had 15 people in the yard working on that project," Gary recalled, surveying the unique path from the veranda above.

As hummingbirds swarm feeders around the porch and fall sunlight glistened on the water, the soothing sounds of Carole King’s "So Far Away" evoke a kick-back-and-relax frame of mind and a comfy daybed looms nearby. This setting could inspire poetry, a midsummer night's dream or perhaps with a set of binoculars at a certain time of the year, it might even be a vantage point for catching some real Shakespeare across the Iowa River. Yet, this image of a life of leisure isn't very realistic, according to Gary.

"We always had brand new houses," he explains. "Now we have an old house with all these projects and all the maintenance. You learn to accept it, though," he adds with a laugh.

"Last year we had a moratorium on projects," he continued, sharing one of their favorite routines during the summer months: Cruising the river. "At night, we’d get on the pontoon with a cocktail and go up to Iowa River Power (Restaurant) and then back down almost to the dam."

The couple's displayed collections tell of other faraway pursuits: Framed butterflies and exotic insects brought back from an Inca Trail in Peru, seashells from the ocean, along with antique keys, colored glass bottles, unusual trinkets and artful finds that give life to the small house. "We just collect stuff that’s goofy," Susan says, standing before a homespun framed design made of shells she picked up at a garage sale.

Bold color makes the small house and its unique decor come alive. Susan blended white into green to create subtle variations for different areas and then mixed silver into purple to achieve a color-washed lavender that complements the green. Vibrant celery, lime, powdery lilac and topaz enliven the main level, while dreamy pastels of pink and blue color Susan's dressing room and the master bedroom upstairs. The entire house is accessorized with wild animal prints on pillows and upholstered furnishings, conveying a style that's exotic and adventurous.

With space at a premium, most rooms are multi-purpose, but none as much as the garage, which serves as laundry room, utility area, animal house and more. "We have the well here, air conditioning, washer and dryer, water softener, freezer and it's also our workshop space," Gary notes, as he opens the door to show the one-car space.

The property has its own well system, so fewer city services are needed. "Basically, we only have our garbage pick up bill," he says, citing the upside of life on the river.