For more than 100 years, the same house has stood at the corner of Ninth and Greene Streets in Adel. After sitting vacant for a couple of years now, its newest owners are on a mission to rehabilitate the house, known to the locals as “Big Blue,” to its former beauty.
Mike and Laurie Tigges of Adel, who started JT Homes with Laurie's father Greg Tigges, have restored two houses in the Des Moines area and decided to take on their next project a little closer to home and purchased Big Blue in November.
“We came and looked at it and it's not as bad as everybody thought it was, I don't think,” Mike said. “I think a lot of people were concerned about the foundation. The actual brick and mortar foundation of this place is in really good shape. It was the wooden 6-by-10 sills on top of that foundation that had suffered some damage, but as you look around you can see, nobody really robbed this place of much of anything. There's a lot of original stuff in here.”
When the work is complete, the house will serve as a bed and breakfast.
Mike moved to Adel in 1984 with his family and has known the house since he was a kid. Mike said it may not be the premier house in Adel, but it holds a prominent place as you enter the city from the east or the west.
“It's the first old house you see when you come in or out of Adel,” Mike said.
The future of the house was in doubt after Rally Cap Properties, the previous owner of the house, ended its plans to do the rehabilitation and include a new brew pub and office space in the house. Laurie said that there was talk of moving the house, but they believed it was ultimately best to keep the house where it is, and that's when Mike and Laurie bought the house.
“I think we were the perfect combination to meet with them on this,” Laurie said.
Shortly after getting approved to buy the house, with help from Lincoln Savings Bank, they got right to work as they wanted to get the front corner of the house patched up before winter hit, which they did. Previously the house had an evergreen tree in the yard, which had grown in through a hole in the front corner of the house.
They are also working to redo the stairs to the attic, which were very steep and dangerous when they first bought the house.
“Nobody wants people to fall down the stairs. They're sturdy, they're just configured oddly, so with no railing it seems very treacherous.”
On Dec. 12, Mike and Laurie also had the Widow's Walk removed from the top of the home, since it wasn't original to the house and they have heard that a resident of the house in the 1960s added it on “so that he could be closer to God.”
Widow's walks were originally built on early New England homes for an unimpeded view of the sea so women could watch for their husbands to return home from their voyages. Since Mike and Laurie are applying for historic preservation credits, they needed to get rid of anything that isn't original to the house or the time period in which it was built.
History within the walls
As Mike and Laurie dug into the house and started to pull things apart, they found that there was a lot of history in those walls — literally.
After pulling off layers and layers of wallpaper, which the house's previous resident, LaBerta Kester, loved, according to her granddaughter, Mike and Laurie found signatures of Helen and Morris Simcoke, the daughter and son of J.L. Simcoke, who built the house in the 1890s.
J.L. Simcoke was one of Adel's first pharmacists and was shot during the Adel Bank robbery of 1895. He survived the attack.
Laurie said that finding those signatures triggered an emotional reaction.
“I'm not an overly sentimental person, like, I'm not a cry-at-commercials kind of person, but she was 10, 12 (years old), Helen Simcoke would have been and she signed the walls,” Laurie said. “I just didn't wonder, was mom here and knew she was going to sign the walls, or was it they stopped by, and mom wasn't here and somebody said go ahead, we're just going to wallpaper over it?
“But to see the drawings that the boys made and to see her signature on these walls and realized that was done in 1890, that was so long ago, but then to see I would have wanted to do the same thing. My kids, I think, we did that.”
She said that the signatures and drawings on the walls beneath the wallpaper were among the most “heartfelt” things she found, along with hearing from LaBerta's family members and having them express their excitement about them rehabilitating the house instead of tearing it down.
One of LaBerta's children gave Mike and Laurie a picture of the house from 1900, which Mike specified as one of his favorite items.
“I can't put a price on how valuable that picture was to us,” he said.
The picture also showed a wrap-around porch in 1900, as opposed to the two brick porches currently on the house. Laurie always wanted to put a wrap-around porch on the house, but was “voted down” until seeing it on the original photo.
The house originally also had a sleeping porch on the second floor, which is now walled in and was used as a closet. They discovered this when they noticed the door to the closet was an exterior door with a window.
There is a column from the outside that you can see from inside the closet. The plan is for them to reopen the space and return it to it's sleeping porch status.
The Kester children also pointed out to Mike and Laurie a secret room in the basement that is only accessible through the floor in the living room on the main level.
“Kolby (Kester) said that if you go down in there, which we'll do at some point, when we figure out a way to get back out of it, there's like old newspapers and stuff in there,” Laurie said. “I don't know what they would have been hiding down there. It's not like the underground railroad was in the 1890s.”
The trap door under the floor leads to a brick tunnel that goes straight down. It is speculated that the secret space could have been useful during the prohibition era.
Mike and Laurie also found old newspapers on the second floor in between the linoleum floor and the wooden floor beneath it in one of the rooms. They could see that the floor in that room was installed in 1951 because that's the year the newspapers were dated.
The newspapers they found were not issues of The Des Moines Register, but its now defunct partner, The Des Moines Tribune. The letter to the editor headline read: “Reader defends McCarthy and Taft” in one of the issues.
“It's just very very interesting to see all of the history just laying underneath the floor,” Laurie said.
Mike also said that he had also found newspapers from the 1940s were used as insulation by the kitchen window on the main floor.
In the attic, they found old cans of beer and soda, old magazines and even signs that previous residents had hosted a haunted house, as cobbed webs and a cartoon ghost were drawn on the walls.
Helping fulfill Adel's needs
The idea to turn the house into a bed and breakfast came about through conversations between Mike and Laurie, and Deb Bengtson from the Adel Partners Chamber of Commerce.
“I think a lot of people had thought about it because of the age of it and the location,” Laurie said. “It's easy to find. Adel's not that big, but it's still walkable to everywhere.”
The size and layout of the house makes it a good spot for a bed and breakfast, especially in a city without a hotel. Bengtson said she has not been directly involved in the process of planning the rehabilitation, but did have a few conversations with Mike and Laurie about Adel's needs.
“We really have a need for mixed use, we have a need for bed and breakfast… and this just makes perfect sense for a bed and breakfast, especially with the new events center we have opening,” Bengtson said. “It all seems to come together. It's so close to the bike trail.”
The house is currently a 7-bedroom house, but will have five bedrooms and five bathrooms by the time the work is complete.
There will be four guest rooms on the second floor, each with its own bathroom. The rooms will bear the names of the previous residents of the house, including the Simcoke Suite, which will be a little bigger than the other three rooms.
Also on the first floor will be a parlor and a living room with one room having period-specific furniture and antiques for a classic look with the other room having modern furniture and maybe even a television.
“The main level especially will be as period correct as possible,” Laurie said. “We'll put wallpaper back up, we may do tin ceilings or something like that, although they weren't here originally, it would be correct to the era.”
The second-floor bedrooms will have period-correct wallpaper, but will have modern furniture.
“I like comfortable furniture that I can flop onto and I never feel that way when I'm sitting on victorian (furniture). I always feel like I need to sit very carefully,” Laurie said slowly.
Laurie's idea is to make the attic into one big suite that could host several people at one time, hoping to attract larger groups riding in on the Raccoon River Valley Trail on their bikes.
They will also be updating electricity utilities and plumbing, which they can still do when seeking historical preservation funds.
They were originally going to buy it as a residence and had plans to sell the house once the work was complete.
“By using it as a bed and breakfast, we just felt that more people got to enjoy it instead of just one family, and you have to have the right family to want this place. It's not really a two people, one baby kind of house.”
The house could also play host to meetings, card groups and more. They would also like to make the house a destination for smaller weddings, but would not strive to compete with other venues in the area that host larger weddings and include more services.
“As we go through renovation, we have to keep in mind keeping the historical character with it and making sure that it's usable residentially as well as if it's used as a bed and breakfast, because if for some reason we decide, hey, we don't want to do this bed and breakfast anymore, it can be a home, but you have to make sure you gear toward it that way,” Laurie said.
Mike wasn't willing to make any promises, but said that they hope to have the work mostly finished by July so they can have visitors during the Sweet Corn Festival, even if the bed and breakfast isn't open for business yet.
“In an ideal situation, we might be done by then and ready to open, but I think we'll be done with the major construction and the outside where we want it,” Mike said. “It's just whether or not we have all the furniture and everything to open up the bed and breakfast or not.”
Those wanting to follow along with the restoration efforts may follow the project on Facebook. Go to www.facebook.com and search for Big Blue Restoration-Adel, Iowa.