Life above the store

Couple’s time, money, elbow grease goes into Mount Vernon’s main street place livable

Published: March 16 2014 | 11:37 am - Updated: 1 April 2014 | 9:41 am in

MOUNT VERNON — Mike and Val Smith have brought the old-fashioned term “living above the store” to a new level.

Feature, if you will, 12-foot ceilings, classic crown moldings, gleaming wide-planked fir flooring; light globes of the white vintage “school house” style; fancy double doors with peepholes and porcelain door knobs. Go on to the handsome breadboard walls and cupboards, 8-inch deep baseboards and wide transom windows that transport one back to the 1900s.

Cast your eyes on the historical mementos sprinkled about the premises and you have the home of the Smiths, crafted out of a brick building constructed in 1904 when new Model As putt-putted down the main street of this picturesque village, home to Cornell College — and Bauman and Co.

Bauman’s is the venerable men’s clothing store that’s also on First Street, enjoying business on the first floor of that location since 1909. The upper floor was then occupied by the local lodge of the IOOF (Independent Order of Odd Fellows), a fraternal organization, and some of their relics were found by the couple. Later that space went into storage. Mike Smith purchased the business in 1993 from family members and now owns it with his wife.

It’s not that they’re in cramped quarters. There’s a huge great room with dining area, two bedrooms, two baths, laundry room, and a kitchen — all spread over a very comfortable 2,500 square feet.

Nor does living in such a quaint environment prohibit contemporary conveniences: The master bedroom is en suite, with his-and-hers lavatories and a walk-in closet; the kitchen has an island/breakfast bar and, of course, there’s the handy elevator.

However, considering that the couple came from a ranch house, these quarters used for years as merely storage are indeed quite a change.

“I thought the space was really cool,” says Val, who believed it could be a neat place to live. “My husband said no, it would take too much work. But after seeing a Chicago loft that he thought was neat, he agreed to the renovation.

“I made him shake on it,” recalls Val, smiling.

They went to local architect and historic preservationist Ed Sauter. It took a year to make all the changes, starting in fall of 2011. After they moved in 2012, “It took me another year to decorate,” says Val.

She had a picture of what she wanted in her mind’s eye and spent a lot of time planning space configurations. The couple also began working with the State Historical Society and its local chapter. “They didn’t want us to take out any walls,” says Val, “but we could add them as we needed.”

Mike remembers that “Some things we didn’t agree with them at first but, thank God, we could see later that they were right.” The cost came to $225,000, including a new roof, exterior trim paint, tuckpointing and an elevator.

Val, 55, served as the family’s master designer. Mike, 63, says, “I didn’t have much input into it because I didn’t have the vision. Val just did a marvelous job of it.”

But what’s a mental image without the muscle? Val quickly says, “Mike did a tremendous amount of the manual labor.”

“The woodwork sure has my imprint on it,” says Mike, laughing. He spent untold hours cleaning the almost endless woodwork. Some was unsalvageable so they had it reproduced. Both worked most nights on their new quarters for a year, after a full work day. Val is a customer service associate at the Cedar Rapids Public Library.

The overwhelming impression one gets when entering the space above the store is, well, the space. The great room is 36-feet-by-25-feet, the kitchen a roomy 25-feet-by-16-feet, all topped, of course, by the 12-foot ceilings and the plenteous presence of 7-foot windows, allowing lots of natural light. The bedrooms, out of sight, are smaller but still comfortably sized.

Adding to the feeling of spaciousness is the color — or the lack thereof. After drinking in the architecture, one realizes the furnishings and wall colors are all pretty monochromatic: largely shades of gray or white, from walls to area rugs to upholstery to accessories.

Result? Subdued. Chic. Understated. One could see coming home with frazzled workaday nerves and feeling instant quietude. One could step onto a gray patterned area rug and sink into a comfortable soft gray sofa with contemporary designed gray and white pillows, relaxing while watching a 55-inch TV snuggled unobtrusively against a wall.

“I struggled with colors,” recalls Val. “I wasn’t sure what scheme to use with the orange cast of the fir floors. Then I saw a picture of a room with neutral colors and I really liked it.” Hence the gray/white scheme was born, from dove gray to dark, from off-whites to ivory. Smith didn’t use a decorator but Ethan Allen helped her with paint colors.

“I wanted something special, yet I had to work with a budget,” Val muses. “This is what we could afford, and we’re very happy with it.”

Their friends thought they were crazy to leave their “beautiful ranch house” to renovate a storage area, but now they and family love the place, too. (The couple have a son, Jordan, 25, who works at Braun Intertec in Cedar Rapids.)

Would the Smiths do the makeover again? Amazingly, each says “No!”

“It was way more work than we thought,” says Val. “If I had known how much more work, we would be sitting in a condo now. I’d just never do it again, even though I love it. It was exhausting.”

Mike replies that “My first answer is ‘Absolutely not.’ It was brutal, an amazing amount of work. My second answer is: ‘I’m glad that we did it.’”

It was important to them to preserve the historic characteristics and they found a lot of original items on the premises, such as the numerous school house globe lights now hanging in the great room, and a treasured IOOF light fixture. It’s unusual in its triangular shape, with printing that declares “Mt Vernon Lodge No. 551 IOOF.” It serves as a glowing reminder of the past.

The Smiths refinished the floors and saved the old doors, three still with their peepholes, used apparently by IOOF members to screen those at the door.

Val summed up their experience of breathing new life into forgotten space: “This sounds corny, but it was like a diamond in the dust, and now that it’s been polished, I think it’s beautiful.”

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