OwnerOivind and Harriet (Knutson) Hovde
Building NameUsonian Midcentury Modern.
Address603 North St Decorah, IA 52101
Architectural StyleUsonian Midcentury Modern
Tour TypeWest Decorah Tour
Oivind Hovde was head librarian at Luther from 1949 to 1977, and was a major force behind the award-winning design of Luther College’s 1969 Preus Library. (The library’s architect was Don Gray, an Altfillisch partner who had for twelve years been the firm’s single remaining architect before he retired in 1998.) In 1960, Oivind Hovde spent a summer helping California Lutheran College establish its library. He was for many years involved in Decorah city zoning and permitting procedures. Harriet was a homemaker. The Hovdes raised four children of their own and–after the death of their infant daughter in 1949–cared for three foster children for extended time periods.
603 North St. and and the mirror-reversed neighboring house at 605 are single-family, cinderblock, split-foyer designs. The houses share some features with Frank Lloyd Wright’s mid-1930’s Usonian houses, including a flat roof, wide jutting overhangs, an inconspicuous street front, low cost, basic materials, and carports (a word which Wright coined for his Usonian houses). The typical Usonian house was one story and had no basement or attic, while 603 and 605 have a full basement opening out to the back yard.
Altfillisch was involved in the design process for both homes, but it’s difficult to know precisely how much. He made this note about the properties in his surviving 1945-50 Project Book: “Sketches completed Nov. 1946. Plans finished by Thorsen. Construction started April 1947.” (Luther College Archives) However, there are no entries for the properties in the complete Project List held by the Winneshiek County Historical Society, which might suggest that Altfillisch did not consider himself the chief architect and that he did not supervise construction.
Peter Hovde, the oldest of the Hovde children, provided a house history–lightly edited for this entry–that greatly expands our understanding of the genesis of both houses:
Dad spent three years as the librarian at Concordia-Moorhead during WWII, when my sister Marty and I were little tykes. Dad at that time designed what would become our Decorah house, inspired by a similar house just down the street in Moorhead. Dad’s drawings only depicted the stand-alone, four-square house, without the two-storey attachment. The Moorhead house which inspired dad didn’t have the extension either. It is probable that Altfillisch is responsible for the extension which really made the two houses more FLW-Usonian. My sister Marty and I remember that dad would often wax rhapsodic about Wright’s work.
Dockens became interested in the house design, and submitted it to Orene’s brother, who was an architect down in Story City. For their house, he tweaked the chimney and front entryway, and made some changes in the main house interior. The Docken’s house construction lagged behind ours by a few weeks.
The top floors on each were initially intended to be garages. If you look on the facing walls, you will see the outline of the garage door, because the blocks do not overlap, making it easier to knock down. Many years later a member of the Decorah Board of Adjustment told me there was a conflict between the owners and the city that depended on the intention of the original owner to build a garage. Anyway, due to a shortage of dorm space at the college, the top floors became “college boy rooms.” So they never became garages. That was my room in 603. When it would storm, I would stand up on my bed and pretend I was a captain of an aircraft carrier being tossed about on the bounding main.
The street-visible “Altfillisch-Usonian” extensions on both houses were added in the same year in the early 1950s. In the 1960s the Dockens built an addition to the main house, extending the living and dining rooms to the south. The car ports were added by subsequent owners.
Drawing on this history and the written record, we believe that Oivind Hovde drew up plans for a portion of the house, consulted with Altfillisch in 1946, who enhanced the plans (during those years Altfillisch designed several homes for Luther faculty), and that the Dockens’ 605 plans then went on to architect “Thorsen” for final preparation. (“Thorsen” is almost surely Thorwald Thorson or his son Oscar. The obituary of Norman Madson–Orene Docken’s brother–says that he was for a time a partner in the architectural firm Thorson, Thorson and Madson in Forest City, Iowa, before he joined Sovik, Mathre and Madson in Northfield, Minnesota.)