OwnerCharles and Leila (Marsh) Altfillisch
Address801 Mound St Decorah, IA 52101
Architectural StyleMidcentury Modern
Tour TypeWest Decorah Tour
DHPC Award 2018
As we have noted in our Supplemental Notes on 305 Fifth Avenue, Decorah is fortunate. Decorah’s most notable architect lived his adult life in only two homes–both of them self-designed and well-preserved. In addition the two homes neatly epitomize Altfillisch’s residential architectural career, from the revival styles of the 1920-30s, through the more contemporary styles typical of the 1940-60s.
Altfillisch’s 1957 home at 801 Mound St. is a culmination of his 1940-1955 experimentation with the International Style and various forms of Usonian and Ranch Midcentury Modern styling. According to a 1969 newspaper article about the three houses available for public touring during Nordic Fest, the exterior was originally a dark-stained water cypress (Decorah Public Opinion, June 23, 1969).
The house is a subtle construction of four basic blocks. The side-gabled garage sits at a 60 degree angle to the house, making it accessible to the wide front driveway, but–unlike so many contemporary houses–reducing the impact of the blank garage door elevation by making it largely invisible from the street. The north, street-facing garage elevation has a series of three evenly-spaced windows that soften the side view from the street. As photos included below show, the garage and the short roof extension in front of the taller second-story block originally had flat roofs. The current pitched roofs were added around 2013.
The second block is the house entryway, which juts forward towards the street to create a visible, welcoming, accessible entrance. The doorway itself is recessed, but the two entryway surrounds are of different depths, creating an energetic rhythm to the space. The whole space is covered in board and batten, an Altfillisch favorite seen at the St. Benedict School and on many of his 1950-60s remodelings. But unlike most of those properties, here the boards run vertically and the battens run horizontally.
A distinctive touch, very likely influenced by the Altfillischs’ travels in East Asia, are the full-height entryway columns embellished with Asian designs probably based on the Chinese character “shou,” denoting “longevity.” The most prominent of these designs is reproduced on the door knob escutcheon. The columns themselves have a double row of differing-height dentils running along the inside vertical plane. To bring even more energy to the entrance, the red-painted door has an unpredictable but symmetrical, knob-focused batten/chevron pattern. This entryway, playing at the most basic level with Classical-style doors framed by columns, is one of Altfillisch’s most elaborate and successful small-scale designs.
The original flat roof of the garage extended over the entryway, making it part of the garage block. The ca. 2013 sloped roof makes this entryway feel more a part of the third block, the gabled wing that extends to the west. This third block’s clerestory windows provide light in the long, end-gabled living room, which culminates in a broad brick-covered fireplace/chimney wall on the west end. The east end includes a compact dining area (see below for photos and an explanation). The broad wall space below the windows of this wing also provides privacy from the street. The back elevation of this space, on the other hand, has expansive windows that open onto a patio, a large back yard, and a view of the river palisades in the distance. (A recent housing development to the rear has radically changed the view from the Altfillisch back yard. Originally the Altfillisch yard had at its rear a cow pasture that extended all the way to the river dike. There is a family story that the Altfillisches would have been able to purchase this pasture for $300, but that Charles didn’t want to bother with the upkeep.)
The fourth block is a front-gabled section–windowless on the front, but with differing-sized windows on the other three sides–that rises above the rest of the house. The first floor of this space includes the maple-cabinet kitchen, a glass-block-walled bathroom, and the oak-panelled primary bedroom. The second floor includes the supplemental bedrooms and bath.
The east end of the living room area contains a compact dining area illuminated by a distinctive white, curved-front, plaster soffit. The Altfillisch-designed table is ca. 18” deep and serves as a kind of narrow credenza. But the table has a ca. 24” hinged leaf at the rear, which folds up to make a table that seats ten people.