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Tour a Norwegian Heritage-Inspired Hideaway in Northeast Iowa

A serene parcel of land near Decorah called to Gail and Larry Larson. They answered with a trio of cabins inspired by their Norwegian heritage. By Thomas Connors August 08, 2022 from Midwest Living


To understand how Gail and Larry Larson ended up here, you have to dig down to their roots. Larry grew up in Wisconsin, Gail in Iowa. They met, married and made a life out West. Then, in the early 2000s, Gail inherited her parents' home. The Larsons didn't want to leave Montana, but cutting all Iowa ties felt wrong. ("It's nice to always have a place to come back to in the Midwest," Gail says.) So they sold her parents' house to buy a condo in the college town of Decorah.

White cabinets and soapstone countertops make for a clean, unfussy kitchen. The 100-year-old cotton runner is an heirloom from Gail's family. | CREDIT: AUSTIN DAY

Like many people in the upper Midwest, Larry and Gail can trace their ancestry to Norway (he fully, she half). Gail joined the board at Decorah's Vesterheim, the National Norwegian-American Museum and Folk Art School. During visits to Iowa from Montana, she spent a lot of time in meetings, and Larry went driving. That's how he found 30 acres for sale in a scenic valley 8 miles outside of town.

Left: The cabins' white pine framing evokes rustic Nordic architecture. During construction, the Larsons aimed to support local businesses like Wild Rose Timberworks in Decorah, Iowa. | CREDIT: AUSTIN DAY Right: The Larsons spend a lot of time outdoors, and Larry confesses fantasies of building an observatory: "The night skies are just incredible. There is no light that interferes on a clear night." | CREDIT: AUSTIN DAY

An idea flickered—to collaborate with their daughter-in-law Jill Porter, an architect, to design a unique project they could all be proud of. Not quite a third home, but a retreat, drawn from their heritage.

Phillip Odden, of Norsk Wood Works in Wisconsin, carved this pair of eye-catching chairs, called kubbestols, from the trunks of hardwood trees. | CREDIT: AUSTIN DAY

"In Norway and Sweden, the farmsteads had a number of buildings," Larry explains, "and each had a purpose. They were built by the farmers that lived there, so they were a small size." With that vision, Porter designed three little cabins. Built from locally sourced timbers, wood and stone, the deep red structures sit like uncut gems on the landscape. Their hue mimics Falu red, a paint made from copper mine tailings and commonly used in Nordic countries.

In the flexible-use cabin that the couple calls the studio, the main attraction is a screen porch with comfy blue wicker chairs. Gail often sits here to stitch and savor the scenery. | CREDIT: AUSTIN DAY

Inside, the Larson retreat is simplicity itself. No massive great room, no souped-up kitchen. Just what they really want and nothing more. One building houses the kitchen, a bedroom, bathroom and a combined living/dining space; another contains a garage, sauna and fold-out bed for guests; the third is a flex space with a porch (but no plumbing). "If we had a piano, this is where we'd put it," Larry says. "For someone else, it might be a home office." Gail, a veteran quilter, spends much of her time there. "It's my favorite place," she says. "It's so light and bright, with windows on three sides, and from the porch, you look at a hillside of flowers."

The couple opted for twin beds in the single bedroom for flexibility. They anticipate the property staying in the family, and the design can accommodate adding a primary bedroom in the future. | CREDIT: AUSTIN DAY

"One of the things we found over the years," Larry adds, "is that we like to have our own spaces. Not that we don't like to spend time together, but in every house, we've had our own spaces where we can retreat and do our own things." For him, that's a woodshop tucked under the main cabin: "I have a long history of puttering." We come and go as we wish. We don't decide where we're going to sleep that night until that day. LARRY LARSONDuring the several months they spend in Decorah each year, Larry and Gail move fluidly between town and country. In spring, they cherish the birds that flock to the property. By summer, the tall grasses are at their beautiful best. And on cool fall nights, the prospect of a warming fire often encourages the couple to stay put after dinner. "Even if we come for only a few hours," says Larry, "it's an otherworldly experience. It is so quiet, so peaceful. You really don't want to leave."

  • By Thomas Connors

Visit Midwest Living for more of this article and related articles.

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