Written by Gary McKay
Photos by Jason Boyers-Liechty and Novak Design Group
Down a dirt road, atop a grassy rise, exactly between Mount Vernon and Cedar Rapids, sits the most glamorous Iowa residence designed in this century.
Many-windowed and clad in white metal, the narrow house (just two rooms deep) extends from east to west behind a circular driveway. Its front presents an assured but seemingly casual arrangement of blocky, flat-topped components. Its back overlooks two rectangular pools, one shallow and the other deep, and then a swath of fields that reach the horizon.
Jon and Mary Quass commissioned this house from architect Jim Novak, who studied at Iowa State University and founded his purposely small, hands-on firm, Novak Design Group PLC, 26 years ago. Jon Quass retired from Aegon NV as a systems analyst. Mary heads NRG Media LLC, a Cedar Rapids-based company that owns 45 radio stations in four Midwestern states. For this issue of ia magazine, Novak and Mary Quass answered questions about how the house came to be.
ia magazine: Let’s start at the beginning. What led you to each other? And how did you launch your collaboration?
Mary Quass: I’d known Jim’s wife, Kristin, from chamber of commerce meetings and met Jim through her. Jon and I liked what Jim showed us—especially the house he’d drawn up for his own family. He’d put a lot of thinking into those plans, and we agreed with his ideas so much that we asked for something very similar. We worked on nuances, but went with overall concepts and materials Jim had already arrived at.
Jim Novak: I’d wanted to settle my own house thoughtfully into its landscape, and I was after a simplicity, a restraint. The Quasses had those exact goals. I put my house project aside, concentrated on theirs, then came back to mine. As it happened, both houses were completed at the same time.
ia: Beside common goals, would you say you share a taste for precision? Evidence certainly points to that.
JN: Yes. Quality and precision. We joined elemental materials: metal, glass, granite and maple. The exterior walls are assembled from 1/4-inch-thick composite aluminum panels, custom-sized and manufactured in St. Louis. These slide into an extruded aluminum framework—there’s not a margin for error.
Inside, every hinge is durable and beautifully crafted; every door is solid, not hollow-core. We installed no baseboards. Instead, we created 3/4-inch reveals separating the walls from the floors. Unobtrusive panels group the controls for complex music and lighting systems, interior climate control and motorized window shades. Of course the whole structure is wireless.
MQ: More cords and cables went into that house than I’ve seen in some radio stations. You’d never guess it from the look of the place. And, speaking of precision: Jon and I are definitely not cozy-clutter types. I need order, and I like to put things away. We specified enough cabinets to line several rooms—not just the kitchen.
Before we’d finished our plans or broken ground here, Jim and Jon and I brought in a scissors lift to raise us above our site. That higher perspective helped us locate rooms and windows so they’d make the most of the views from all levels of our house. Our day on the scissors lift revealed the amount of effort Jim would take to get things right. As the house was constructed, he never stopped refining it—I was so happy with the pocket doors he found space for. They literally disappear.
ia: What about your furniture choices, and the art?
JN: We could have gone completely with neutral, classic, Bauhaus-style pieces for this house, but I’m glad we didn’t. The few eccentric, brightly upholstered pieces we included became exclamation points. In the upstairs library, for instance, there’s a chartreuse settee you can spot from outside the house at night—very cool.
MQ: Jon and I collect contemporary art—all the time. Constantly. We asked Jim to give us expanses of tall white walls where we could put things up, take them down and move them around. Positioning a familiar piece in a different room brings both the piece and the room back to life. You appreciate what you’d started to take for granted.
ia: The house seems great for having company. Do you entertain much?
MQ: Quite a bit, actually. Our families meet here for holidays. Jon’s a good cook and an unbelievable baker, and we bring in vegetables and flowers from our gardens whenever we can. Because as a little girl I got scooted off to the “kiddie table,” our dining room was designed to seat 16 people. Nobody gets scooted off.
Sometimes we invite business colleagues here—bankers or board members. And we’ve given big cocktail parties for charities. This house flows wonderfully. Setting up both indoor and outdoor spaces for guests means we can host 400. I’m not kidding.
We don’t consider this house as only a place to entertain. Importantly, it’s also a retreat where Jon and I can unwind with our dog, Asta. The house is really magical when we get snowed in during the winter. It’s perfectly quiet. We work on laptops and build fires—our fireplaces are gas-starting, but they burn logs. That’s the good life.
ia: Given a somewhat isolated country setting and your high expectations for this house, it took two years to finish. Were you still speaking at the end?
JN: We became friends. Now my wife and I travel with the Quasses.
MQ: Jon and I love to learn, and we learned plenty. We’d start on a fresh, new house in a heartbeat.
ia: Any final observations? Favorite aspects of your first, successful joint production?
JN: This house runs parallel to a distant train track, and maybe I subconsciously referenced that when I envisioned the structure as long and linear. At any rate, it’s pretty mesmerizing to hear the faint, faraway sound of the train in the evening.
MQ: Jim edged our roof with a safety railing, and we climb up there from spiral stairs in the library. On the Fourth of July, we can watch fireworks bursting into the sky from all the little towns around us.
Jason Boyers-Liechty immersed himself in geography and environmental studies at the University of Northern Iowa. He was ready to pursue a master’s degree in those subjects until a photography course at Des Moines Area Community College changed his mind. For the last year, he’s been assisting Des Moines lifestyle and fashion photographer Cameron Sadeghpour, and, he says, “enjoying every moment of it. I love to see how a project comes together between the photographer and the client.” Boyers-Liechty’s assignment to shoot the Quass house for ia magazine was, he notes, “my first commercial job.”
Additional photographs provided by Novak Design Group, PLC.
H. Art Display
M. Reflecting Pool
N. Lower Level Lap Pool
o. Master Bedroom
p. Reading Room
q. Master Bath
s. Guest Bedroom
t. Guest Bath
w. Roof Garden