VanOrsdel's Rescued Lake Home

Susan and Bob VanOrsdel had a mission: to save and breath life back into a historic cottage, and with a lot of hard work, that is exactly what they did.

When Susan and Bob VanOrsdel first laid eyes on what was to be their future cottage on Des Moines Beach on West Lake Okoboji it was a bit of a fright.

Well, more than a bit.

“There were trash cans in the bedrooms upstairs because the roof leaked,” Susan said. Add to that worrisome image the fact that all of the heating, plumbing and electrical needed to be replaced and numerous other updates that were required and the little cottage frightened off more than one potential buyer.

But the VanOrsdels didn’t scare so easily.

“At the time they told us that it had been shown the most times of any other property around. People couldn’t decide if it was best to knock it down or try and renovate it,” Susan said.

The VanOrsdels opted to breath life back into the old place.

“We kind of saved the place,” Susan said.

They purchased the property in 1995 and they have been hard at work, rolling up their sleeves pretty much ever since.

But buying an older cottage had always been the VanOrsdels’ game plan.

Both Bob and Susan have ties with the Iowa Great Lakes area that go a long way back. In fact, Bob’s dad, Virgil, graduated from Okoboji High School in 1925. Bob has been coming to the lakes area since he was old enough to walk and Susan’s family had been coming since the 1960s.

In the fall of 1979, the Des Moines couple bought a place in Okoboji with Bob’s brother. They were frequent visitors in the lakes area and in 1994 they made an unsettling discovery.

“Every time we came back up we realized another cottage had been torn down and a new, large home had taken its place,” Bob said. “We realized we wanted to have a historic cottage, and we couldn’t rely on them being here much longer because they were disappearing.”

So they began their search and finally in 1995 they found their diamond in the rough. Very rough.

“They had a lot of deferred maintenance items,” Bob said. “On the owner disclosure form they had checked everything as ‘doesn’t work.’”

One of the very first things that the couple did was fix the roof. The cabin wasn’t winterized when they purchased it, so they put in insulation. They also updated the plumbing, electrical, put in a new furnace and air conditioner, as well as added phone lines and cable.

“There is a lot of stuff you don’t see that we did to the place,” Bob said. “A lot of work went behind the walls.”

For two to three years, the couple lived on the second floor while they put their elbow grease and attention in renovating the first floor.

The porch had been enclosed long before the VanOrsdels purchased the lakeside cottage, but they raised the ceilings, replaced the windows and enlarged the “porch” by putting on a small addition to the side of the house.

In the side porch they added an additional fireplace and made the face fieldstone to match the newly resurfaced original fireplace. The original living room fireplace was red brick.

The addition of the side porch was constructed to match the original styling of the house with the dark wood and they even added filigree to the window coverings for that old cottage look.

“I think it had a kind of character that you don’t get in homes anymore, and we wanted so much to retain that character,” Susan said.

The couple also added a laundry and powder room right off the entrance into the cottage. The kitchen was a must on the renovation list.

“The kitchen was tiny,” Susan said. “There was no dishwasher, no disposal and it wasn’t touched since the 1960s.”

The kitchen was expanded, updated and opened up with direct lines of sight into the dining room and beyond to the lake.

“When I am standing here cooking at night I can see the Ferris wheel,” at Arnolds Park Amusement Park Susan said.

In the dining area, a built-in bookshelf looks like it was a part of the original house and leads into the living area. Off of the living room is the master suite. When the VanOrsdels did the addition for the porch they also expanded the master bedroom by a few feet. It gave them the much needed room to add a closet. Off of the master bedroom, the master bath also gained an extra few feet and was completely renovated.

The entire upstairs of the cottage was gutted and the ceilings were raised. They kept the same four-bedroom layout, but each room was designed to have a distinct character. The single upstairs bath was also renovated and the claw foot tub was replaced with a handier shower.

All of the renovations keep the VanOrsdels’ vision of saving the old cottage. What they aren’t able to salvage, they made to look old.

“We wanted it to look like the old cottage, and it was a lot more work than just buying everything to look brand new,” Susan said.

Creating a specific look is something that Susan excels at. In fact, it is what she does for a living.

Susan is an interior designer and owns her own business in Des Moines called Interiors LTD.

“I am not a minimalist. I like to collect things,” Susan said. And that includes antiques.

The old cottage is decorated in antique furniture, but is decidedly homey and comfortable versus museum-like, which fits in with Susan’s style.

“I like anything that is warm and has personality,” she said.

Bob summed it up.

“We just like old things and have always loved to collect antiques,” Bob said. “We thought if we could get an old cottage to put our old stuff in that would be great.”

Since they purchased the property in 1995 there were about four to five stages in the renovation process, and it was a labor of love that required a healthy dose of patience.

In fact, that is what they named the cottage.


“We called it that because when we moved in he said you are going to have to be patient,” Susan said.

The end goal was to have a place for the family to come in the summer time, and with patience, perseverance and a lot of elbow grease that goal was accomplished. And they preserved a piece of history. 

History of the property

The first transaction for the Patience house was in 1890 when it was sold to Mahlon Stephen Crary. After a few other transactions the property was purchased in 1916 by Frank Owen Green and his wife, Daisy. Frank’s parents had a cottage a little ways down the beach that was shared between all of the family and Frank eventually decided he wanted a cottage of his own. The Greens named the property The Nutshell.

The Greens and their descendants owned the property for nearly 80 years before it was purchased by the VanOrsdels in 1995.

Check out more photos of this home and more at

From the September/October issue of Okoboji magazine.