Today the elevator building housing Coffee On the River in Lansing still contains much of the machinery and equipment once used to move and bag grain. (Photo by Julie Berg-Raymond)
Today the elevator building housing Coffee On the River in Lansing still contains much of the machinery and equipment once used to move and bag grain. (Photo by Julie Berg-Raymond)
The Winneshiek County courthouse in Decorah and Coffee on the River in Lansing are two of 14 historic preservation projects honored recently with “Preservation at its Best” awards by the nonprofit group Preservation Iowa, in a virtual ceremony held during the annual Preserve Iowa Summit.

“These outstanding properties give communities a unique sense of pride and place. The adaptive reuse of these iconic buildings is a creative and economic way to revitalize an entire neighborhood,” said Chris Kramer, director of the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs, which oversees the State Historic Preservation Office and is co-hosting this year’s summit with the City of Dubuque.

“It’s thrilling to see owners, architects, contractors and communities work together not only to save Iowa’s historic treasures but to make them focal points to attract new investment into Iowa communities,” Preservation Iowa President Bruce Perry said. “Preservation is a unique way of using our collective history to prepare for Iowa’s bright future.”

Courthouse
Named “Best Public Project,” the Winneshiek County Courthouse in Decorah features recent repairs and upgrades to the 1904 courthouse which include a new roof, colored LED exterior lighting and a new lightning-protection system to replace one that no longer worked.

The project’s leaders also created a comprehensive plan to help county officials maintain the building in the future.

Coffee shop
Named “Best Commercial Small Project,” Coffee on the River in Lansing is housed in an 1868 grain elevator overlooking the Mississippi River, and is owned by sisters Wendi Eiden and Diana Wilson-Thompson. They completed the transformation in three months, with a $52,000 business loan and about 1,500 hours of their own work.

How things began
Wendy and Diana – in addition to being sisters, they also are self-described “best friends” – are originally from Wasilla, Alaska.

With a population of about 10,500, Wasilla also is hometown to the official headquarters for the annual Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race run from Anchorage to Nome, and to Sarah Palin – former mayor of Wasilla, governor of Alaska and running mate with the late Senator John McCain during his 2008 presidential campaign.

Wendy and Diana’s parents are from southern Minnesota; the two sisters eventually found their way to Lansing and the Mississippi River – Wendy, after living for awhile “back East and down South,” traveling a bit, and landing in Rochester, Minn.; Diana, after meeting her significant other, Jason Brink, who owns a tree service in Waukon, and then joining him to live in Lansing.

The sisters had talked about having a coffee shop for several years. They were pushing forward with that dream, when Wendy was diagnosed with almost-stage-4 colon cancer, in 2012.

Wendy and Diana are the kind of sisters and friends who finish one another’s sentences, without appearing to interrupt the other one. A conversation with the two of them can sometimes seem like a conversation with one person.

“We were looking for a spot,” Wendy says. “We looked at the Tierney’s building, in Waukon,” Diana adds. “We had all these big ideas,” Wendy continues, and they both laugh. “A few years ago, I started talking about it again,” Diana says. “Jason and I talked about it, and I kind of got things all figured out.”

She talked about it with Wendy, who encouraged her in the dream.

“I told her, ‘you should totally do it,’” Wendy recalls. “And I was feeling really sorry for myself. I wanted her to do it, but I didn’t want her to do it without me. And my husband and I talked about it and he said, ‘You know what? Do it. You should go for it.’”

How it’s working
Wendy, a six-year cancer survivor, is the chef of the coffee shop. She says she has been cooking since she could push a chair to the stove.

Aside from handling bookkeeping duties, Diana is the designer behind the dream. She designed the lighting and drew up the floor plan for the coffee shop, and even – to her sister’s amazement (and amusement) – made tiny cardboard tables and chairs, and moved them around on a template until she had things the way she liked them.

“She’s so creative,” Wendy says. “That’s how I am, with cooking. I love being adventurous, and putting unique flavors together.”

Diana and Wendy started talking about opening their coffee shop in April, 2019. In June, they began construction. Coffee On the River opened Sept. 26, 2019.

The two sisters did most of the work, themselves – putting in about 1,500 hours of sweat equity, along with scrap lumber and reclaimed materials whenever possible -- into getting the business ready to open.

“We wanted to make sure to stick with the basic vibe and feel of the building,” Diana says.

Don Hammel Construction, of Lansing, worked on the project as well, putting in the barrier wall between the kitchen/coffee bar and the bar and seating area, and putting up the new railing along the balcony – replacing the chicken wire that was there previously.

“We finished up on a Tuesday, and we opened on Thursday,” Diana recalls. “We didn’t take a breath at all.”

The sisters went from working 12 to 14-hour days on construction of the coffee shop, to 12 to 14-hour days in the restaurant, once it opened.

About the coffee shop
Coffee On the River offers stunning views of the Mississippi River, both from its indoor balcony seating and its outdoor patio. Situated right on the river’s edge, the coffee shop has easy access to a dock, and is within walking distance of downtown businesses lining the town’s Main Street.

Wendy and Diana knew they wanted to create the kind of space where “we’d want to come and hang out with our friends,” Diana says. “I think it’s something we accomplished. It feels homey, warm and welcoming – customers can feel how much we love this place.”

They love the community of which the place is a part, too. Particularly during the COVID-19-related closings, local customers and fellow business owners did all they could to pull together and help each other, according to Diana.

“Everybody has been just bending over backwards to help us all get through this,” she says. “Shep’s Riverside has been doing Meals-on-Wheels, and we’ve all made sure to order food from everyone else, whenever we could.”

“This is our new hometown,” Wendy says. Diana smiles, finishing her sister’s sentence: “We’ve truly been accepted here.”

Coffee On the River is located at 60 S. Front St. in Lansing.

The menu changes seasonally, and includes daily pastry (Wendy’s specialty is cheesecake) and muffin specials; the coffee bar is full-service, and the bar offers wines from around the world and craft beers.

Current hours are Wednesday through Sunday, 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. As of July 1, the coffee shop will be open seven days per week, and will be open Fridays and Saturdays until 9 p.m., with a special food menu available in the bar.

Look for Coffee On the River on Facebook for more details, as well as for daily specials.

For more information, visit coffeeontheriver.com or call 563-538-2899.

Preservation Iowa builds partnerships that enhance the state’s economic and cultural future through the preservation of Iowa’s historic resources. For more information visit preservationiowa.org