Austene Van has always felt most at home on the water. “It’s magical!” she said. “There’s some power in it.”
The Twin Cities actor, director and choreographer was determined to live on the water someday. But she wasn’t sure where or how to make it happen — until a theater colleague, Dawn Brodey, started talking about her houseboat in St. Paul.
“I said, ‘You’re an actor — how do you afford a houseboat?’ ” Van recalled. Brodey assured her it wasn’t as expensive as it sounded and invited her to visit. Driving down the hill to the Watergate Marina on the Mississippi River, near Shepard Road, “something struck me,” Van said. She would find a low-cost houseboat and fix it up herself. “I’m not afraid of work.”
Through Brodey’s marina contacts, Van scored what she was looking for: a 1971 “homemade” houseboat that had been dry-docked after the death of its owner. It didn’t have much of a bathroom, it was small — about 460 square feet on one level — and it needed some work.
But the price was affordable, and the seller was willing to negotiate. “I bought it for a song — an artist’s price range,” Van said.
Van, who has embodied characters from “Aida” to Blanche DuBois, was confident she could nail the role of home-improvement pro. “I’ve always been hands on,” she said. “When I was little, I made a dollhouse out of cardboard. When I was 18, I didn’t have money for a bed, so I found a door and cinder blocks, wrapped them and decorated them. Even when I have money, I still look for ways to create.”
But remodeling a boat was a much more ambitious project than she’d ever tackled before. “Nothing is level, nothing is plumb, nothing is straight,” she said.
Many people tried to talk her out of it. “Everybody said I was crazy to take this on,” she said. “They’d say, ‘Why? Why would you?’ ” But Van was undeterred. “It’s so fun and amazing — why wouldn’t you?”
She started the project last summer, adding a second floor to almost double the boat’s living space. “A neighbor from my previous house in Brooklyn Center is a master carpenter,” she said. “I helped him frame it, and he showed me what to do.” Then Van took over the finishing work, honing her own carpentry skills by trial and error.
“I had to learn how to do stuff,” she said. “I had cheat sheets.” Cutting crown molding precisely was difficult, but she fine-tuned her process using her own notes. “Whenever I made a good piece, I’d write down how I cut it, and leave it by the miter saw.”
Using the scrap wood from the expansion, she tackled other projects, including building her own furniture — benches, a table, a bookcase and a bed. She bought additional supplies at Building Materials Outlet (bmomn.com) in Eagan. “You can get molding in bundles. You don’t have to go broke. It just takes some time, you have to look through things.”
Last fall, Van moved onto her houseboat even though her project was a long way from finished. Most of her floating neighbors left as the weather changed, but Van stayed, one of only half a dozen houseboats at the marina throughout the coldest winter months.
Winter on the water
She wrapped the lower level in foil insulation, and the upper level in clear plastic with a zippered door, relying on space heaters to warm the interior. The first floor was always chilly. “The highest it got down here was 56 degrees,” she said, while the second floor stayed “as warm as devil’s spit,” about 80 degrees.
She had no running water. “They cut the water off around October or November, and deliver it to a tank that has to last you two weeks,” she said. “You have to be judicious and take quick showers.” Then her water pump broke, forcing her to shower at the marina and sometimes use a bucket for a toilet.
Despite those hardships, she still loved her new life on the river. “In winter, it’s beautiful,” she said. “It was very quiet. But I had so much to do, I didn’t feel lonely.”
One of her first projects was putting a skylight over her bed so she could gaze at the sky and the stars. “Even when I was looking at the studs it was wonderful,” she said. “It’s amazing to wake up to that.”
Van was determined to make her houseboat an inviting, comfortable home, with warm, attractive finishes and accents. “Home is so important to me. That’s where I dream, create, meditate and cook. I cook a lot.”
While picking out kitchen materials at Home Depot, she met a designer, Kelly Vogel, who helped with other design aspects of the project.
“Sometimes you can become fast friends over granite countertops,” laughed Vogel, who was at the houseboat helping Van with finishing touches in preparation for a photo shoot and a houseboat-warming party to follow. “We just really hit it off. She’s a remarkable person.”
Other design touches include a “fireplace wall” finished with shimmering tile to create a focal point, and Allure flooring. “It’s vinyl but with a wood grain that looks like exotic wood,” Van said. There’s even a small crystal chandelier in her bedroom.
Van still has a few projects to complete, including trimwork, window treatments and some tiling in the bath.
But she’s never felt calmer or happier. “This is my retreat and my treat,” she said. “I can rejuvenate and recharge my batteries.” Her new home has a name: 711 Bliss, for her birth date and her joyful state about her new chapter. (Van is currently in rehearsals for “Henry IV Part 1,” which opens in October at Minneapolis theater Ten Thousand Things (tenthousandthings.org). As a creative person, “I need to feed myself, and this [living on the water] is good food.”
It’s also an economical way to live, for a theater professional with a variable income. Van invested $10,000 to $15,000 in her houseboat after buying it, plus her many hours of sweat equity.
“It has been backbreaking,” she said. “I’ve been sweaty, stinky and grumpy — all the seven dwarves.”
But after that initial investment, her housing expenses, including slip fees and electricity, are just $319 a month. “No property taxes,” she said. “If you like to live life and travel, this is a way to save money and live well in a smaller footprint.”
Many of her neighbors use their houseboats to travel, but Van keeps hers moored at the marina. It’s too tall, and it lists a bit, most likely from the weight of the granite countertops on one side. “If I want to go up and down the river, I’ll get a little craft — a kayak or canoe,” she said.
For now, she’s enjoying the marina lifestyle and camaraderie. “It’s more casual — you can’t be in a rush — kind of like the Caribbean,” she said.
“People are friendlier” than on land, she added. “They really look out for everybody else. They stop by, introduce themselves. If they see me working, sweating, cussing, they bring me water, ask ‘Are you hungry?’ or ‘Can I carry that for you?’ ”
And the connection to nature soothes her soul. “I used to play river sounds on a phone app while I meditated — birds, crickets and frogs,” she said. “One day, I heard all those sounds and realized, ‘That’s the real thing!’ The wind was blowing, the sun was shining, the ducks and fish were jumping, and the trees were rustling. It was heaven!”