Come High Water: Preservation and Resilience in Cedar Rapids, Iowa
Written by Daniel Ronan, Site Projects & Public Engagement Coordinator, National Public Housing Museum
The saying “come Hell or high water” means “whatever it takes.” When the high waters really did come to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in 2008, the town discovered how to turn a disaster into an opportunity for preservation.
For this mid-sized prairie town on the Cedar River, a disaster that left its downtown buildings flooded to the second story and nearly 1,500 of its single-family homes demolished could have been a story of defeat. But it wasn’t.
Emily Meyer, director of development for the Midwest region at real estate developer Ryan Companies, says it best: “I am blown away [by] the passion of residents in rebuilding their town. We are seeing the fruits of our efforts now like never before. I am so proud of this community.”
First visiting the “City of Five Seasons” with my mother in April, I connected with its beautiful historic buildings, holding out against the floodwaters and standing even taller with the support of community, business, and civic leaders.
The Hach Building, a humble wood-frame commercial structure at the corner of 2nd Street and 14th Avenue, embodied this idea. Taking a walk from the historic New Bohemia neighborhood on the Cedar River’s east bank to the historic Czech Village district on the west side, my mother and I paused to admire the handsome building, standing alone but with so much potential.
Yet less than two weeks later, the building was demolished.
This is the ongoing story -- and tension -- of Cedar Rapids. While the town has made many strides in restoring its historic commercial districts and neighborhoods in the wake of the flood, each day there is a reminder of the community’s past ordeal. But it’s often the most traumatic events that spur action.
“Living through a disaster really helped to strengthen the bond in Cedar Rapids and spurred collaboration,” says Jennifer Pruden, executive director of the Czech Village/New Bohemia Main Street District. Her organization uses the Main Street Four-Point Approach to encourage economic investment in her historic district.
Crossing the Cedar River, my mother and I walked through Pruden’s bailiwick, connected by 16th Avenue. With a grand bridge anchored by stone lions affording us a view of downtown’s skyline to the North, we understood from our walk that despite what may no longer be, the energy we feel on either side of the river is tangible. From the renovated storefronts of New Bohemia -- brewpubs and restaurants, a coffee shop and a bookstore facing the signature NewBo City Market -- to the laughter we hear through propped-open doors in springtime Czech Village, we were excited to witness Cedar Rapids' comeback.
In the middle of Czech Village along 16th Avenue, we spotted the Lion Bridge Brewing Company in the Fritz’s Food Market building, a historic grocery store built in 1938. With bright brick walls and large front shop windows, the building welcomed us like the locals do -- openly, friendly, and modestly. A project of Ryan Companies, it’s telling that the firm’s work has transitioned post-flood to more historic preservation projects such as this one.
Charles Jones, the sole proprietor of his real estate development company Green Development LLC, shares this preservation ethos. He notes his penchant for projects that reflect “not where the market is now, but where it’s going.”
Jones' White Star Ale House in the former 1895 post office and federal building downtown demonstrates his commitment to preservation. With a restaurant, bar, and offices, the White Star will soon be joined by other mixed-use projects, including the redevelopment of the Sokol Hall and Gymnasium, a 1908 Czech community center. These are only a few of the projects that contribute to downtown revitalization, buoyed in large part by federal historic tax credits which have been used extensively in other downtown preservation projects such as the Paramount Theater.
The 1911 Allen E. Philbrick murals in Popoli Ristorante and Sullivan's Bar in Louis Sullivan's People's Savings Bank building narrowly escaped the flood waters by five feet. The artist's style likely inspired a teenaged Grant Wood, the future painter of "American Gothic."
Historic houses, on the other hand, have not seen the same resurgence as historic commercial districts. With hundreds of wood-frame houses lost to the bulldozer, the current challenge is to convince homeowners to restore these smaller buildings and work with the city as preservationists to incentivize preservation over demolition.
Maura Pilcher of Brucemore, Cedar Rapids’ renowned historic site and community cultural center (as well as a National Trust Historic Site), emphasizes that these homes as “just as important as commercial buildings -- these residential buildings are great opportunities for small business investment.”
With mounting preservation concerns in Cedar Rapids and increased opportunities for economic development, preservation advocates formed the citizen-led group Save CR Heritage. As Cedar Rapids’ newest preservation group, they are excited to help organize the Preserve Iowa Summit on August 21-23, 2014.
My mother and I finished our day trip in Cedar Rapids at Popoli, a trendy Italian restaurant in Louis Sullivan’s 1911 People's Savings Bank. We gawked at Allen E. Philbrick’s murals depicting “Banking, Commerce, and Industry,” murals which narrowly escaped the floodwaters by mere feet. The murals feature idealized forms of capitalism in front of pristine forests and open fields. Man and nature appear in harmony with golden sunshine flooding the dimly lit bar with the promise of future prosperity -- a prosperity Cedar Rapids works towards as earnestly as the farmer with his plow.
Check out the Preservation Leadership Forum blog for more tips on disaster preparation and recovery for historic resources.