After fifty years of gracing Cedar Rapids’ downtown riverfront, the First Street Parkade and its iconic spiral ramp have reached their end. Built in 1961, the four-story ramp would provide over 400 parking spaces for patrons of the downtown retail scene, as competition from newer suburban outlets was increasing. In recent years the structure’s use would be dominated by daytime office workers.
When constructed the new parkade had a commanding presence downtown – few structures at that time occupied the entire length of a city block. Three elevations (north, east and south) that did not face the river were characterized by long, level horizontal planes, articulated by minimalist vertical supports. Along First Street, sections of the top deck wall were clad in dark tinted glass, perhaps an attempt to break up the non-varying facade to relate to the scale of existing storefront buildings across the street.
The river facade was much more dynamic. Angled ramps that let motorists ascend to the top deck were left undisguised, sloping in the same direction as river’s flow. The center was marked by an incredible spiral ramp, partially extending out over the water, cutting through the elegant balustrade lining the existing river wall. Exposed by the demolition process, the concrete spiral was self-supporting, cantilevering from the massive circular core.
While the spiral certainly added a point of visual interest along the river, more impressive was the experience driving down it, framing a sequence of views toward iconic public buildings like City Hall, the county courthouse, and the municipal greenspace of Mays Island. The orientation of views from the ramp reinforced long-standing symbols of civic pride. Likewise the parkade was a new point of pride for the city – a sign of modern progress and optimism for the future, heralded as a means to save downtown from its looming demise.
After the 2008 flood, replacing the First Street Parkade became more imminent, having already reached the end of its useful life. Once demolition is complete the site will be turned into surface parking for the time being – an acceptable temporary use. The important riverfront site is now ripe for redevelopment and, once again, has the opportunity to be a catalyst for downtown progress and civic pride for fifty more years to come. Only this time, it will be for people, not cars.
Completed in 1914, the nearly century-old St. Paul’s Methodist Church in southeast Cedar Rapids is perhaps best known for being designed by famous architect Louis Sullivan, a fact that is only partially true. The actual built design was carried out by Chicago architect W.C. Jones, after Sullivan resigned in 1912, refusing to sacrifice ornamentation to keep within budget. Jones then altered Sullivan’s plans, mostly removing ornamentation, maintaining much of the original design. (St. Paul’s UMC)
Sullivan’s design, however, was not the only one considered for St. Paul’s new building. In 1909, the church purchased land at 3rd Ave. and 14th Street SE, and soon sent requests to several architects for competitive bids and plan proposals. One of these architects, evidently, was the Minneapolis firm of William Gray Purcell and George Grant Elmslie.
Active between 1907 and 1921, Purcell and Elmslie, was the second most commissioned firm of the Prairie School after Frank Lloyd Wright. (Wikipedia) Their design proposal to St. Paul’s Church included a perspective rendering, floor plan, and elevation drawing, seen below. The extent of detail is impressive for just a proposal and makes me curiosity about other proposals the church may have received.
Given Sullivan’s influence on the Prairie School, it’s not surprising that Purcell and Elmslie’s design for St. Paul’s was stylistically similar to Sullivan’s, both progressive and decidedly nontraditional. The new church site would have been at the edge of town at the time, arguably making the Prairie style even more fitting.
This make me wonder if St. Paul’s desired a modern new church, intentionally seeking out innovative architects for something different than the traditional archetype. Additionally it is just interesting to consider the entire process of the new building, something not often dwelled upon in architectural history. Perhaps more telling is, not what was actually built, but what could have been.
A new website popped up this week where local individuals can post their own “what if’s” in regard to Cedar Rapids. Inspired by a very similar site What if Des Moines …, ideas can range from innovative to simple and pragmatic. The best part is, others can comment on them, spurring new discussion on ways to better our city.