Category: History

Fine Facilities for All Events

This is a small, two-toned pamphlet from about fifty years ago for the Veterans Memorial Coliseum, which for half a century was the primary events venue of Cedar Rapids. The single-fold flier provides a fascinating look back into graphic design, marketing, and publishing techniques of the mid 20th century.

The literature is quaint and unabashed, celebrating a recent renovation of the then 30 or so year-old building. The inside describes the “fine facilities for all events” and advertises the recently built First Street Parkade (now demolished), a mere “100 paces away,” including an illustration. The text would have been form-set type, making inconsistencies of indentation and line break hyphenation curious. The wide format pamphlets were sized to fit a standard business envelope, perfect for mailing to prospective event organizers.

Today the 33 year-old US Cellular Center is undergoing its first major renovation and expansion since opening in 1978, then replacing Vets as the city’s main events venue. Parallels can be drawn between the Coliseum and current arena renovations. Undoubtedly, though, marketing for the new CR Convention Complex will take a much different approach.

First Street Parkade 50 Years Down

First Street Parkade construction

First Street Parkade

First Street Parkade

First Street Parkade demo

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.

Alternative Design for St. Paul’s Church

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.

Images found at and

Library in the Park

New CRPL design

When it opens in summer 2013, the new Cedar Rapids Public Library will join the former Carnegie Library, the Museum of Art, the Gazette building, and First Presbyterian Church in surrounding the city’s signature downtown Greene Square Park, the long ago former site of the original Washington High School. Designed by OPN Architects, the new library replaces the flood damaged library on First Street, which was just two years shy of its 25th anniversary when the flood hit. The library had been gearing up for a major renovation and expansion project just before the flood.

In January 2009, FEMA declared the library building hit the 50 percent threshold, which meant FEMA would help fund total replacement of the current building instead of repairing it. Typically in this case, a new building must be located on the same site, but sitting less than a block from the riverbank seemed foolish so the city was able to get a variance to build at a new site. Over the next year and a half the merits of a new library and its location were hotly debated, among many other projects the city was charged with.

Three final sites were seriously considered: the TrueNorth block just south of Greene Square on 4th Ave. SE, the Emerald Knights site (between 1st and 2nd avenues SE, and 7th and 8th streets), and a last minute pitch for the existing Gazette/KCRG block (between 2nd and 3rd avenues SE, and 5th and 6th streets). Despite the board’s Emerald Knights recommendation, the City Council ultimately voted on Feb. 24, 2010, to build on the TrueNorth site, in anticipation of a new synergy of culture and community between the new library, the park, and the existing art museum. However this is no new concept for Cedar Rapids.

By the late 1960s, the Cedar Rapids Public Library was in dire need of addition space, despite two previous additions to the old Carnegie Library, which opened in 1905. A survey conducted in 1966 cited population growth, increase in circulation, and accessibility for needing an expanded library. The report, produced by University of Iowa Library School Director Fred Wezeman, concluded that a new library should be located in the central business district, should maximize area on the first floor, and be convenient to main traffic arteries and close to public transit. He also suggested the addition of a new west side branch library; a Kenwood branch already existed on the eastside which remained in operation until the mid 1990s. [1]

Brown, Healey and Bock Architects-Engineers was hired in 1968, to begin design work on a new library, initially anticipated to be built next to the existing Carnegie Library on 3rd Avenue SE across from Greene Square where the current Museum of Art now sits. [2] A year earlier, though, an idea was floated to incorporate a new library into a larger civic center project, proposed as the grand centerpiece of Cedar Rapids’ urban renewal in the area of the current US Cellular Center. (I’m currently researching the implications of the federal urban renewal program in Cedar Rapids…stay tuned.) The civic center had its own setbacks that ultimately led to a scaled-back project that did not include the library.

In March 1969, the library board unveiled a unique proposal to construct a new subterranean library underneath Greene Square Park. This was not the board’s final recommendation, just an idea. At this point the board was still considering building next to the existing library and another site at 200 First Street SE, the present-day site of the Alliant Energy Tower.

Architect Ted Healey is quoted in the Gazette as promoting the cost savings to heat and cool the underground library, as well as the city’s plans to construct a new parking ramp adjacent to Greene Square, across the 4th Street tracks on the former site of Union Station, regrettably torn down in 1961. From the Gazette: “According to initial plans, the library would be fronted by a pedestrian walkway sunken about 10 feet below ground level. Huge glass windows would present a view into the library.” [3]

1969 Greene Square Park library proposal

The drawing is oriented with north at the bottom so the existing Carnegie Library would be across the street (3rd Ave) at the bottom. It is difficult to discern where on the site plan the underground facility actually was to be. The large, oddly-shaped white space in the center must be the sunken plaza, but I’m unsure if the underground building is to the lower left corner or upper right corner. My suspicion is that it is to the upper right (I think the darker shading along the sunken plaza may be the “huge glass windows”), but that presents some new questions. The fan-shaped building in the upper right corner was already built five years earlier in 1964, housing a senior center – ultimately the only new structure built in Greene Square and torn down in early 2011.

According to a May 22, 1969, Gazette brief, the library board had still not decided between the Greene Square or 200 First Street SE (Alliant) location. It seems an addition to the existing Carnegie was no longer being considered. Either way a new library, to cost $2.7 million to construction, was contingent upon the passing of a bond election. [4]

A June 29, 1969, Gazette editorial seems to suggest the Greene Square proposal was the library board’s chosen site to move forward with, in a response to the Cedar Rapids Garden Club’s petition against the subterranean library plan. The garden clubs objected due to the loss of trees required for construction. The editorial board counters this argument by claiming a mere dozen trees out of more than thirty would need to be removed and that surely new plantings and landscaping would preserve the park. “There may be other reasons why a partly underground central library in Greene square is not the best solution to the city’s need for a new one, but the loss of greenery and tree destruction aren’t among the drawbacks that should be decisive.” [5]

Needless to say the sunken library was never pursued much further. The bond failed during a special election later that year, and again in March and November of 1973. In all three elections, a majority of voters voted yes, but did not achieve the state mandated 60 percent supermajority to pass. [6] Beyond this there is a gap in my research regarding further funding and development of the library. (CRPL’s free online archive of the Gazette seems to be missing 1977 – 2008.)

Ultimately a new 85,000 square-foot central library was built at 500 First Street. The new library celebrated its grand opening on February 17, 1985, and was located there until the flood three years ago, June 11-13, 2008. Designed by the same architects originally hired in 1968, the new building seemed to satisfy certain parameters set out in the 1966 library study. It was located near the downtown core, had a majority of public spaces on the ground level, and was conveniently accessibly both by car and by transit (a new Ground Transportation Center opened just a few years earlier across the street). Seen below is the library under construction in 1984.

Cedar Rapids Public Library construction 1984

The parti of this new library was a basic rectangle, fit to the downtown street grid, overlaid by an organizational axis shifted 45 degrees. A two-story high atrium bisected the building, connecting an entrance at the parking lot facing First Street and an arguably more urban entrance directly off of 5th Avenue. In the smaller corner created to one side of the atrium was a public auditorium opposite of the library. A partial second floor bisected the rectangle in the other direction (perpendicular to the atrium axis), which housed the children’s section on the library side, and offices in the smaller portion above the auditorium. The north portion of the building was mostly monolithic, clad in large textured concrete panels, with the southern portion wrapped in floor to ceiling windows, sheltered by the deep overhang of the waffle form concrete ceiling.

Interestingly, the new library now under development follows a strikingly similar conceptual parti, though articulated quite differently. At the most basic level, the new library will be a two-story rectangle with an atrium space separating a larger open stacks area from a smaller area housing admin functions and an auditorium. The stacks area is wrapped in glass, while the back of house portion is less open, but certainly not the solid mass of concrete that the 1985 building was. Obviously the two library designs are quite different; architecturally they are night and day, but certainly parallels do exist.

When completed in summer 2013, the new library will open up towards Greene Square, reactivating the fading park and creating a cultural gathering space, bound by the historic Carnegie and newer art museum on the opposite side. Greene Square could once again be the grand civic park Cedar Rapids so needs and deserves. And perhaps the library was always meant to be a part of that.

1. Cedar Rapids Gazette, Survey Says Library Expansion Urgently Needed, Jan. 21, 1968
2. Cedar Rapids Gazette, Select Architect to Design New Public Library, Aug. 21, 1968
3. Cedar Rapids Gazette, Propose Library Under Greene Square, March, 26, 1969
4. Cedar Rapids Gazette, Still Undecided On Location for Central Library, May 22, 1969
5. Cedar Rapids Gazette, Trees Kept, June 29, 1969
6. Cedar Rapids Gazette, Same Old Story, Nov. 8, 1973

Greene Square Building History

Greene Square Park

On Friday, New Years Eve, the city-owned building in Greene Square Park was demolished following years of poor maintenance and minor flooding in 2008. The building opened Sept. 14, 1964, as a Senior Citizens Center, and most recently had been used for the Green Square Meals program. The one-story, fan-shaped building sat at the southwest corner of Green Square and opened up on to the park with a low, overhanging zig-zag roof.

The building appeared dated both in upkeep and the design itself. Its removal will return Greene Square into an entire open block that will accommodate a visual and active connection with the future new Cedar Rapids Public Library to be built across the street along the park’s southern edge.

Green Square Park building demolition

While there is little to object with the demolition, it is important to note the building’s significance in local architectural history. It was designed by Cedar Rapids architect Ray Crites who had an influential career in Iowa and throughout the Midwest. His most renowned buildings were houses – two of which were his own located in Cedar Rapids – that were distinctive vertical and horizontal compositions engaging natural sites. His partnership firm Crites and McConnell also played a role in the design of C.Y. Stephens Auditorium at Iowa State in 1969.

Throughout the city’s history Greene Square has been a mainstay even while much in and around it has changed. At one time Greene Square included the old Washington High School, was next to the spectacular Union Station, and across from the original Carnegie Library. Washington closed in 1935 and was demolished in 1946 after a failed preservation attempt. Similarly Union Station was torn down in 1961 to make way for a parking garage, which remains today. The old Carnegie Library still stands and was incorporated into a new facility for the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art in 1989.

Witwer Building + Downtown Hotels

Witwer Building, Cedar Rapids

The Witwer Building at 303 2nd Ave SE in downtown Cedar Rapids was originally the Post Office and Federal Building when built in 1908. (The original structure actually dates back to the 1890s, but was completely rebuilt in a different style in 1908.) It is currently owned by Linn County and housed community service-related offices and a senior center before the flood. The county now has plans to sell the building, which presents some compelling redevelopment opportunities. For instance, County Supervisor Linda Langston announced last week that a developer had been looking at the site for a boutique hotel at one point. However, she noted it is now more likely the building would be made into offices. Despite this reality, let’s entertain the hotel idea for a moment.

A small, boutique hotel in downtown could help increase nightlife activity downtown and the uniqueness of it would be attractive to certain visitors who otherwise would not stay at a hotel in downtown. The building itself seems appropriately sized to accommodate 10-15 guest rooms and perhaps a restaurant or upscale lounge on the first level. The site is at a very good location to synergize with other downtown attractions. Within a two block range is Theatre Cedar Rapids, the Paramount Theatre, the US Cellular Center and future Cedar Rapids Events Center, along with some existing bars and restaurants.

In addition to more housing, it is important to diversify the kinds of amenities and attractions in downtown to create a more lively, 24-hour neighborhood. While a specialty hotel seems pretty unlikely at this point, if one were to be developed, I’d be cautious to doubt its potential for success, as similar ventures have worked very well in other comparable cities.

Hotel Donaldson, FargoA great example of a new high-end niche hotel succeeding in a modest midwestern downtown is the Hotel Donaldson in Fargo, North Dakota. The “HoDo” was built in 1894 as a meeting hall, and opened as a hotel around 1915 when a third floor was added. Deteriorated over the decades, Karen Stoker bought the hotel in 2000 and renewed the building into a modern upscale hotel with 17 guest rooms, a high-end restaurant and lounge, and a variety of small meeting spaces including the “Sky Prairie” rooftop garden. Since its rebirth the Hotel Donaldson has been very successful and a pivotal part of Fargo’s downtown revitalization. There is also a dominant Radisson Hotel in downtown Fargo, plus a mid-level Howard Johnson on the edge – similar to Cedar Rapids’ arrangement with the Crowne Plaza and Coppers Mill Hotel.

In the past downtown Cedar Rapids was home to several hotels as it was the active hub of the city and for the decades the grand entry for visitors at Union Station, which most tragically was demolished in 1961, and replaced with a parking garage. Nearby the station and along the 4th Street tracks were a number of large hotels. Between 1st and 2nd avenues, sat the Allison Hotel and Magnus Hotel, both handsome, five-story brick buildings adjacent to the tracks. Unlike today, the corridor of tracks were responded to by buildings much like they would to normal street facades.

Unfortunately nearly all the original buildings along the tracks are now gone and nearly all remain as vacant lots or lifeless parking structures. The half-block site where the Allison and Magnus hotels stood is now the parking lot next to TCR that had been used for a number of years for the BBQ Round Up. Other nearby downtown hotels included the four-story Taft Hotel on 2nd Avenue next to the tracks and the six-story Montrose Hotel at the corner of 3rd Ave and 3rd Street SE. The Taft Hotel is now a parking lot behind the art museum and the Montrose Hotel was replaced by the five-story Town Centre office building around 1990.

Allison Hotel, downtown Cedar Rapids Magnus Hotel, downtown Cedar Rapids
Allison Hotel (left) and Magnus Hotel sat along the 4th Street tracks between 1st and 2nd avenues.

Taft Hotel, downtown Cedar Rapids Montrose Hotel, downtown Cedar Rapids
The Taft Hotel (left) was on 2nd Avenue SE east of the 4th Street tracks. The Montrose Hotel was located at 3rd Street and 3rd Avenue SE.

The historic hotel photographs are taken from Then & Now: Cedar Rapids Downtown and Beyond by George T. Henry and Mark W. Hunter, excerpts available on Google books.

25 Year Old Library Time Capsule Opened Today

Cedar Rapids Public Library time capsule from 1985, opened June 29, 2010.

The time capsule at the now former Cedar Rapids Public Library was uncovered and opened this morning (Tuesday, June 29) after being buried since 1985, when the library building was built. Evidently it took several years of trying to pass a super-majority vote by citizens to fund the new library, which replaced the original Carnegie Library location at 3rd Avenue and 5th Street SE, now a part of the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art.

The capsule was buried about five feet down, under a triangular planter near the main entrance. The contents, which were all paper materials (brochures, books, newspapers, etc.), were put in a cardboard box, wrapped in a plastic garbage bag, and placed in a baby casket. The casket had begun deteriorating and clearly had filled with water during the flood. All the contents were damp with several areas of mold growth, but in surprisingly good shape for sitting wet for the past two years.

The materials were laid out to look through and view by those attending before being taken to be frozen to halt anymore mold growth until they can be sorted and restored. Contents included a White & Yellow Pages phone book (obviously much more used back in ’85), brochures and literature about most of the local non-profit organizations and cultural venues, some local post cards, and the most interesting documents – reports and plans for major civic projects underway at the time. There was a report on the new airport terminal – which opened up a year later in 1986 – with some fantastic concept renderings of the inside and the front. Unfortunately I could not open to see the inside due to its current condition.

About ten to fifteen people showed up for the time capsule opening, about half from the local news media. Ted [unsure of last name] who was the architect for the 1985 library building was there at the beginning. I was able to talk with him for a few minutes, which was very interesting. He told me about his former firm, Brown Healy Stone & Sauer, which later merged with Howard R Green Co in 2001, after he had already retired.

The opening of the time capsule was the last remnant of the library at this building and site. It functioned as a library for only 23 years from 1985 to 2008, and will now be transformed into an office facility for TrueNorth. While the development of a new central library across from Green Square Park is exciting and ultimately, probably the best decision for the Library’s future, the existing building will always be appreciated for its role as our central library for the past quarter-century. The reinvention of the building into something new, serving a different role, is similar to the story of the old Carnegie Library, which now houses the gift shop, activity rooms, and offices for the art museum. By keeping the building and reusing it, even with additions and aesthetic alterations, its contextual, cultural, and new historical value is preserved for future generations.

The photo above is from the Cedar Rapids Public Library’ Facebook album. See more time capsule photos here.

History of Contemporary Rome

Today we had another intriguing lecture for ARCH 528 as well as a walking tour discussing the contemporary history of Rome in connection with the modern republic of Italy. Rome became the capital of the unified Italy on December 20, 1870, likely chosen for its symbolic history as a center of power and government. At the time Rome was not much larger than the original ancient city and had somewhat of an agrarian economy. Expansion and transformation from a sleepy town to once again major urban center occurred very rapidly. Modernization had to be quick so many existing buildings were taken over for government use and to house various ministries.

The biggest issue was housing to accommodate the extraordinary growth. Rome was a city of employees, not industry, but construction of course boomed. Surrounding landowners – monasteries and aristocrats – were now developers and there was a building fever. New buildings were eclectic with historical references on facades. A typical new building – becoming common across Europe – was four or five stories tall with all commercial space at ground level. Above on the first floor were located larger, luxurious apartments for the wealthy, and the upper floors became shorter and smaller for the lower classes. This is very interesting, seeming to be the beginning of planned large-scale mixed-use buildings. In general the ancient part of the city was and is still mixed with residential and commerce, but it was much more organic and reactionary.

So much of the city of Rome is not of ancient or even medieval times, but of the 19th and even early 20th centuries. To accommodate automobiles, some new arteries were cut through historic areas. Corso Vittorio Emmanuelle II was cut through the dense Field of Mars area (in the thick of ancient Rome). Unlike new straight arteries, this one winds through to minimize destruction and curve around the most important buildings. Otherwise many building facades were cut back. This is still not a particularly wide street by any means, but is certainly an important traffic corridor through the middle of the city. To the east it connects to a new street, Via Nazione which was modeled after radical new radial avenues in Paris that accommodated not only traffic, but various infrastructures as well.

And finally, close to home (studio) in the Jewish Ghetto, major changes also occurred. With striking parallels to the United States’ urban renewal of the 1960s and 70s, whole areas were deemed unfit and demolished to build brand new. A large part of the ghetto, which had been extraordinarily dense was removed and laid over with a modern grid – including the new synagog. The whole area replaces resulted in only four blocks so the juxtaposition against the remaining ancient urban fabric is quite unusual. (See blue blocks on map above.) At one place you can stand in between the ancient ruins of the Portico d’Ottavia, tiny medieval buildings, and large scale block-sized buildings in simplified Renaissance style facades.

While walking around we used Nolli‘s 1748 figure ground map laid over what exists today to understand the great extent to which some places have been altered. Above the map diagram shows the Corso Vittorio Emmanuelle II artery cutting through the center of Rome (horizontal red line) as well as Via Arenula (north-south) which turns into Via di Trastevere south of the river crossing. It of course terminates at Vittorio, but there was a plan to extend it even further north and split along either side of the Pantheon (located just a few blocks north, off the map). In that proposal, the Pantheon was deemed important enough to preserve, but of course dozens of buildings around it did not have that esteem. Thankfully this extension did not occur.

Additionally on our walking tour, we visited the Palazzo D’Esposizione museum, located on Via Nazione, completed in 1882, so the new state could show its interest in art and culture. There was a new, essentially all glass addition on the back containing a cafe and restaurant. We stopped here first before visiting the gallery, which was seemingly entirely separated (we actually had to go outside and reenter the front of the building). Currently there is a large exhibit with the works of Alexander Calder, who is best known for his mobiles and large (often red) stainless steel sculptures. A group of school children tried to make one of the large mobiles move by blowing at it from afar. How fun.


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