Iowa Does National Preservation Month

There are a million ways a community can say, “Happy Preservation Month,” and the state of Iowa is clear evidence of that. Our 2011 National Main Streets Conference host state is rich in historic downtowns and urban neighborhood districts that owe their charm and sense of place, in large part, to the architecture that lines their streets and to the preservationists that had and continue to have, the courage and vision to save those places. May is our time to reflect on those contributions and to celebrate them. Here’s a look at how the Hawkeye State pays tribute.

Le Mars, Iowa is a perennial hot bed for Preservation Month activity. Every year the Chamber of Commerce holds a one-hour coffee talk that highlights one of the community’s historic treasures through photos and the sharing of personal histories. This year, attendees learned about the building that houses a family-owned insurance agency and was rehabbed last fall into ground-floor office space for the insurance business and upper-floor apartments.  This was a great opportunity to promote second-story living in Le Mars, which is a top priority for the Main Street program. Sixty people attended the talk this year.

Another annual tradition is the Historic House Tour, organized by the Plymouth County Historical Museum and the Le Mars Historic Preservation Commission, now in its 12th year. The tour tells the historical and architectural stories behind several homes and always draws a big crowd. This year was no exception as 173 people toured four homes. Tour proceeds benefit either the Le Mars Art Center or the Plymouth County Museum. The local Daily Sentinel is an important partner as it runs a generous spread on the homes and publishes a free contest that helps educate its readers about finer points of architecture. It works like this: a local architectural enthusiast snaps photos of an architectural detail, say columns, that can be found throughout the community and readers are challenged to submit the address of each example. The winner receives a free year-long newspaper subscription. Le Mars is also working to raise awareness of its downtown’s historic significance and the advantages contained therein by commissioning a year-long study to get the district’s listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

Burlington is showing its historic resources plenty of love this Preservation Month.  Every year, the city’s Historic Preservation Commission organizes a free, themed walking tour that ends with refreshments.  Last year, the subject was the proposed Manufacturing and Wholesale Historic District. This year, the tour will examine the architecture of several lodges that house various fraternal organizations in a three-block section of downtown. The tour will culminate with refreshments in the Masonic Temple, where visitors will be treated to a rare glimpse of the spectacular interior, including the Club Room, the Ceremonial Room, and the auditorium. Also this year, the local nonprofit Heritage Trust is hosting an open house to showcase the work in progress at 213 Valley after several years of volunteer effort. This project rehabilitates a 19th-century former hotel that was badly damaged in a fire and plagued by vacancy. Using a $15,000 Main Street Iowa challenge grant and historic photos as reference, workers removed the temporary plywood and restored the façade of the three-storybuilding with salvaged materials. Upon completion, 213 Valley will house Preservation Station, an architectural salvage warehouse and retail location operated by the Heritage Trust. Lastly, Downtown Partners, the Main Street organization, seized upon Preservation Month to advance the rehabilitation of the historic Bookend Building project, three different buildings that span five addresses in downtown Burlington. Downtown Partners purchased the mostly vacant buildings and intends to sell them to a developer for rehabilitation. In the meantime, a crew gathered last Saturday to liberate two of the storefronts from ugly metal cladding that obscured an Italianate façade and prism transom glass from the early 19th-century.

Cedar Rapids is also fertile ground for Preservation Month activities, much of it centered around the state’s only National Trust Historic Site, Brucemore. The first event, held on May 1st, was the work of several local historic preservation commissions and the Site, which took people behind the scenes for a look at how historic preservation has helped turn the tide for two theatres badly damaged by the 2008 flooding — the Iowa Theater and the Paramount. Tour-goers came in droves to see hidden parts of the 1928 theatres and to hear directly from the project leaders about the past, present, and future of the two gems. The tours were a smashing success, with all of the ticket sales benefiting the nonprofit Theatre Cedar Rapids, the main tenant of the Iowa Theater. The Iowa Theater was in the process of a capital campaign when the floods hit, enabling it to bounce back relatively quickly. The city-owned Paramount is still a work in progress, as FEMA and historic rehabilitation guidelines must be navigated. The scope of the rehab is challenging as well, as this former movie house will be converted into a live performance venue for plays and the orchestra — necessitating extensive acoustic upgrades that must not sacrifice the theater’s historic character. 

Brucemore offered several other ways to get folks walking and talking preservation. Now in their second year, Brucemore's Historic Neighborhood Walks enable staff to take their preservation expertise beyond the mansion’s grounds. Staff provide an overview of the architectural and landscape highlights of the neighborhood surrounding the Site, and send attendees home with a flipbook of other notable historic sights in the area. On May 13th and 14th, the Historic Site waives the ticket price for its popular mansion tours that interpret the stories of the families who called Brucemore home. The special Nooks and Crannies tours share a glimpse of some of the mansion’s quirky and curious details, including usually off-limits areas. Brucemore staff will also inform visitors about some current preservation projects, including the ongoing restoration of its 1915 greenhouse (abetted by a National Trust Historic Sites Fund grant) that will host Brucemore’s gardening and growing programs for at-risk youth, currently held in the modern greenhouse.