Landmark designation in Iowa City could protect historic buildings

Opposition lodged by property owners

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IOWA CITY — Taking a trip down Jefferson Street is like taking a step back in time.

“When you drive down that street, you don’t feel like it’s 2012,” said Nancy Carlson, who has lived in her 1880s home on Jefferson Street for 30 years.  “It feels like you’re in another time.”

Carlson, 65, said she hopes the architectural mix of historic churches, early University of Iowa buildings and older homes that line the street can be protected from changes taking place elsewhere in Iowa City.

That could happen with a proposal to designate the Jefferson Street Historic District as a local landmark district, giving the four-block area an added layer of oversight.

The City Council set a Dec. 18 public hearing to consider establishing a historic district overlay zone on Jefferson Street between Clinton and Van Buren streets, a plan that won’t come without a battle.

Nine property owners submitted letters of protest, enough to require a supermajority vote of six of seven council members to approve the rezoning. The petitions do not state a reason for the opposition.

Robert Miklo, Iowa City senior planner, said one of the city Historic Preservation Commission’s goals is to provide local landmark designation for sites listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

“Some of our most historic buildings are in that district,” Miklo said.

Those include the 1850s-Bostick House, 115 N. Gilbert St., a two-story brick home that served as city hall from 1875 to 1882; and the Congregational Church, 30 N. Clinton St.; Park House/St. Agatha’s Seminary, 130 E. Jefferson St., and St. Mary’s Catholic Church, 230 E. Jefferson St., all individually listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Jefferson Street was listed on the National Register in 2004, but that designation provides no protection from demolition or building renovations.

Special protection

Within local landmark districts, however, property owners must obtain approval for significant exterior changes, such as windows, to ensure renovations are compatible with the historic character of the building and neighborhood.

“Our role is to safeguard historic homes and neighborhoods,” said Historic Preservation Commission chairwoman Ginalie Swaim, adding that the commission’s work with property owners often results in project cost-savings.

Demolition requests also go through the commission.

Miklo and Swaim said local historic districts see improved property values and investment, while stabilizing nearby neighborhoods.

“What happens on that street spills over into surrounding areas,” Swaim said, including the neighboring Northside Market Place.

Alicia Trimble, executive director of Friends of Historic Preservation, said prominent early Iowa City families, such as the Englerts and Sueppels, owned houses in the Jefferson Street area.

Trimble said with 97 percent of the buildings counted as “contributing” structures — with distinctive architectural character — the street is unique among historic districts. Only the Newman Catholic Student Center, built at the end of the block in the 1980s, is considered non-contributing.

Both Trimble and Swaim pointed to Stuit Hall, 325 E. Jefferson St., as an example of the UI’s efforts in the district.

At one time, UI officials considered demolition, but opted to invest $3.7 million in the hall, built in 1916 as an isolation ward for tuberculosis patients and later used by the music department. Now a psychology clinic, the building is named for the late Dewey Stuit, a UI psychology professor who served as liberal arts dean.

Rod Lehnertz, director of planning, design and construction, noted that the UI is not opposed to the city’s plans for local landmark designation, but as a state institute, is not obligated to follow city rules governing those districts.

That concerns some preservationists, who worry that several key buildings could fall under the UI’s control.

Carlson’s Jefferson Street home is outside the historic district boundaries, but she and other advocates point to what can happen without the protection of a local landmark designation.

Earlier this year, three buildings, including one that housed the Red Avocado restaurant and Defunct Books bookstore, were razed on East Washington Street to make way for a four-story apartment building. A petition objecting to the project received more than 4,500 signatures, but did not stop demolition.

“You can build an apartment anywhere,” Carlson said. “But once these buildings are gone, they’re gone.”

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