Epic Rebirth

'The show must go on' Turning disaster into opportunities

Cedar Rapids cultural infrastructure came back stronger

The National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library in July 2011 begins the final phase of its move to higher ground in southwest Cedar Rapids. The museum was planning an expansion before the flood but raised $28 million and completed an expansion along with the move. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
The National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library in July 2011 begins the final phase of its move to higher ground in southwest Cedar Rapids. The museum was planning an expansion before the flood but raised $28 million and completed an expansion along with the move. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — Even before the National Guard would let most residents back into inundated downtown Cedar Rapids after the 2008 flood, Theatre Cedar Rapids staffers were planning a mission to their historic Iowa Theater Building.

Their goal? To rescue opera costumes.

Escorted by law enforcement, they made their way through the dark and humid city skywalks to the U.S. Bank parking ramp, where they knew a door connected to the theater’s fourth floor. Then they came to a metal fire door and tried to break through, but failed.

 

“They walked back, incredibly dejected, and the National Guard and fire department folks took pity on them and escorted them to the street level door and let them in that way,” recalled TCR finance director J. David Carey. “It was totally an exception to the policy.”

That exception helped make sure the show could go on in the days when much of the city’s daily rhythm of life ground to a halt.

The Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre needed the costumes for its upcoming performance of “Aida.”

Even though the sets were under water, the opera’s performances moved to Washington High School, and the remainder of TCR’s season moved to Lindale Plaza, where the company stayed until the theater building at 102 Third St. SE was renovated.

“It became a mission — we’re not going to miss this season,” Carey said. “We wanted to do our part to not skip a beat.”

$30 MILLION DAMAGE

“The show must go on” was the overwhelming sentiment for Cedar Rapids cultural institutions in the days, months and years after the 2008 flood.

Damage to the city’s centers of culture was estimated at close to $30 million.

And although their stages and exhibit halls were still inundated with water, theater, museum and performing arts groups looked for ways to keep going, just as the community around them did.

Lindale Mall also provided space to the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library for a temporary exhibit, as did the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, which escaped major flood damage. The African American Museum of Iowa stored artifacts at the Masonic Library on First Avenue East. The University of Iowa Library’s Preservation Department helped restore damaged books, letters and documents for both museums.

Without access to the Paramount Theatre stage, the Cedar Rapids Symphony — now Orchestra Iowa — played on the lawn at Brucemore, an idea that proved so popular it is now an annual event.

Paramount Theatre before and after

Old: Interior photo of The Paramount Theatre during renovation. (Cliff Jette /The Gazette)

New: Interior photo of The Paramount Theatre after renovation. (Cliff Jette /The Gazette)

'SPEAK TO HEART, SOUL'

And even as they were busy rebuilding homes and businesses and lives, people stepped in to help rebuild their cultural institutions.

“They speak to the heart and soul of the city. If you let those institutions go down, it would be a further devastation,” said Gail Naughton, president and CEO of the Czech and Slovak Museum. “When we kept going ... it really gave people a lot of hope that the city could come back and be more than it was. The city had so much to deal with, I was really proud of it for valuing saving the museums.”

Carey at TCR agreed.

“I think people have always looked at the arts and the culture as being a mirror of themselves, as being a reflection of themselves,” Carey said. “The arts help you focus your emotions, and your view of your whole life.”

SEIZING OPPORTUNITY

 

For many organizations, the flood provided a complicated silver lining.

“I was convinced we would never build back just what we had. That would be letting the flood win. We had to turn it into an opportunity,” Naughton said.

For many of the flooded venues and museums, money — from the federal and state government, state and historic tax credits, grants, gifts from donors — poured in.

The museum, already in the planning stages for an expansion before the flood, was able to not only move the museum to higher ground in 2011 but to expand it after raising $28 million.

TCR was already planning a renovation and had announced a capital campaign earlier in 2008. After the flood, it expanded planned upgrades to complete a $7.8 million renovation.

The Paramount was faced with more than $16 million in damage but undertook a $35 million restoration.

For performing arts organization Legion Arts, the flood meant the chance to buy and complete a $6 million renovation on the CSPS building it had been renting.

ATTENDANCE UP

The cultural organizations all report huge increases in attendance post-flood. Some of that is because the expansions and renovations made more possible. Some of it was increased energy and momentum in the wake of the flood and rebuilding efforts.

“We were able to raise our profile because of the attention paid to this neighborhood,” Legion Arts co-founder and producing director Mel Andringa said of the CSPS building in the NewBo district. “We had done over 1,000 concerts here from 1991 to the flood. We’ve more than doubled that in the last 10 years.”

QUALITY OF LIFE

Pat Deignan, president of Bankers Trust and president of the TCR board in 2008, said the renovation and resurgence of the theaters mirrors the resurgence of Cedar Rapids as a whole.

“I don’t know if anyone at the time could have predicted how well we’d come back,” he said. “I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, but it’s a generational move that wouldn’t have occurred.”

"I was convinced we would never build back just what we had. That would be letting the flood win. We had to turn it into an opportunity."

- Gail Naughton

president and CEO of the Czech and Slovak Museum

 

Paramount Executive Director Michael Silva — who also oversees the other VenuWorks-managed properties of the McGrath Amphitheatre, U.S. Cellular Center and the Cedar Rapids Ice Arena — said he thinks the investment in cultural organizations helped Cedar Rapids not only come back from the flood, but to continue to grow.

The performing arts venues, museums and places like NewBo City Market and the rebuilt public library contribute to economic development by increasing the quality of life, community engagement and making people want to live and invest here, he said.

“That’s why we operate these buildings,” he said. “We make this argument a lot because we feel pretty strongly about what we do.”

Paramount General Manager Jason Anderson agreed.

Looking at the building booms in places like NewBo and Kingston Village, he added, “We like to think we’re a small part of all of it. There’s great value in the arts.”

SCARS LINGER

Still, many of flood’s scars, both emotional and physical, won’t fade anytime soon.

Stefanie Kohn, curator of the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library, will never forget the smell of slime, muck and mold that filled not just the museum but much of the city.

Watch: The Museum Move

 

“You can still smell it in certain buildings if you go by them, if they haven’t been dealt with yet,” she said, adding that even with recovery and expansion that came after the flood, “I never would have wanted that disaster experience.”

At the African American Museum of Iowa, which had 5 feet of water on its main floor, 90 percent of the collection was saved through the work of preservationists. But “a lot of the collection that was saved was altered,” according to Brianna Kim, the museum’s director of operations.

Dye on fabric bled; ink on pages smeared; odors on artifacts lingered. In the museum’s current temporary exhibit, “If Objects Could Talk,” a piano that Cedar Rapids pastor and civil rights leader Viola Gibson once played still bears a water mark for visitors to see.

“They could have stripped it down and made it look like it was, but they decided to leave it,” Kim said. “The flood is really part of its story now.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8339; alison.gowans@thegazette.com

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