Trio from Chicago visits Cedar Rapids to admire the work of architect Louis Sullivan

St. Paul's United Methodist Church, former Peoples Savings Bank are tour stops

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CEDAR RAPIDS — Three new sets of eyes — or maybe it’s experienced eyes — scrutinized a few Cedar Rapids landmarks Tuesday morning. They mostly liked what they saw.

“In a funny way, this looks more modern than classical,” said John Vinci, regarding St. Paul’s United Methodist Church from across the street. “It has a (Frank Lloyd) Wrightian modernity to it.”

“It’s a brilliant design,” said his friend Tim Samuelson. “It became known in architectural circles, and still is to this day, as the Cedar Rapids Plan.”

Samuelson, a historian, preservationist and author; Vinci, an architect; and Chris Ware, a graphic novelist and award-winning artist whose work includes 23 New Yorker covers, are on what’s become a summertime tradition, traveling from their Chicago homes to visit the work of architects they admire.

The three began their Iowa tour early Monday in Clinton, touring the former Van Allen department store, and plan to visit notable architectural landmarks in Iowa City, Grinnell, Mason City and Dubuque.

“Just a road trip of architecture geeks,” Samuelson wrote in an email.

In Cedar Rapids, that meant visits to St. Paul’s, 1340 Third Ave. SE, built 1914, and the 1910 former Peoples Savings Bank, 101 Third Ave. SW, now home to Popoli Ristorante and Sullivan’s Bar. Both buildings were designed by Louis Sullivan, sometimes called “the father of modernism” or “the father of skyscrapers” for his pioneering work in Chicago.

“It was a matter of rare gifts of the mind and cognition,” Samuelson said of Sullivan’s talent. “He called it his photo memory. Another thing he had that not everyone has, he could think in three dimensions.”

The three longtime friends dined Monday night at Popoli’s with a few local preservationists.

“I think it actually works better as a restaurant,” said Samuelson, 66, who consulted on the building’s early-1990s restoration to its as-built appearance.

“If it can’t function as a bank, then it’s a terrific restaurant,” agreed Ware, 49.

They also liked the food.

Tuesday morning, the three returned for a closer look and photographs of the exterior.

“There’s 44 shades of brick, so it looks like an Oriental carpet,” Samuelson said. “There’s no other Sullivan building that has this rough-finish terra cotta.”

Samuelson knows something about landmarks, being one himself: in 2015 he was designated a Legendary Landmark by Landmarks Illinois, a nonprofit preservation group.

“I was always the quirky kid,” said Samuelson. “Even in my grade school, when they were to paint the school I’d try to find out what the original colors were.”

Vinci, 80, was already building his legend in Chicago preservation, fighting to preserve landmarks — the structural kind — from demolition and salvaging what he could when those efforts failed.

“There was this group of regular guys,” Samuelson said. “They stood up for the preservation of a skyscraper? In Chicago?”

Preservation battles aren’t unknown in Cedar Rapids. Samuelson noted the 2012 demolition of the former First Christian Church to clear space for a Physicians’ Clinic of Iowa parking lot. Sullivan consulted on the design of the church, opened in 1913.

“There’s just no excuse for that one,” he said.

One of Samuelson’s first jobs was as a preservationist for Vinci’s architectural firm.

“He has this way of seeming to see through everything to its basic form,” said Ware. He said sights from the Iowa trip are likely to turn up in some form in his own work.

“I think so, somehow,” he said. “Just the idea of letting an idea grow on its own. It’s also a chance to hang out with Tim and John.”

“It’s great to be in these spaces and take it in,” Samuelson said as the three took in the sanctuary at St. Paul’s. “That’s what we do. If you only see it from photographs, you don’t know the building.”

In this case, Vinci found his opinion of the church’s interior contradicted his impression of its exterior.

“Somehow the exterior seems to be more modern, the inside gets to be more traditional,” he said. “In my book.”

“The concept of the space is still there” despite renovations over the years, Samuelson said. “So the power is still working.”

It’s a power Samuelson said local residents can still feel, in the surviving Sullivan buildings and others.

“The preservation here is great,” he said, surveying downtown from in front of Popoli’s Tuesday morning. “It even seems like the (2008) flood seems to have pulled together a preservation movement, in a way.”

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