Time Machine

Time Machine: The Alley Inn

The little Cedar Rapids bar where everybody knew your name

The Alley Inn at 416 Third St. SE in downtown Cedar Rapids is surrounded by much bigger buildings in this May 1987 photo. (Gazette archive)
The Alley Inn at 416 Third St. SE in downtown Cedar Rapids is surrounded by much bigger buildings in this May 1987 photo. (Gazette archive)
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The tiny building at 416 Third St. SE in downtown Cedar Rapids has survived the urban renewal and development that has gone on all around it for more than 95 years.

Its slightly more than 1,100 square feet provided space in the 1920s for a sandwich shop, first owned by Robert McLain, followed by Robert Turner, then Minnie Kramb. Minnie’s Third Street Pantry lasted from 1931 to 1947.

George Faches bought the building in 1948 and turned it into George’s Place, a small diner that also offered beer. That bothered neighbor Bob Armstrong, according to George’s son, Bill. Armstrong didn’t want a bar so close to his retail store, but he always declined opportunities to buy the place.

Faches ran the bar until 1949, when he died. His widow, Androniki Faches, surrendered the bar’s beer and cigarette permits issued in George’s name and applied for new ones in her own name. The Faches family continued to operate George’s Place until 1959, when they rented the space to Al and Phyllis Primrose, who operated it as Al’s Alley Inn for many years.

AL’S PLACE

 

Pat Monnahan and Kathy Keith bought the Alley Inn bar in 1985 and rented the building and its 20-by-75-foot strip of land from longtime Linn County Attorney Bill Faches, George’s son, for $560 a month, about a quarter of what a similar-sized space would bring elsewhere downtown.

The tiny green building beside the Armstrong’s department store parking lot was nearly hidden behind a billboard.

It had a typical neighborhood bar feel, with an Old Style calendar on the wall and a Pabst Blue Ribbon clock.

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Seating included five booths and a dozen bar stools. Occupancy was limited to 33, according to a sign on the door. Another sign behind the bar read, “There is a time and a place for foul language. This is neither the time nor the place.”

The Alley Inn was frequented by residents of the nearby Geneva Tower, and its character was compared to the bar on the popular TV comedy “Cheers.” You walked in, they knew your name.

SAVED FROM DEMOLITION

In 1987, the Alley Inn was slated for demolition. The site was pegged to be a parking garage for a new shopping mall, The Crossings, to be built where the Montrose Hotel stood.

One of the bar’s regular patrons, Joe Brisben, wrote an eloquent letter to The Gazette as part of an effort to keep the bar intact.

“In an attempt to preserve the Alley Inn as a viable, social, libational and gustatory institution in downtown Cedar Rapids, more than 300 patrons and habitués of the Alley Inn have signed a petition requesting that the city do something to preserve this venerable institution, thereby allowing it to continue to operate in the same location or moving it to similar quarters in the downtown area,” Brisben wrote. The Alley Inn “has served the needs and desires of working-class people” for more than 60 years, he added.

His letter drew several reporters and photographers to the bar throughout the day on Friday, May 15, 1987.

Brisben told them new establishments in downtown Cedar Rapids were “yuppie-ized,” adding, “There’s only so much soup and salad and quiche a body can stand.”

“I know a lot of people here,” Geneva Tower resident Charlie Zahorik told reporters. “I really don’t know what I’d do if I couldn’t come here.” Zahorik, 76, said he spent six or seven hours every day at the Inn, drinking coffee and talking with other patrons.

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The lunch crowd at the bar that Friday included men in suits as well as a woman using a walker who threatened a TV cameraman if he dared aim his camera at her.

Mayor Don Canney said the City Council would consider the request to keep the Alley Inn intact. The patrons’ petition succeeded. The building remained but the bar didn’t.

TRANSITIONS

In 1990, the Alley Inn stood alone in the middle of the Armstrong parking lot at Fourth Avenue and Third Street SE while construction of a skywalk from the new city parkade went on overhead. The bar was surrounded by concrete piers and scaffolding. Being in a construction zone affected the bar’s business. Even though construction workers dropped in for lunch or after work for a few beers, the regulars were turned off by the noise.

“When they’re drilling so close by, it almost shakes the building down,” Monnahan said.

By the end of 1990, Monnahan had had enough. He sold the bar to Ray Kohl Enterprises, but the building still belonged to the Faches family. The business reopened as a pub called Three Cheers.

 

In 1994, it became O’Maggie’s Pub, owned by Dan Each and Cheri Frondle. Guitarist Dennis McMurrin and bassist Daniel Johnson — Daddy-O and D.J. — performed in a space in front of the bar’s window each Thursday. The duo even recorded a CD, “Living the Live,” there in February 1997.

After about a dozen years, the bar changed hands again when Matt Blake opened the Grafton Street Pub, operating it along with his Dublin City Pub, also downtown at 315 Second Ave. SE. The Grafton became the city’s first smoke-free bar in May 2007. After the devastating flood of 2008 destroyed both his bars, Blake combined the businesses in the remodeled building along the river that once housed Muddy Waters. The new Dublin City Pub featured a Grafton Street Eatery.

In 2016, the little building passed into the hands of entrepreneurs Kevin and Kory Nanke, whose other businesses included the Red Frog in Czech Village. They rehabbed the structure and opened it as Stella’s in 2016.

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Nanke still owns the building, and the little pub’s latest incarnation, as the Map Room, will open July 4 under the ownership of Christina and Mitch Springman.

“We’ve both always loved the uniqueness of the building — a tiny spot, tucked in among towering buildings and concrete,” Christina Springman said. “It feels like a cozy respite from the busy-ness of downtown.”

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