Grace Episcopal latest to seek local historic landmark in Cedar Rapids

In two years, four properties in Cedar Rapids have sought the protection

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CEDAR RAPIDS — The rich history of the stately Grace Episcopal Church would be lost if a developer bought and demolished the building for another use, church leaders feared.

A bell tower soars above the corner of A Avenue and Sixth Street NE, and limestone blocks and stained glass windows make up the facade. Only the side and back wall are original to 1851, when the church was being built.

Expansions, remodels, and a fire in a second building in 1892 contributed to changes of the original building. Congregants want to ensure what remains is protected.

“Even if we are all not here someday, we want to preserve the legacy of the church,” said Dale Schirmer, a business manager at the church and parishioner.

Grace Episcopal has applied through the city for a local landmark designation to protect the building. The designation would require any future owner to get a review and approval for exterior work. The Cedar Rapids City Council will consider the application, likely early next year.

The church is one of just four properties — all within the past two years — that have sought such a designation in Cedar Rapids since the regulation was created in 1999.

The Ausadie Building on First Avenue SE was the first to receive the designation in 2015, and the Mott Building and the Knutson Building on the west bank of the Cedar River were approved this fall.

City officials anticipating the recent wave of applications will pick up.

“Cedar Rapids in the past 50 years has torn down so many buildings and train stations,” said Tim Oberbroeckling, treasurer of Friends of Cedar Rapids Historic Preservation. “I am glad today there’s far more interest in keeping these buildings around.”

The year-old nonprofit has been instrumental in encouraging property owners to consider seeking the designation. In the case of Grace Episcopal, the group did the administrative legwork.

At Grace Episcopal, Susie Olson, 79, has been researching and documenting the history of the church. The effort would be valuable for any church to “uncover your history,” Priest Meg Wagner said.

The roots of the church, which was finished in 1856, are intertwined with the founding of Cedar Rapids, which was incorporated in 1849.

George Greene, a prominent judge and a founding father of Cedar Rapids, was one of the six original communicants who organized the church. Another influential early figure, Sampson Bever, donated the original bell for the bell tower. The church spearheaded the creation of St. Luke’s Hospital in 1883 with major contributions from the Greene and Bever families.

Their signatures remain on old logs and their names hang on plaques in hallways.

“There’s such an important connection with Cedar Rapids, and we want to preserve that, too,” Wagner said.

A property can qualify as historically significant under four categories: architecture, connection to significant people in history, connection to significant events in history, and connection to the community. Grace Episcopal qualified under its connection to significant people and events.

The Friends group, which includes local historic preservation advocates Oberbroeckling, Lydia Brown, Mark Stoffer-Hunter, Ron Mussman, David Janssen, Amanda McKnight Grafton and Bob Grafton, completed the paper work, worked with the State Historic Preservation Office to validate its historical significance, and is now working through the city processes to get final approval.

They are willing to do the work — at this point for free — because they want to inspire more awareness and education about preserving the city’s history.

“The more we talk about historic preservation, the more people will know what we have here,” Oberbroeckling said. “If we don’t talk about it, those buildings get torn down.”

Oberbroeckling said they have an application started for another client and have conversations started with a handful of other property owners. He declined to identify them this early in the process, but mentioned that the Paramount Theatre, the Veteran’s Memorial Building on May’s Island, the Linn County Courthouse and City Hall would all qualify for a local historic landmark designation.

Jeff Hintz, a city planner who works with historic preservation, said thousands of properties in Cedar Rapids — including homes, businesses and other structures — could be eligible for the local designation. A Historic Sites and Districts Identification System, which is available online at crgis.cedar-rapids.org/HDV/index.html, was created in 2015 where people can investigate if a property may be eligible.

Hintz said the city would like to seem more local historic landmarks to help preserve history.

“When you get locally listed, it’s like you’re a historic district unto yourself,” he said. “There’s a review of facade changes. The national designation is more honorary.”

In addition to the Ausadie Building, Cedar Rapids has the Second and Third Avenue Historic District and the Redmond Park — Grande Avenue Historic District. Properties in those two local historic districts have similar protections as the local historic landmarks.

l Comments: (319) 339-3177; brian.morelli@thegazette.com

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