Modern touches coming to historic Ushers Ferry in Cedar Rapids

Work will improve access for those with disabilities

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CEDAR RAPIDS — A reboot underway at Ushers Ferry should preserve the attraction’s small-town, turn-of-the-20th-century motif, while improving accessibility so those with disabilities can go back in time, too.

Teresa White, site supervisor at Ushers Ferry Historic Village, 5925 Seminole Valley Trail NE, Cedar Rapids, said too often school groups tour the site and a child in a wheelchair is left outside while classmates enter old timey cottages and saloons to play make-believe roles as townspeople. Classmates fill in the student on what he or she missed, but it’s disappointing when a child can’t partake in the experience because they have a disability, she said.

“Once this is finished, they will be able to come in and have the experience for themselves,” White said.

The updates are designed to meet the needs of people with all types of disabilities.

Tricon General Construction of Cedar Rapids has a $604,000 city contract to fix a range of accessibility gaps on the sprawling site where 20 buildings and a town square interpret life in a small Iowa town, somewhere between 1890 and 1910. The contract is in response to a 2015 city settlement with the Department of Justice to correct violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The annual Fall Family Fest at Ushers Ferry will be free this year — from 1 to 4 p.m. Sept. 17 — to showcase the work and answer questions on what impact ADA compliance will have.

CREATING VILLAGE

The city bought the land in 1966 and in 1975 dedicated a 10-acre section of Seminole Valley Park as Pioneer Village. In 1986, the village was renamed Ushers Ferry after the Usher family, which once owned the land and operated a ferryboat near their home upstream.

Over the years, buildings came to the site from other parts of Cedar Rapids and the larger region to make way for urban renewal. This was the original impetus for Pioneer Village.

It also explains why so many buildings are not designed to modern accessibility standards.

Uneven doorway thresholds, such as the ones entering the school house or church, will be redesigned as zero grade entryways. A wooden boardwalk that serves as a sidewalk for much of the village is disconnected in places and will be replaced by a stamped, colored concrete pathway with no gaps. It will loop the full way around the village. The concrete should be easier for those in wheelchairs, or with walkers or canes.

“The wood is more authentic to the period, but wood changes so much and wood deteriorates,” said Jeff Koffron, a facilities maintenance supervisor, noting the concrete will aesthetically look similar to the wood. “We’ve taken so much time in design because we don’t want to lose the aesthetic.”

Stairways, such as the ones entering the “telephone” house, will be rebuilt to make steps a consistent height. Doorways, some of which are as narrow as 24 inches, will be widened to accommodate wheelchairs where possible. In some cases, where there are load-bearing walls, for example, the structure will have to be left as is, Koffron, said.

Access to structures will be modified with new ramps, and landing spaces will be widened to provide enough room for people in wheelchairs to enter, turn around and leave.

SOME WORK WILL WAIT

Ushers Ferry will remain open as work proceeds in a section-by-section fashion. The goal is to be finished by the end of November, but that is weather dependent, Koffron said.

The upgrades cover only a portion of the compliance problems. A previous review found $1.1 million in repairs must be made to be in compliance. The Tricon project will fix 11 of the 20 buildings, Koffron said. Two other buildings, the town hall and grange hall, are slated for demolition at an undetermined point in the future because they are leaning and no longer structurally sound.

The other seven buildings, such as the doctor’s house, will be closed until enough money can be raised either through city coffers, grants or private fundraising, Koffron said.

“We will bring them back on line one at a time as funds become available,” Koffron said, noting the process could take three to five years.

CHECK IT OUT

What: Fall Family Fest

Where: Ushers Ferry Historic Village, 5925 Seminole Valley Trail NE, Cedar Rapids

When: 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 17

Activities: Historic demonstrations, crafts, hayrack rides and games. Visitors also can view plans to bring buildings into compliance with Americans with Disabilities requirements.

Admission: Free

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

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