A look at Cedar Rapids' future -- circa 1961

Many features of young architect's ideas reflected in current projects

An eastside development (the Cedar River is upper left) of Cedar Rapids near 8th Avenue SE (foreground) included high rise buildings and a civic center complex (center) in the scale model of James Rieniets’ 1961 architectural thesis project. (James H. Rieniets photo)
An eastside development (the Cedar River is upper left) of Cedar Rapids near 8th Avenue SE (foreground) included high rise buildings and a civic center complex (center) in the scale model of James Rieniets’ 1961 architectural thesis project. (James H. Rieniets photo)

Imagine, if you will, a new public auditorium along the west side of the Cedar River where the Cedar Rapids Police Station now sits.

And high-rise apartment buildings on the near west side where the Floods of 2008 did so much damage.

And a community civic center (art center, library, community theater) in the heart of east-side development at Greene Square Park.

In 1961, architectural student James H. Rieniets of Cedar Rapids did just that for his thesis at the University of Houston. He envisioned Cedar Rapids in the year 2000 with a population of 200,000 (it was the baby boomer era). And he built an 8-by-14-foot scale model to bring it to life.

The model was displayed in the corner window at Killian’s Department Store for two weeks that fall. It was featured in The Gazette on Oct. 1, 1961, as Alice Smith of Cedar Rapids recently found among clippings saved by her late husband, W. Howard Smith.

A little Internet sleuthing located architect James Rieniets in Bradenton, Fla., where he’s had an office since 1985. A telephone call caught him off guard.

“I haven’t thought about that for quite awhile,” he said, a pleasant, reflective quality to his voice. “It’s been 50 years.”

Yes, but he remembers it well and was pleased to reminisce and forward photographs, since his comprehensive cardboard and paper model is long gone.

“I would go there (Killian’s) at noon and stand and listen to people comment,” he says.

“It’s too grand a scheme,” one said.

“It’ll never be done,” said another.

“But,” James says, “a lot of people were favorable. It showed the potential of what could happen.”

For James, a 1955 graduate of Franklin High School (he last visited Cedar Rapids in 2005 for his 50th class reunion), the future was a short stint with Peiffer and Associates in Cedar Rapids before moving on to Texas, Arkansas and Florida. He helped design the Houston Sports Arena, numerous homes and commercial buildings and worked in commercial space planning.

Now 74, he still has James H. Rieniets, Architect, where sporadic work involves custom-designed homes.

For the city of Cedar Rapids in 1961, the future would bring urban renewal along the river, construction of today’s Alliant Tower (then Iowa Electric) and Cedar River Tower. It would include bringing Interstate 380 through town in the 1970s, today’s U.S. Cellular Center and the Five Seasons Hotel, followed by a new library and Ground Transportation Center.

James’ vision and the city’s needs, it seems, meshed well.

“The city of Cedar Rapids is so unique with the island in the middle of the river,” he says. “It was intriguing to think about. It was an educational process, to take what I’d learned and apply it to a real community.”

The thesis, he estimated at the time, took about 2,000 hours, including constructing the model on five plywood sections. He kept it around for a while, even moving it to Houston. But the model wasn’t built to last, even as some of the ideas remain fresh today:

  • For instance, no Fourth Street SE railroad tracks can be seen in James’ model. He envisioned them being rerouted on the west side of the river and then to Quaker.
  • The proposed interstate would have included a beltway of four lanes around the business district, including a two-level bridge (interstate on top, local traffic on the bottom) to replace the Eighth Avenue bridge.
  • His public auditorium isn’t far from the outdoor amphitheater now being built.
  • The high-rise buildings along Eighth Avenue SE just two blocks from the river are near the federal courthouse now under construction.
  • While his concept of a comprehensive civic center/bus terminal never materialized, it would have encompassed Greene Square Park and an area west of it where Union Station had just been razed. Now Cedar Rapids is getting its second new library since his thesis was completed, this time just south of Greene Square Park.
  • His west-side development would have replaced housing for about 4,800 people with high-rise apartments, medium-density multifamily dwellings and a school surrounded by single-family houses. In all, enough space for 10,000 to 12,000 people to live.
  • James proposed a shopping center further west — this at a time when Lindale Mall was in its infancy and Westdale Mall wouldn’t be born for 18 years.
  • In the downtown area, to accomplish his aggressive building plan, James called for the closing of Second, Fourth and Sixth streets as well as Fourth, Sixth and Seventh avenues. A new bridge would cross the Cedar River at Fifth Avenue.
  • The new parking ramp along First Street SE (now being torn down) would remain. A new parking ramp would have been built where the Five Seasons Parkade now sits near the Fourth Street tracks. Other underground parking ramps would have been built and overhead walkways (skywalks) would have been added.
  • He saw the federal building, which was then the Post Office and is now city offices, becoming the police station. New county government buildings would have been built along the east side of the river south of Third Avenue.

In 1961 James hoped to put together a brochure of his thesis, but other projects got in the way. He has the photographs, though, and his memory.

If called upon, he says, he’d love to help with a new vision for his beloved hometown. After all, looking back half a century makes you wonder how Cedar Rapids will fare in another 50 years. 

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