116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
May. 5, 2013 8:07 pm
The small, irregular houses built by Howard F. Moffitt and his partner, Ray Blakesley, in the early 20th century are described as "quirky" and "eccentric." Moffitt had no professional blueprints for his creations, deeming them too expensive, and he may have been Iowa City's first "green" builder. He created his homes with scrap metal, parts salvaged from burned buildings and demolition sites, limestone from the river and rails from the discontinued streetcar system. He used day laborers and unskilled labor in building his small rental homes, school-age kids to clean mortar from bricks he planned to re-use and possibly WPA workers for their masonry experience.
The period during which the cottages were built was one of huge growth for the University of Iowa. From 1916 into the 1930s, under the administration of President Walter Jessup, student enrollment increased from 3,300 to 10,000 and 33 new buildings sprang up on campus. Moffitt saw a need for inexpensive rentals for married students and young faculty with limited resources.
Moffitt, a trained military pilot whose skills went unused because World War I ended before he could make it to Europe, returned to Iowa City in 1924. He partnered with Blakesley in operating Auto Supply Co. on South Linn Street and Harter Motor Co. on College Street. Because of the huge demand for single-family homes during the 1920s, other builders were not considering rental properties, leaving the field wide open for Moffitt and Blakesley, who began building houses as a sideline.
Moffitt's style seemed to be not to have a style. The common elements of the cottages were either a massive stone chimney or a stone veneer front wall. Otherwise, he borrowed design elements from Craftsman (low pitched roofs, exposed rafters, the use of cobblestone and rock) and Period (ancient English and European influence) houses, often changing and combining details at will.
The combined effect is one of unconventional but cozy cottages.
Moffitt's design inspiration came from magazines such as House Beautiful and American Home as well as from his wife, Anna Glasgow Moffitt, and one of the women who rented from him with her husband, Eleanor Hageboeck. Hageboeck, with a background in art history, would work out floor plans and interior details for each site. Building measurements often were sighted, rather than actually measured, resulting in corners that weren't square, floors that weren't level and walls that weren't plumbed. Contrary to the common practice of the day, Moffitt integrated garages into the houses instead of building free-standing structures. The drive-under garages are thought to originally have been ramps for horse teams that dragged out dirt for the basements.
Often Blakesley and Moffitt would begin houses with the intention of living in them, but would instead sell them and start building again. Blakesley would argue for more quality in construction and lower maintenance costs, but Moffitt insisted on building as cheaply as possible.
Several Moffitt neighborhoods exist in the Iowa City/Coralville area.
Five of his stone cottages in the 1300 block of Muscatine Avenue are a historic district and are on the National Register of Historic Places. It is probably the best known grouping of Moffitt cottages. They have the characteristic scavenged materials, limestone rocks embedded in mortar, ornamentation and picturesque look. The area has remained largely unchanged and some of the homes remain rentals.
South of Kirkwood Avenue, a cluster of about 80 homes were built. Even during the Depression, Moffitt continued to build. Eight of those homes stand along Ginter, Pickard and Friendly streets. His purchase of most of the lots allowed him to control landscaping and added to the appearance in that area of an English countryside.
In the Rundell addition on the former Rundell farm, Moffitt built many units in a small area. Another Moffitt residential area is on Seventh and Eighth avenues on the west side of Coralville, a logical commute to the UI once the highway was paved from Coralville to Iowa City.
Early Moffitt homes had a higher amount of new materials because of the prosperity of the time. Later houses included more recycled and used materials.
When the economy crashed just before the start of World War II, Blakesley lost everything. Moffitt remained afloat with loans from his sister and a job delivering coal. Blakesley moved his family to Anamosa where he died in 1948.
Moffitt's housing enterprise came to an end in 1949 with the advent of rent controls. Failing in his appeal of these controls, he sold his properties, most often to the people renting them, and moved to the McAllen, Texas, area. There he founded a town, Citrus City. Although plans for a citrus-growing enterprise didn't pan out, a few of the eclectic Moffitt cottages still exist there.