116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
There’s a house in southeast Cedar Rapids that will no doubt capture your attention as you drive through the Oak Hill Jackson neighborhood. You’ll slow down to get a better look, then probably drive around the block just to see it again.
The large, bluish-gray, two-story house stands out with its stained-to-match cedar shake shingles that wrap its second story. The wood-sided home with a steeply pitched roof and a bay window is undoubtedly Victorian with distinct English Tudor influences. The window placement is asymmetrical yet somehow pleasing. The steps leading to the covered front porch are so wide and welcoming you can imagine yourself sitting there in a wicker chair sipping ice cold lemonade.
With its two stories plus additional height for a generous attic, the house towers over nearby homes from various decades and of different styles of architecture. It can maintain its own against the larger public health building across 10th Avenue SE and the multistory apartment complex around the corner on Sixth Street SE.
Although it appears to have commanded the block for a century or longer, it hasn’t. Dawn Stephens and Greg Young had the house moved 10 blocks from 847 Fourth Ave. SE to its current site in the spring of 2014. They rescued it from its lonely existence, surrounded by parking lots for more than 30 years.
“It just felt like this had to be our house and we had to take care of it. We were the people that know how awesome old houses are. And we've had to make it work somehow,” Young said.
As wonderful as the house looks from the outside, the inside is even better. There’s much that’s original to the 125-year-old house, from its red cedar bookcases to its fireplaces with decorative tile surrounds, the soaring ceilings and an intricately carved staircase. The coffered ceiling of the sunny back library, part of the home’s addition added in 1907 has retained its elegance.
Brewer House is named after its original owners, Luther Brewer and Elinore Taylor Brewer. The house was designed by Charles Dieman and built in 1897. The Brewers married in 1898 and moved in. Their home became known for their parties, Luther’s world-renowned book collection and visits from their dear friend President William Howard Taft who visited Cedar Rapids often to enjoy their company and plates of Elinore’s buckwheat pancakes.
“I cannot give enough credit and kudos and congratulations to Dawn and Greg for all this hard work they've done these past eight years and continue to do so,” said Mark Stoffer Hunter, a Cedar Rapids historian. “They are real heroes of Cedar Rapids historic preservation. There's no doubt about that.
“The future of the house is so much brighter being back in a residential neighborhood, because now it has neighbors again,” he said. “Granted, it's in a neighborhood that didn't have houses of that size built there. But it also fills a need for the old Hill neighborhood … It was built on a lot that was not contributing to the neighborhood anyway. They filled a hole in the neighborhood.”
If you’re lucky, Stephens and Young will open the home for public tours starting this fall after it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. But for now, there’s still work to be done.
Ties to Oak Hill Jackson
Stephens and Young were itching to live in the Oak Hill Jackson neighborhood. Many of Stephens’ longtime friends were from the neighborhood because she had spent a lot of time at her grandmother’s house on Eighth Street SE. In 2013, Stephens was working for the Oak Hill Jackson neighborhood association, and Young had been elected secretary of the board.
"The whole reason Dawn got involved with the neighborhood association is because she basically grew up here and she cares about the neighborhood," Young said.
They found and purchased a lot at 616 10th Ave. SE, then went looking for a house. They had looked at a property to move from Second Street SE, but it sold for more than they wanted to pay.
Then one day Stephens, as a representative of the neighborhood association, was talking to someone at Mercy Medical Center about the neighborhood’s boundaries. She mentioned that the boundary actually went as far as Fourth Avenue SE.
“You know where that big old house is just sitting,” she remembered saying.
When the person told her that Mercy owned that property and that the hospital was struggling to find a use for it, Stephens asked for a tour.
“I called Greg and said, ‘Oh my God, I think I found our house,’” Stephens said. She told him that it was the boarded-up house on Fourth Avenue SE and that they might be able to move it to their lot on 10th Avenue SE.
They knew other older homes had been moved into Oak Hill Jackson, so they pitched their plan to Mercy executives. The couple talked about the house at 847 Fourth Ave. SE, its history as the home of Luther and Elinore Brewer, its placement on the National Register of Historic Places and all the work they’d do to restore it and live in it.
"We figured it would be a very easy argument why it should be moved from the Jackson part to the Oak Hill part (of the neighborhood) because, first of all, geographically they're close,” Stephens said. “Second of all, Oak Hill Jackson had many workers style, and worker size homes and then boss style and boss size homes. If you drive around certain areas, you'll see houses that are much bigger. They're typically on a corner, but there are bigger houses peppered throughout.”
Mercy liked their plan. Still, the couple debated whether they wanted to tackle such a monumental project. Then, while viewing the Thorne Miniature Rooms at the Art Institute of Chicago, they came to the same conclusion: buy the Fourth Avenue house and move it. They loved old homes too much to pass it up.
They came to an agreement with Mercy, resolved issues with financing, engaged a company to move the house and had the foundation dug on 10th Avenue SE. Mercy sold them the house for $1 and paid to have it moved.
"They actually paid us to take the house. Mercy was really amazing to work with, actually,” Young said. “Mercy’s Tim Charles deserves a lot of the credit for not tearing this house down or making it a commercial building.”
A plan and a process
Originally, Stephens and Young were going to live in the house as it was, leaving it divided into four apartments. Then Stoffer Hunter connected them with a historic preservation friend, Galen Wenger, who had the floor plan for the Brewer House, and they decided to restore it to a single-family home.
But first, they sought to have the home listed on the National Register of Historic Places, a three-part process. Listing comes with tax credits to help offset the cost of restoration and renovation and the entire process can take years.
“You have to have a plan that fits a time period that you choose,” Young said. “And then they have to approve it. Then you have to stick to the plan, and finally, they come and say, yes, and you get tax credits.”
First, the project must be valid for historic preservation reasons to be eligible for listing and tax credits.
“We're lucky because the person who designed this house, Charles Dieman, is regionally significant. Luther and Elinore Brewer are Cedar Rapids significant, and they were state significant. They were actually federally significant because they were friends with William Howard Taft,” Stephens said.
The list of the Brewers’ significant contributions was lengthy, but the National Park Service, which oversees the National Register of Historic Places, already knew that because the house had been listed since 1998.
"We had to make a good case for this house, which was already on the National Register, why it would still be eligible after we moved it," Young said.
Young and Stephens noted that the house would technically be in the same neighborhood. There also was no reason to keep it at its original location since most of the other homes from the area known as “mansion hill” had long since been torn down.
The National Park Service agreed.
Young said the second stage of the National Register process boils down to tell them what you’re doing to do, then do it.
"Part two is all these details," he said.
The couple had to detail restoration and renovation planned for the outside of the house, including landscaping, and each interior space.
“I think a lot of people have this fear that when you do a restoration like this, you have to do what they tell you to do. You have to do things their way. And really, you don't. You have to pick a 10-year period, to which you will strive to restore,” Stephens said.
Young and Stephens chose a 10-year period that covered both the time the Brewers lived in the house as a single-family home plus the time the Brewer’s niece converted it into a four-plex in the mid-1930s. They’d put the first floor back to the original floor plan but decided to keep the second floor much like it was as a four-plex.
For example, they knew there had been a pocket door between the dining room and entry. Because they didn't know if there was a pocket door hiding in the wall, their plan included enlarging the doorway to its original width but didn’t commit them to including pocket doors.
“The big difference between this house being a National Register property, and a National Trust property like Brucemore is the National Register is very much more relaxed in its criteria,” Young said.
“They're really mainly concerned about how it looks, especially from the street. Does it look like it did when it was new,” Young said.
That means keeping windows where they are but doesn’t mean having to replace the wraparound porch.
Young and Stephens submitted their final documentation in mid-January.
Finally, if the National Park Service finds that the owners have completed what was promised in Part Two, the owners become eligible for tax credits.
The savings is significant. The couple could receive 20 percent of the cost of the move and renovation from the state in state tax credits and 25 percent of the cost of move and renovations from the federal government in the form of federal tax credits, Young said.
"It's a little confusing," Young said.
Those tax credits must be used over a five-year period during which Young and Stephens must maintain ownership. They also have to have an income-producing use that benefits the public.
“That’s why you have to prove its historic value, because they want it to be that you're getting this financial benefit, you're doing something for your community, right, like preserving part of Cedar Rapids’ history,” Stephens said.
Renovations to Date
The Brewer House wasn’t the first renovation the couple has tackled during their nearly 32 years of marriage. Nor was it their first historic home. They had renovated 1620 Park Ave. SE in the 1990s.
“We took the eyesore of the block and made it the crown jewel,” Young said.
Although they were willing to tackle another project, the work the Brewer House needed, from a new foundation to a new room, tearing out walls and reconfiguring rooms, was much more than they’d done in the past.
“We believed — and this is key — we believed that we could do this whole project without doing any of the work ourselves,” Young said.
His wife reminded him that although he believed that she did not. And she was right because they ended up doing most of the extensive renovation and restoration themselves.
“We've had to constantly be able and willing to pivot, no matter what situation has arisen, or been created,” Stephens said.
Young admits he was a bit naive. He thought they’d build a new foundation, move the house and hook it up to plumbing and electrical systems already in the house and be living in it within the month.
“Like plug and play,” he joked. "It was wishful thinking.”
Long story short, this house has all new plumbing and all new electrical, he said. Not to mention that when they moved the house to 10th Avenue SE in April 2014, the foundation had been poured to the wrong dimensions. The foundation was fixed — after some legal wrangling.
Next up was renovating the second-floor master suite, so they could sleep, eat and bathe there and secure a temporary occupancy permit. They moved into the home on Halloween 2014.
But downstairs it was cold because they’d torn out the walls, leaving just the studs. They hung blankets and ran power cords to the master suite to warm up the place.
After Young learned how and was approved by the city to rewire the house, Precision Drywall, Stephen’s employer, installed and fixed walls throughout the main level.
“They swooped in like Prince Charming and saved us," Stephens said.
More help came from their friend John Todtz of Cedar Rapids who has a woodworking shop. He’s a carpentry expert with many of the tools needed to recreate the millwork and trim around doors. Todtz helped them with floors and trim and rebuilding the main staircase.
The porch, taken off for the move, had to be rebuilt with a new deck but with the original columns and railings.
For the kitchen area, Young tore out cabinets from the apartment kitchens and repurposed the cabinets in the butler’s pantry between the dining room and kitchen. He wallpapered the downstairs bathroom and the second-floor landing and painted and stained. The list of tasks went on and on.
The couple lived without a kitchen for a couple of years, using the large sink in the master suite to do everything from washing dishes to bathing dogs.
The wall between the back library, now the living room, and the downstairs bathroom had all been disintegrated after decades of rainwater leaking from the balcony above. The leaky second-floor balcony got a new rubber roof — and it hasn’t leaked since.
Still, every time something goes majorly wrong, it always ends up for the better, Stephens said.
There were times when, overwhelmed by trying to do the work themselves, the couple put a call out for volunteers. And they came to do the most unglamorous of chores: stripping and sanding woodwork and stripping paint from the siding.
“When we were nearing exhaustion with this whole project, Matthew 25 came in every day for a week and helped scrape and prime,” Young said.
Although the couple are still waiting for the final word from the National Park Service, Young and Stephens are moving forward as if it’s a done deal.
“In reality, we need to start honoring the income-producing use for public benefit,” Young said.
That means opening the home for tours, something Young is looking forward to doing. There's more information than he could share in an hour or an hour and a half tour, he said.
“I'm going to love giving tours because you can't get me to shut up about this place,” he said. “People care about history. People want to see cool things that tell a story about the community they live in.”
He’s extremely proud of what they’ve done for the house. They’ll likely keep it as their residence for at least the next five years. “But we’ll find a good way to pass it on to other caretakers,” Young said.
Nikki Halvorson, president of the Save CR Heritage Board, said saving properties like the Brewer House do much good for the environment and the community.
“Structures the age of the Brewer House tell stories. They are living proof of how earlier generations lived and thought about life. When they’re demolished, those traces of the past (from which we can learn) are lost forever,” Halvorson said. “I argue that physically keeping the history is so much better than just taking pictures for a history book. People can’t experience an historical place with all their senses, actually walk where our forebears walked, if there are only pictures.”
Luther Albertus Brewer was born Dec. 17, 1858, in Welsh Run, Pennsylvania. After graduating from Pennsylvania College at Gettysburg in 1883, he taught school for two years before heading west to Iowa.
He arrived Cedar Rapids in 1884 to work as a bookkeeper for a coal firm. Three years later, he was offered the position of city editor of the Cedar Rapids (Daily) Republican for the salary of $12 a week. By 1898 he was the newspaper’s business manager. He also served as state oil inspector from 1893 to 1897.
In 1897, Luther Brewer hired architect Charles Dieman to build a house for himself and his future bride, Elinore Taylor, at 847 Fourth Ave. SE. The residence was in the same block as the bride’s parents’ home at 807 Fourth Ave. SE.
From the 1870s through 1905, Cedar Rapids residents of note built large homes in that part of the city, from the train tracks to Coe College, said Mark Stoffer Hunter, Cedar Rapids historian.
“The homes in the 800 blocks were large estates on double lots because there was no Ninth Street to encourage those who wanted larger homes to build there. The deep lots gave homeowners additional privacy because there was no alley,” Stoffer Hunter said.
Luther Brewer became a newspaper publisher in 1905 and served as business manager until 1907. By the following year, the Brewers had extended their home’s first and second floors, adding a second library on the main level and expanding the sleeping and storage space on the second floor.
In 1911, Luther Brewer co-authored “History of Linn County” while many of the city’s earliest settlers were alive to tell their tales.
The Brewers bought an interest in the Daily Republican and Cedar Rapids Evening Times. By 1912, Luther Brewer was president of Republican Printing Co. and business manager of The Republican (morning paper) and Evening Times (evening paper). Elinore Brewer was listed as a stockholder. Luther left the newspaper in 1922 to start Torch Press.
Brewer’s Torch Press was one of the largest publishing houses of the earliest 20th century in Cedar Rapids. Its building was large enough to include space for the Cedar Rapids Republican newspaper. The building at 324 Fourth Ave. SE is now home to the Cedar Rapids Foundation, said Stoffer Hunter.
Before her marriage, Elinore Taylor Brewer taught in Cedar Rapids schools. Like her husband, she loved art and books. Each Christmas, the Brewers published a small book, often illustrated by Elinore Brewer, to give to friends.
The Brewers helped start the first public library in Cedar Rapids, Luther first serving as secretary of the board under Ada Van Vechten as president, and later president of the board of trustees.
A lifelong conservative and prominent Republican, Luther Brewer was a delegate to the party’s National Convention in 1912 and 1916. But that didn’t stop him from running for Senate as an independent in 1924. Luther Brewer withdrew after the primaries and urged other to support the Democratic candidate.
The Brewers were very active in Cedar Rapids society. Luther Brewer was general chairman for the city’s first Beaux Arts ball, sponsored by the Art association, on Feb. 14, 1930. He also helped Cedar Rapids secure funding for the Carnegie Library in Cedar Rapids.
Brewer made sure that the 1905 library provided a home for the Cedar Rapids Art Association and was home to the original Cedar Rapids Historical Society, Stoffer Hunter said.
U.S. President William Howard Taft (1909-1913) often visited the Brewers in Cedar Rapids. Taft had dinner in their dining room and slept in the larger of the two second floor guest rooms. The most rotund of U.S. Presidents, Taft was said to have been so fond of Elinore Brewer’s buckwheat pancakes that he could eat three stacks with butter and syrup.
The Brewers’ collection of rare books was one of the world’s best of that era. Luther Brewer’s bookplate proudly announced, “I am a glutton of books.” He collected the works of the poet Leigh Hunt. In 1932, he published a 400-page book with 100 illustrations about the author. After his death, the manuscript of a second book about Hunt was found on Luther Brewer’s desk. The Leigh Hunt collection later went to the University of Iowa.
In his later years, Luther Brewer became the first instructor of the University of Iowa School of Journalism and was known as “Daddy” Brewer to student members of his college fraternity, Phi Gamma Delta. He remained active with the fraternity and was in his second term as the treasurer at the time of his death.
In the 1920s, commercial development began to replace many of the mansion hill homes. Some of the big lots were divided into smaller lots for smaller homes.
“By the 1920s, the city wanted to go whole hog and changed the zoning so that commercial could be built from the train tracks to 10th Street SE — right in the residential area,” Hunter said.
Colonial Bakery built a huge building and continued to expand. Elinore Brewer’s childhood home was torn down for a Colonial Expansion. Still, the Brewers lived at 847 Fourth Ave. SE until they both died, Elinore on March 10, 1933, and Luther on May 6, 1933. The Brewers are buried in Oak Hill Cemetery.
The Brewers never had children. Luther Brewer was survived by his brother Frank Brewer and sister Mrs. J. Winger Draper, both of Hagerstown, New Jersey, and his nieces.
The house was inherited by the couple’s niece, Katherine D. Conner, who later converted it into four apartments, as was the trend with larger homes during the Great Depression. She married and with her husband, Keith J. DeBolt, lived in the larger main floor apartment for much of their marriage.
Then in the 1970s, there was a huge push for medical clinics over a five-block area, including the Brewers’ block. About 100 hundred homes and the old Jackson School were torn down by health care providers. The Brewer house was among the last of the holdouts, and the most visible, Stoffer Hunter said.
His earliest memory of the Brewer House was seeing it “standing firm” and alone on its block.
“It was the one everyone remembered because it was all alone in a parking lot for 35 years,” Hunter said.
It survived because of the Brewers’ niece. Before Katharine DeBolt died in 1973, she established a trust that protected the house for her husband until after his death. Keith DeBolt lived in the home until he was moved to a care facility. When he died in 1993, the house went to one of their nieces.
The house was protected long enough that it was still intact during the early years of the ongoing push for historic preservation, Stoffer Hunter said. Of 120 mansions the Luther Brewer House was one of the last 12, he said.
Tim and Terry Stagg bought the house in 1995 and applied to have it listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The house was listed in 1998 due to its significance as the Brewer home and one of few surviving examples of architect Charles Dieman’s earliest designs. Despite having been a rental for most of its years, much of the home’s original character remained.
Stagg sold the house to Mike and Teri Graf who in turn sold it to Mercy Medical Center in 2011. The house sat empty, windows boarded up, surrounded by parking lots, until Dawn Stephens and Greg Young approached Mercy in 2013. Mercy sold them the house for $1 and paid for the cost of the relocation to 10th Avenue SE on April 3, 2014.
“Moving is never the preference, but it’s better than losing it,” Stoffer Hunter said.