116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — The old fire station at 1111 Third St. SE is starting a new chapter after a storied history in the New Bohemia District.
Since it retired from its original purpose in the late 1950s, the 1916 building has housed several businesses: an accountant’s office, Lyn Novelty Co., a tattoo parlor and an adult bookstore, plus a private residence.
Through good times and bad, the structure has managed to weather two major floods and the August 2020 derecho. Now, it opens its doors to visitors hoping to rent the piece of history through AirBNB.
“It’s great to have this history to restore and really use it,” said Mary Kay McGrath, who purchased the building with sister-in-law Sue Novak last October from nonprofit arts organization CSPS.
“People get to stay here and really experience it,” Novak said.
The building is McGrath’s third AirBNB, managed by Novak. Since they listed it in June on the popular site for travelers opting to rent homes instead of staying in a hotel, they have only had one weekend unbooked. For $139 on a week night or $149 on a weekend night, visitors can experience the building’s character from a time when firefighting was a splintered private venture rather than a publicly funded one.
A look inside
Inside the small building, the devil is in the details.
Past the picturesque front doors, a hallway created in a vintage style with reclaimed materials makes a separate entrance for renters to go up the narrow staircase to their apartment. On the lower level, Scribe Stationer will soon open as a stationery and gift shop.
Upstairs, about 800 square feet houses a small kitchen and eating area, living area, full bathroom and bedroom.
Here, four firemen lived and slept in bunk beds. In the bathroom, you’ll find a remnant of their presence with four separate closets for each firefighter.
Around the apartment, curated historical finds from flea markets and garage sales like antique copper fire extinguishers set the scene. Most of the apartment has been unaltered from its original cosmetic state, showcasing the original features of the house.
“Cosmetically, we haven’t done much,” said Novak. “We wanted to preserve it as much as possible.”
In addition to structural fixes, Novak and McGrath have fixed up parts of the original doors and added vintage-looking covers to the radiators, as well as themed decorations.
“Now I’m addicted to it,” Novak said. “I’m always looking for fire stuff.”
A photo of another historical CSPS building around the corner in NewBo, the Bohemian-American Hose Company, fills the wall behind the bed showing the firefighting horses that would have been fed just behind this house. Another print on the opposite wall shows the original wooden structure that was in place for about 15 years before the current brick building was constructed.
A hole in the floor where firefighters slid down a pole to the lower level remains, covered by the sofa on the upper level. The pole was removed in the 1940s, Novak said.
Original windows reflect the manufacturing standards of the time, with waves and imperfections in the street-facing panes. Most of the floors and lights are original.
Soon, the owners hope to curate the firefighters’ personal closets in the bathroom into a mini museum with a selection of artifacts and memorabilia.
History of the building
Before a fire department was an official part of the Cedar Rapids city government, all firefighting services were conducted by competing groups of volunteers, according to longtime Cedar Rapids historian Mark Stoffer Hunter. At one point in the late 1800s, there were almost a dozen private firefighting companies in the city.
This brick building’s construction — a replacement of the former wood frame structure — was one of six built between 1906 and 1926 signaling the permanency of firefighting services. Five of the six brick structures still stand in 2021; one was demolished in 1997.
“They made the fire stations official,” Stoffer Hunter said. “1111 was that process of … replacing a wood frame and sending a message to the public that your fire protection service in Cedar Rapids is permanent now.”
The site was chosen for a fire station, in part, because of its proximity to large factories, which had a tendency to run the largest fire risks at the time. At the end of Third Street was the Sinclair meat packing plant; an old steel and iron factory stood where NewBo City Market is located today.
The term “hose company,” as the front of the NewBo building still reads, was a predecessor for what was later called fire stations, representing the fact that they were “a company of men appointed to bring and manage hose in the extinguishing of fires,” Stoffer Hunter explained.
Each hose company had formal names indicative of the neighborhood they were in. The Bohemian-American Hose Company, which operated out of nearby 219 11th Ave. SE, was the private predecessor to city-owned Hose Company No. 4 — the fourth permanent fire station established by city government.
When this Third Street SE building was established in 1916, the city was still using horse-drawn vehicles to fight fires. By the mid-20s, the city shifted to motorized vehicles.
“It was still more cost effective to use horses when this was built,” Stoffer Hunter said.
The building was discontinued as a fire station, along with another one at 404 17th St. SE, in the late 1950s, shortly after a new southeast quadrant fire station opened on Mount Vernon Road SE. With a central fire station at 427 First St. SE, Hose Company No. 4 became redundant.
As factories, a slaughterhouse and job sources dried up in the 1980s up to 1990, the area became economically depressed. For a period of time after, retail dried up, too.
Stoffer Hunter said the city made plans to tear down the neighborhood and rebuild more than once in the 1960s. Those attempts were renewed after the flood of 2008.
“Nobody really invested in that neighborhood until the 1960s, but nobody tore down much of anything either. So everything stayed frozen in time,” he said. "Buildings like this fire station had to ride the wave and wait for better times.“
And until better times came along, it took whatever tenants it could get.
An accidental landlord with a purpose
McGrath started her property business three years ago by just wanting to own one building. A lifelong Cedar Rapids resident, she wanted to restore the vigor of the Czech Village she grew up near as she watched it start to get run down.
“I wanted to preserve (buildings) and give them new life and bring back the hustle bustle of the Czech Village that used to be there years ago,” she said.
She said she started with commissioning the opening of a cafe, useful as a social institution for gathering, which resulted in Cafe St. Pio on the corner of 16th Avenue SW and C Street SW.
After her first building purchase, she quickly realized that the nature of her mission was “a packaged deal.”
“I had to buy them all,” said McGrath, 66. “For me, it’s been a labor of love. I love old buildings and preserving them.”
Though her mission was no accident, she calls herself “an accidental landlord with a purpose.”
McGrath and Novak call it an honor to be stewards in preserving the history of the former fire station in NewBo as a new flame of life is ignited in the building.
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