116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
VINTON — In August 2020, the Iowa Board of Regents transferred ownership of the 11-building, 40-acre Iowa Braille and Sight Saving School campus to the city of Vinton.
The city, which projected a $20 million investment of state and local funds and private capital for a project that will renovate the campus of the 162-year-old school, since has sold the property to Hobart Historic Restoration.
The campus, about half of which has been rented to AmeriCorps since 2008, ended its residential program in 2011, but continued to serve as the administrative home for the statewide system that served Iowa’s blind and visually impaired students.
The regents offered the property to other state entities, but after touring the aging facilities, those agencies declined to relocate there. In 2016, the regents began working with Vinton on a plan for the city to take ownership. That culminated in the transfer of property for $1.
What’s happened since
B.J. and Jim Hobart didn’t set out to be restaurateurs, but they’re opening their second restaurant — the Old Hospital Pub — in the former infirmary on the Iowa Braille and Sight Saving School campus in Vinton.
“It’s not our thing, but we kind of fell into it,” B.J. said about the couple’s latest development. They also own Bari Italian in Cedar Rapids’ Kingston Village neighborhood.
Opening a restaurant in the old infirmary seemed like a no-brainer that was “too good of an opportunity to pass up” for the couple whose core business is historic restoration. Hobart Historic Restoration has projects across Eastern Iowa, including in Cedar Rapids.
“It’s a business that’s sustainable,” Jim added, but it’s only the first step in what the Hobarts see as an evolving redevelopment of the historic campus.
To develop the Old Hospital Pub, 916 W. Ninth St., the Hobarts opened up the structure’s interior and went for what B.J. described as a “gray flannel” feeling with hints of brass that will reflect the architectural style of when it was built — around 1905.
The goal was a place “where you go on date night, take mom on Mother’s Day or meet friends after the volleyball game,” she said.
There’s a custom wood and marble bar and a two-sided fireplace visible from the main dining area as well as a room for private parties. There’s seating for about 70 people indoors with space for 40 more on a patio that includes a fire pit and TV screens.
The Old Hospital Pub has its own smoker and will offer a menu that B.J. described as “barbecue-based.”
“Everybody likes barbecue,” she said, adding that the menu will include appetizers, sandwiches, entrees and flatbread to be phased in once the doors open.
The restaurant, which is set to open Wednesday, is “part of a grand plan, knowing it will evolve,” B.J. said. Phases 2 and 3 include adding an outdoor activity area adjacent to the patio and converting the barn into Webb Acres Celebration Barn, an events center to accommodate up to 150 people for weddings, reunions and other gatherings. The name is an homage to John W.O. Webb, a farmer who donated land for the school in 1859.
There also are plans for senior and market rate housing. The Hobarts anticipate selling commercial lots on the west side of the campus. The city has plans for a public services building, and Kiwanis Park will remain. The Hobarts also plan to renovate the campus recreation center for community use.
The Hobarts give credit to a city task force that worked on acquiring the campus and finding a developer.
“They really stepped up and fought so hard to get this done.” Jim said.
Vinton is home to the North Central Region campus of AmeriCorps, which has several years remaining on its lease at the Braille school, so the Hobarts’ plans will accommodate the national service program sometimes referred to as the domestic Peace Corps.
The Hobarts also want to honor the history of the campus, which continues to attract tourists.
“It’s a landmark … way ahead of its time,” B.J. said.
The state served students at the school for more than 150 years — particularly between the 1930s and 1970s when education for visually impaired students was not easily accessible, according to the Board of Regents.
The Hobarts plan to work with the Mary Ingalls Society, named for a student there from 1881 to 1888 who was the sister of author Laura Ingalls Wilder.
“We want to make sure there’s always room for the society here, to maintain that historical space,” B.J. said.
Initial plans are for the Old Hospital Pub to open at 11 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays and at 3 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays, with hours increasing as demand grows.
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