Starting Tuesday, June 10, 2008, I began photo documenting the events of the great flood that changed Cedar Rapids in ways that no one could ever expect or even imagine.
I was on the waters’ edge as it got higher and higher June 12, was in the downtown area as the Cedar River crested on Friday, June 13th. Experienced the Czech Village neighborhood from a boat atop more than 10 feet of water.
I took thousands of photographs, especially in the weeks and months following the receding of the waters. As I surveyed the flood’s damage to virtually all of the inner-city historic neighborhoods, I had two questions in my mind: What will all this look like in 10 years? What will be gone and what will remain?
Here then are just some highlight perspectives from this historian’s point of view on how the historic landscape of Cedar Rapids looks as we approach the 10-year anniversary of the great Flood of June 2008:
After initially surveying the damage to the core downtown area just hours after the floodwaters receded on Sunday, June 15, I had serious concerns about the long-term survival of important downtown historic landmarks. This was aggravated by early suggestions from the community that perhaps it might be necessary to demolish all structures closest to the Cedar River, such as the Smulekoff and Hach Buildings, the 1933 federal courthouse and even the Paramount Theatre.
Thankfully, none of these ideas were carried out. The old federal courthouse became a beautifully restored structure adapted to be City Hall and, of course, the Paramount made a triumphant return in late 2012. Both were meticulous preservation projects.
By and large, the vast majority of downtown Cedar Rapids historic buildings in flood-affected areas were renovated after the disaster.
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Most of the post-flood demolitions downtown were either non-historic structures, such as the one-story building occupied by Siegel’s on the corner of Third Avenue and First Street SE or parking ramps razed to make way for projects like the expanded U.S. Cellular Center between A Avenue and First Avenue NE and the new CRST structure along the river.
A nice renovation surprise has been at 600 First Street SE, where a former grocery warehouse and furniture mart, which was vacant at the time of the flood and in danger of demolished, it now houses, among other things, the Black Sheep Social Club.
NEWBO, SOUTHEAST C.R.
After early consideration to demolish the entire NewBo neighborhood, the focus was changed to creating a long-term flood protection system to protect this special historic area that just seems to be getting more and more popular.
But there have been regrettable losses of significant historic structures in New Bohemia over the past decade, including the P. Hach/South Side Tavern, the Globe Grocery building, over 97 percent of the former Sinclair/Wilson Co. plant site and numerous historic houses, including seven unique cottages that stood across Fifth Street SE from the St. Wenceslaus Church. Nearby, in the Oak Hill Neighborhood, the loss of the 1958 Mount Zion Baptist Church at 824 Eighth St. SE was keenly felt.
The heart of the Czech Village commercial center along 16th Avenue SW saw virtually all of its historic storefronts come back after the flood.
An important exception was the Saddle and Leather Shop structure. Also missed is the tidy residential neighborhood south of the Village between A and C streets SW.
In Kingston Village, initially only the Louis Sullivan-designed building at 101 Third Ave. SW was to be saved in the area between the river and Interstate 380 from First Avenue West to Diagonal Drive SW. The former Peoples Bank building is now Popoli’s restaurant.
Flood protection plans were reconsidered, and the historic area on Third Avenue SW was spared. Many individuals were involved in supporting the renaming of this area Kingston Village in honor of the town of Kingston that stood there from the 1840s through early 1871.
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Although many historic buildings were saved, irreplaceable losses in this area included the 1904 Salem United Methodist Church on First Avenue SW and the 1908 Trinity United Methodist Church on Third Avenue SW.
Truly, the largest number of heartbreaking losses to the historic fabric of Cedar Rapids occurred in the northwest quadrant. This was where we saw the loss of the highest number of family homes, primarily in the old Time Check neighborhood along the river that dates to the early 1870s.
Additional losses included the Norwood (formerly Souvenir Pencil Co.) and Swiss Valley (formerly Sanitary Dairy) facilities on F Avenue NW, the E Avenue Tap and Log Cabin Lounge on E Avenue NW and the many places gone on Ellis Boulevard NW, the heart of the inner northwest neighborhood. The “boulevard of broken dreams” suffered the loss of the Boys and Girls Club facility, Willy Woodburn’s (formerly Seely’s) and, of course, the beloved A&W drive-in restaurant.
Local favorites such as the Flamingo restaurant and Pierson’s flower shop did come back, and many new homes have sprung up alongside restored homes west of Ellis Boulevard NW.
It still is hoped that some day an ice cold root beer can once again be served regularly from near the corner of K Avenue and Ellis Boulevard NW.
The best post-flood recovery projects have been a combination of restoration of older structures with new construction that complements the historic.
l Mark Stoffer Hunter is a research historian for The History Center in Cedar Rapids. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org