Washington may be small, but this town of about 7,400 people south of Iowa City manages to pack a lot around its central square.
“This is a tight knit community that is vibrant and driven,” said Sarah Grunewaldt, executive director of Main Street Washington. “If people want to get something done, they do it. And people are proud to be from here. We have a lot going for us.”
Residents have taken that pride and can-do spirit and poured it into making their downtown a destination.
“We’ve seen $8 million in rehab investment in our downtown over the last nine years,” Grunewaldt said, noting a particularly impressive transformation between 2008 and 2009.
A huge streetscape project transformed the area surrounding the central downtown park. Sidewalks, streetlights and parking were improved, and a new $6 million, LEED-certified library went up on the south side of the square. With concerts, classes and activities for children, the building is a community hub that retains historic elements such as salvaged tin ceiling tiles and the I-beam from the original library.
The picturesque town square park is full of mature shade trees, each a memorial to someone from the community. The park is a hub of activities, from concerts in the bandshell to country fairs, and the Centennial Fountain, built in 1935, features an impressive evening LED light show.
“The fountain was built by a local man with ties to Hollywood,” Grunewaldt said. “I’m told he traveled to Hollywood during the filming of ‘The Wizard of Oz’ and came back to Washington to create this fountain, inspired by that set. He told his daughter upon its completion that now she had her own Emerald City.”
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The fountain is lit from spring through fall; during the winter it is capped and decorated with holiday lights that help welcome Santa, who greets kids in the park during the holiday parade.
GIFT SHOPS GALORE
More than a dozen locally owned boutiques border the square. The Village, on the west side of the park, features six individual shops within one location. Originally intended to be a business incubator, The Village has a central courtyard with specialty stores around it. Co-owner Charlotte Andersen said she is thrilled to offer such a distinctive shopping experience to residents and visitors alike.
“Just the fact that we can have all these shops in a town this size is wonderful,” she said. “It’s fun to see people’s faces when they come in for the first time. And we are still surprised by how many out-of-town shoppers we see. Lots of people make a day of shopping in Washington.”
On the north side of the square another gift shop, Earthly Blessings, is owned and operated by the St. James Catholic Elementary School parent-teacher organization. All proceeds from sales in the gift shop support the school.
“It’s a really neat concept for a small town,” said Grunewaldt.
Along with Catholic-themed gifts, the store focuses on seasonal decor.
“The last weekend in October we close our doors for a week, put paper over the windows and turn the whole store into a Christmas shop,” said volunteer board member Christal Quigley. “We love it. Our Christmas open house is huge and such fun.”
On the east side of the park, visitors can pop into Art Domestique, a quaint art gallery featuring local artists and workshops for adults, seniors and children. It is also one of several stops on the Southeast Iowa Studio Arts Tour in early October.
If Washington’s town square is a ring, Don’s Jewelry Store and its seasonally-changing window displays has been one of the permanent gems, having been around since 1897, through three generations of family ownership. Current owner Karen Kuhlman said they’ve always felt right at home on the square.
“There’s an extra bit of trust in going somewhere where you know the owners,” she said.
HISTORY AND THE ARTS
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Another gem is the State Theatre, the world’s oldest continually operating cinema theater, as certified by the Guinness Book of World Records in 2016.
Opened as an opera house in 1893, the theater was used for moving picture shows on a cinematograph and live shows until 1930. It was later upgraded to a modern movie theater and renovated again after a small fire in 2010. With balcony seating and gold waterfall curtains still in place, modern-day moviegoers can enjoy a glimpse of old Hollywood glamour.
Just a block off the square, L.E.T.’s Center for Creative and Healing Arts offers community arts classes. The center’s name stands for Learn, Embrace, Transform, and it hosts everything from guided painting and string art to classes on felt flowers and handmade cards, along with yoga, dance and cooking classes, as well as occasional concerts.
For hungry visitors, downtown Washington offers a variety of choices to please the palette.
“In terms of locally-owned restaurants, we have everything from fine dining to hole-in-the-wall spots,” Grunewaldt said.
Visitors can start their day with a pick-me-up from The Coffee Corner, dig into lunch at Frontier Family Restaurant, stop for dinner at Cafe Dodici or try ice cream at Korner Kremery, which is open seasonally until the end of October. At the end of the day, JP’s 207 is the perfect place for a night cap. Open as a sandwich shop for lunch, the underground space transforms into a bar and lounge with live music on the weekend.
While downtown Washington is the hub of activity, shopping and dining, there is much to see beyond the city’s central blocks.
“As you head out of town, they have a great trail system that runs to Keota and back,” said Grunewaldt, noting Washington also is close to Lake Darling, another outdoor recreation destination. “We are really a gateway to a lot of really cool things in our area.”