Time Machine

Time Machine: Longtime architect left his imprint on Cedar Rapids

W.J. Brown came from New York, stayed to design dozens of buildings

Architect W.J. Brown had designed dozens of buildings in Eastern Iowa when this photo was taken in June 1963. Gazette archive photo
Architect W.J. Brown had designed dozens of buildings in Eastern Iowa when this photo was taken in June 1963. Gazette archive photo
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CEDAR RAPIDS — Architect Frederick G. Brown moved to Cedar Rapids from the West Coast in 1909 when a friend promised him a job as soon as he arrived.

He was awarded the contract to design the Cedar Rapids Candy Co. at 412 A Ave. NE. The building lasted through the Calder Van and Storage Co. before being demolished for the new U.S. Cellular Center.

In 1910, Brown persuaded his younger brother, William Jay Brown, to leave his job as a draftsman in New York and join him in an architectural partnership.

The new Knights of Pythias hall at 420 First Ave. East was one of their joint projects.

But in 1911, Frederick Brown died, leaving W.J. Brown to oversee construction of the Knights of Pythias building in 1912. Charles A. Dieman assisted the Browns in the Knights building plans. Both he and the Browns were members of the lodge.

W.J. Brown decided to stay in Cedar Rapids, continuing an architecture practice that would last for more than for 40 years and encompass many of the city’s landmark buildings.

Brown married Isabell Howell in Cedar Rapids in 1914, the same year he was the consulting architect for the new 10-story American Trust building. He moved his business into the building when it was finished.

In 1914, Brown designed the new Grant vocational school on Second Avenue West, but not without some objections. Critics felt that instead of the auditorium and gym being separate, the two should be combined. The school eventually became the home of the Cedar Rapids school district’s administrative offices before it was severely damaged by the Flood of 2008. It now houses the Linn County Sheriff’s Office.

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Brown chose a modern style in 1915 when he designed the new Strand Theater on Third Avenue SE. Three double doors opened from the street into a 25-square-foot, tile-floored lobby. The theater seated 1,500, with two boxes on either side.

The Strand later became the World Theater, then closed in 1981. Plans to reopen the building as a cultural center were thwarted by the 2008 flood.

In 1916, Brown designed the new YMCA building at First Avenue and Fifth Street NE. That building was vacated in 2003 and met the wrecking ball in early 2004.

Brown was past the draft age in World War I, but he contributed to the war effort by working in construction for the government in Aberdeen, Md., in 1918. While he was away, his wife and children stayed with her father.

Henry Hornbostel was the architect of record for the Veterans Memorial Building on May’s Island. The imposing structure was built in 1926 and 1927. All the working drawings were made in Brown’s office, and Brown wrote the specifications. In an interview in 1957, Brown was asked why he put those big columns in the auditorium of the building’s coliseum.

“I didn’t want to,” he answered. “But an alternate proposal for a clear span was turned down by the members of the (Veterans) Memorial Commission. It would have cost an additional $10,000.”

One of the lesser-known contributions of the well-known architect was the redesigned entrance to the Shakespeare Garden in Ellis Park. The original entrance, designed by Grant Wood and Marvin Cone, featured a thatched-roof shelter. When that deteriorated, the Shakespeare Club wanted something more permanent. Two stone pillars to complement the stone wall were the result.

Other buildings where Brown was architect or associate architect were St. John’s Lutheran Church in Marengo, the Consistory building, Vernon Junior High in Marion, the Guttenberg municipal building, a 1926 addition to St. Luke’s Hospital, the Cedar Rapids Country Club (with H.E. Hunter), the McKesson-Robbins building, a warehouse and office building for Western Grocer Co., the John Blaul Wholesale Grocery Co. building, the Brown apartments and the Elks building (destroyed by fire in 1960).

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He was associate architect for several buildings on the Coe College campus and architect for many more at Cornell College in Mount Vernon.

In 1932, Brown was one of a group of architects hired to convert Roosevelt, McKinley, Franklin and Wilson junior high schools into junior-senior high schools.

During World War II, Brown designed an emergency war housing trailer camp on 32nd Street NE, across the street from the Collins Radio Co. main plant. The camp had 100 trailers, a community building, four toilet trailers and two laundry trailers with drying yards.

He served as president of the Cedar Rapids Art Association until he was replaced by David Turner in 1947.

In 1951, Cedar Rapids’ “Little Gallery,” the art display space in the Carnegie library supported by the Art Association, underwent an extensive remodeling. Those who participated in the brainstorming for the change were Brown, artist Marvin Cone and librarian J. Archer Eggen.

St. James United Methodist Church on Ellis Boulevard was another Brown project in 1952.

Brown was involved an numerous public school projects, including the College Township elementary school, the first building on the College Community campus, which opened in 1953.

On May 1, 1953, Brown was again part of a partnership when he and Edward H. Healey joined forces. Engineer Carl V. Bock joined the partnership on May 1, 1960.

The Brown, Healey, Bock firm designed the addition to First Presbyterian Church and the Inter-Ocean ReInsurance building at 1820 First Ave. NE.

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Other projects from the firm included the parking ramp at Merchants National Bank, Hallmar Convalescent Home, Hall Radiation Center, McAuley Hall at Mount Mercy and Regis High School.

Brown also designed the new pavilion for the Howard Cherry Scout reservation at Camp Waubeek in 1966.

Although he was an Illinois University graduate, Brown became an avid Hawkeye fan, attending Iowa games as often as possible.

Brown died Feb. 4, 1970, at age 91. He is buried in Oak Hill Cemetery.

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