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Historic Knutson building in Cedar Rapids getting a new look, new name

The Chelsea 'just suited it,' developers say

The bottom floor will be subdivided into several apartments at the former Knutson building in Cedar Rapids, shown on Monday, Oct. 9, 2017. The building is currently undergoing restoration and construction into apartments, and will be renamed the Chelsea. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
The bottom floor will be subdivided into several apartments at the former Knutson building in Cedar Rapids, shown on Monday, Oct. 9, 2017. The building is currently undergoing restoration and construction into apartments, and will be renamed the Chelsea. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — Once on the verge of collapse, the old Knutson Building on the west bank of the Cedar River has been stabilized, is three months from being totally restored and now has a new name — the Chelsea.

“There is pride in bringing something like this back,” said B.J. Hobart, of Hobart Historic Restoration, the company refurbishing the three-story building. “This can be saved. It’s a viable property that will look pretty.”

The building was erected in 1887 as the Cedar Rapids Milk Condensing Co. and is considered historically important because it is one of the last commercial structures on the west side from that era. In recent years it was used for storage and served as a haunted house until it became too dangerous to occupy.

On Tuesday, the Cedar Rapids City Council will consider granting local historic landmark designations for the property at 525 Valor Way SW and the adjacent Mott Building, 42 Seventh Ave. SW, which Hobart also restored into apartments and retail space.

The designation provides the building an added layer of permanence and protection, she said.

The Chelsea — or Knutson, as it still is referred on city documents — is under review for a listing on the National Register of Historic Places, which is part of a process to attaint historic tax credits. The State Historic Preservation Office noted it is “a good candidate for both National Register and local landmark designation.”

The Mott already has been listed on the National Register.

In renaming the building, the developers wanted to distinguish the space from surrounding buildings. Options, such as naming the building for a previous tenant or the designer, didn’t fit, Hobart said. While the name Chelsea doesn’t have any historic context, neither does Knutson, she said.

“The Knutson was just a junk dealer in the 1990s,” Hobart said. “Chelsea just suited it.”

At the Chelsea, the Hobarts are building 18 high-end, market-rate apartments ranging from 550 to 1,500 square feet and priced at $800 to $1,500 a month. Exposed beams, brick walls and overlooks of the river and downtown are features of some units.

The three levels have been framed out with seven units on the lower level, six on the street level and five on the upper level, and a shared deck will extend off the back overlooking the river and McGrath Amphitheatre.

On Monday, crews hung dry wall, installed insulation and graded ground for an eventual parking lot. Many of the 87 exterior windows have been replaced, a new limestone cap borders the roofline, rotted bricks have been replaced, and the decorative parapet has been rebuilt. Off site, craftsmen are rebuilding starbursts that sat covered up in the arches above windows.

“You can tell the designer wanted to put an artistic flair,” Hobart said of the accents on the building.

The project is expected to be finished by Dec. 31 and leases will be available beginning in December and January, said Jim Hobart, who heads up the construction.

While the city of Cedar Rapids had expressed interest in using the ground level for concessions, bathrooms, storage and a green room for the adjacent amphitheater, that did not pan out, he said. City officials still are looking at options for permanent facilities, but have not settled on a plan, said Jennifer Pratt, director of the city’s community development division.

The building took on 20 inches of water in the September 2016 flood, but no measures were taken to protect the vacant building. The Hobarts said they are confident sandbags and sand-filled barriers would fortify the structure if water levels rise again before permanent flood protection is built.

“The more assets we have down here the more we realize we have to do protection,” B.J. Hobart said.

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Hobart Historic Restoration won a competitive process in July 2016 to restore the building as part of a last-ditch effort to save it from demolition.

The city agreed to reimburse $367,000 for emergency stabilization work and provide a 10-year, 100-percent tax rebate, while Hobart agreed to invest approximately $7 million to restore the building and begin building another new structure between the Chelsea and Mott Building within a year or when this restoration is complete.

Jim Hobart said work on that likely will begin toward the end of 2018.

l Comments: (319) 339-3177; brian.morelli@thegazette.com

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