CEDAR RAPIDS — Speakeasies, swanky restaurants and bowling allies, glowing sidewalks and illuminated marquees made Third Avenue SE stand out for decades in downtown Cedar Rapids thanks to the Guaranty Bank Building and World Theater.
The World Theater has been mostly empty since the 1980s, and while the Guaranty building still holds its stately curb appeal, the inside has been underused and altered. That’s why historian Mark Stoffer Hunter is pleased to see the two buildings included in what would be the largest two-building historic preservation project ever in Cedar Rapids.
“I am ecstatic about the restoration,” said Stoffer Hunter, a research historian for The History Center of Cedar Rapids. “These buildings are so important to the fabric of downtown Cedar Rapids. They are icons. The World Theater so many people predicted would be torn down. The fact it will make it long term is very pleasing.”
Heart of America Group has proposed a $51 million project to convert the Guaranty building into a boutique hotel and incorporate the facade of the World Theater into a modern hotel. Mike Whalen, president and chief executive of the company, said historic preservation will be a focal point. The company is vying for state and federal tax credits, which come with strict rules and requirements.
“The exterior is the most dominant architectural feature,” Whalen said. “We intend to restore that and keep it as the gem it is.”
Whalen and his team have been working with Stoffer Hunter to collect historical documents and blueprints of the buildings so they have a better understanding of the task at hand and how the building looked over time.
Details about the World Theater:
— Opened as The Strand Theatre on Oct. 18, 1915.
— Renamed the State Theatre in October 1929.
— Renamed the World Playhouse in November 1960.
— Closed as a movie theater on Oct. 16, 1981.
Details about the Guaranty Bank Building:
— Original tower built for Cedar Rapids Savings Bank in 1895.
— Large addition to the east built in 1909-1910.
— Designed by Cedar Rapids architectural firm Josselyn and Taylor.
With such old buildings, there are different layers of history, and Stoffer Hunter said it may make sense to use the original design as the framework rather than one of the many remodels.
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Whalen said they’ve spent the past few months focusing on archaeological studies of the buildings and have a rough design. Now, they must work with the State Historic Preservation Office as they try to fine-tune plans.
He said they hope to begin construction in mid- to late-summer.
The inside of the Guaranty building has a historically significant staircase with wrought iron, which Whalen hopes to save. The building’s first floor is slated to have a Johnny’s Italian Steakhouse. Whalen said they still are contemplating how the interior of the World Theater, which has an old balcony and production booth but is mainly just a shell, might be repurposed.
The basement of the Guaranty building has had a memorable history, Stoffer Hunter said.
“Not only was the basement likely the site of Prohibition activity, it later housed a basement bowling alley and then for so many years, the basement was the location of the Flame Room restaurant — the swankiest place to take a date when I was growing up,” Stoffer Hunter said.
Film star Burt Reynolds ate there in the “Smokey and the Bandit” era, Stoffer Hunter said.
The basement used the full space under the sidewalk to the property line, and neon lights would shine up through glass blocks to the street, he said. Bright bulbs also lit the front of the theater, he said. The old marquee is tucked away in the theater, and Stoffer Hunter said he hopes the developers find a way to incorporate it.
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