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Mark Stoffer Hunter reflects on becoming 'Mr. History'

Seeing Cedar Rapids buildings torn down as child piqued his interest

Mark Stoffer Hunter is photographed at the old World Theatre building on Third Street SE in  downtown Cedar Rapids on Thursday, April 25, 2019. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
Mark Stoffer Hunter is photographed at the old World Theatre building on Third Street SE in downtown Cedar Rapids on Thursday, April 25, 2019. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — The man known around Cedar Rapids as “Mr. History” soon will take perhaps his most direct role to date preserving the city’s past.

Mark Stoffer Hunter will partner with developer Hobart Hisoric Restoration to create History Connect, slated to begin offering services May 28, after resigning in late April from The History Center after on-and-off work there since 2000.

Through the new Hobart subsidiary, Stoffer Hunter will assist with the research and development of historical initiatives and partner with developers working to restore historical sites — responsibilities he said were familiar but now are on a more formal level.

“I’m stepping up my game a little bit,” laughed Stoffer Hunter, 53, when reached by phone Thursday.

He said working with History Connect will improve his financial picture and also allow him to spend more time with his wife and three children in Moline, Ill.

Stoffer Hunter will both work remotely and commute into Cedar Rapids, where his interest in history was born at a time the city was a “changing landscape,” when he was a young boy between 5 and 7.

At the time, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the federal government’s urban renewal initiative was in full force. As part of the initiative, cities received funds to demolish and rebuild downtown areas.

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Within a five-year window, Stoffer Hunter said about a third of Cedar Rapids’ downtown buildings were taken down, including around where the U.S. Cellular Center and Alliant Building currently are.

Stoffer Hunter said his interest piqued a few years later, at age 12, when he watched the Taft Hotel on Second Avenue get knocked down from the car window, waiting for a downtown train to pass in December 1977.

“I was watching this vast landscape being changed and being just kind of intrigued,” he said. “What was being lost? What was disappearing?”

Not long afterward, Stoffer Hunter got his first camera — a Kodak pocket model — and started getting recognized as “the teenager taking pictures” at downtown building demolitions.

He said March 2020 will mark the 40th anniversary of his first batch of a dozen Cedar Rapids photos, with subjects including the then-Five Seasons Center, the Guaranty Bank Building and World Theater and the former Magnus Hotel.

Since then, Stoffer Hunter said he has taken — and kept — tens of thousands of photos of city happenings. He said pictures are his favorite medium for documenting history because of the emotion they can evoke.

For example, Stoffer Hunter said he took thousands of photos each week during the Flood of 2008 so affected homes would not be forgotten, even as many were destroyed.

“Every one of those houses, every one of those is some family’s personal history story,” he said.

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The photos weren’t the only cobblestones on Stoffer Hunter’s road to becoming the city’s “walking archive.”

Stoffer Hunter said he also had the chance to check out multiple older buildings while on the job with his mother’s office cleaning company out of high school. One memorable client, he said, was People’s Savings Bank on Third Avenue SW. The building originally was designed by influential architect Louis Sullivan.

“Here I am, sweeping the floors and emptying trash cans in this famous piece of historic architecture,” Stoffer Hunter recalled. “I got the privilege to take a closer look at Cedar Rapids architecture that no one else was able to at the time.”

He said working three years as a courier in the 1980s and making deliveries to area businesses also allowed him to add “an extra layer” to his knowledge of the city’s industries, including its manufacturing.

Stoffer Hunter gave his first Cedar Rapids tour in 1991, after becoming more active with the Linn County Historical Society and enrolling in the University of Iowa’s art history program.

Nowadays, Stoffer Hunter said he occasionally reconnects with adults who attended his tours as children and have an interest in buying or preserving downtown buildings.

The end goal, he said, is instilling senses of place and purpose in Cedar Rapids residents.

“I still get people surprised that the Wright brothers lived in Cedar Rapids, or who hear about the Cherry sisters, and say ‘how come we were never told this until we heard it from you?’ ” Stoffer Hunter said. “People say ‘why fight for these old places?’ ... When you travel to Chicago or Paris or New York, you don’t travel there to see the latest McDonald’s, you travel there to see the history that’s there.”

Stoffer Hunter’s touring days might not be done just yet. He said he remains on good terms with The History Center and though there’s no timeframe, he is open to program possibilities in the future.

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Research-wise, Stoffer Hunter said he thinks he’s studied most of Cedar Rapids with “a pretty fine-toothed comb” but is most excited on the occasions he makes new findings.

“A good historian is never satisftied that they have found out everything about the community,” he said. “I could research Cedar Rapids until the day I’m very old and the joy ... is there’s always something to discover.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8366; thomas.friestad@thegazette.com

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