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History Happenings: Green Square in heart of Cedar Rapids is a survivor, looking to its 175th year

Teddy Roosevelt visited Cedar Rapids in 1898, 1900 and 1916. This William Baylis photograph is believed to have been taken during Roosevelt’s 1900 visit when, as a vice presidential candidate, he was campaigning for President William McKinley’s re-election. He would become president a year later after McKinley was assassinated. (The History Center)
Teddy Roosevelt visited Cedar Rapids in 1898, 1900 and 1916. This William Baylis photograph is believed to have been taken during Roosevelt’s 1900 visit when, as a vice presidential candidate, he was campaigning for President William McKinley’s re-election. He would become president a year later after McKinley was assassinated. (The History Center)
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The old town square in Cedar Rapids was plotted in 1849 as the city’s first park.

If you stand in Greene Square today and face the river, you’ll see a six-level parking garage with an entry ramp facing Third Avenue SE. That’s where half the Union Depot once stood. Also known as Union Station, the left half of the 400 foot-wide structure stretched to Fifth Avenue SE.

 
The train station opened in 1897 and was an instant of hub of activity. The station adjoined Greene Square’s open space and the square became the city’s de facto location for family picnics and organized outings. Citizens became accustomed to local and national politicians stumping from railroad car platforms and from stages built for big events.

MOMENTS IN HISTORY

 
Here’s a sampling of the square’s notable moments:

• In 1860, presidential candidate Stephen Douglas spoke when he was running against Abraham Lincoln.

• In 1898, President William McKinley gave a 15-minute speech about the Spanish-American War that had just ended.

• In 1900, New York Gov. Teddy Roosevelt campaigned as the vice presidential candidate for McKinley’s re-election bid. Newspapers estimated the crowd at 30,000.

• In 1908, Secretary of War William Taft made a campaign stop on his way to becoming the 27th president.

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• In 1919, Lt. Col. Dwight D. Eisenhower participated in a coast-to-coast convoy of 81 Army vehicles testing the mobility of military equipment. Some 282 military personnel camped at Greene Square during the trek from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco along the Lincoln Highway. Eisenhower became president in 1953 and authorized the interstate highway system, a project partially inspired by the convoy.

• In 1923, a crowd of 15,000 gathered to catch a glimpse of President Warren G. Harding’s funeral train on its way from San Francisco to Washington, D.C. Onlookers caught glimpses of first lady Florence Harding through the screened window of her private car, one of 11 Pullmans in the cortège. The train stopped to refuel and change the honor guard protecting the president’s coffin. Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, a native Iowan, accompanied the widow.

Union Station was torn down in 1961 after car travel became more popular and train travel less so, necessitating the need for more downtown parking.

VARIOUS NAMES

 
The square has had a variety of names over the years.

The Cedar Rapids Public Library, which borders the south side of Greene Square along Fourth Avenue SE, is where Washington High School stood from 1891 to 1946. That’s why the square was known as Washington Square for a long time. Other names have been Parsons’ Grounds, Franklin Square, Old Square and Depot Park.

The current name was the result of some quick City Council maneuvering in a 1906 celebration of the city’s founding.

George Greene — an attorney, judge, railroad owner and one of the city’s founders — was being honored during a program at the square. An impromptu meeting of the City Council took place on the speakers’ platform, resulting in a resolution officially naming the space Greene Square.

 
In the early 1900s, the square featured an electric fountain that showcased artistic water streams, lights and drinking fountains.

It was the home of Cedar Rapids’ Lady of Liberty statue from 1950 until 2003.

MORE MOMENTS

Other notable moments and tidbits for the square:

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• In 1999, Texas Gov. George W. Bush campaigned for president, promising to “usher in a responsibility era.”

 
• In 2000, Vice President Al Gore stumped for the highest office. Blake Riffel, a 10-year-old on the speaker’s platform, fainted, prompting a Secret Service scramble and jokes about Gore’s ability to put an audience to sleep.

President Bill Clinton, Sen. Hillary Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden have all spoken at Greene Square. So did Jared Fogel, a Subway spokesperson who was in demand as a weight loss speaker until he was convicted of sexual offenses against minors.

Here to stay

Greene Square has endured highly publicized battles against crows who love to hang and poop on everything in sight. City workers have had varying degrees of success over the years using different methods to convince them to roost elsewhere.

Greene Square also is known for a building that housed a senior center and later a namesake program that provided meals for the homeless. That building was demolished in 2010, and the program eventually relocated a few blocks away.

Call our beloved park “Greene Square Park,” and you’ll likely be corrected by anyone familiar with our early city planners’ intentions. The space is a square meant to facilitate all manner of public gatherings. It has outlasted a number of parking garage plans and appears secure enough to celebrate its 175th birthday in five years.

Joe Coffey is a freelance writer with 20 years of experience as a journalist, educator and content marketer in Cedar Rapids. He has a master’s in journalism from the University of Iowa and is writing a book on Grant Wood. Comments: coffeygrande@gmail.com

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