Plans are going forward to tear down the 101-year-old former home of John and Laurel Ely at 2218 First Ave. NE in Cedar Rapids. The stately home will be replaced by a new dental clinic.
The home, situated between the Coldwell Banker Hedges real estate office building and the Blair House condominium tower, was the home of John Montague Ely Sr. for more than 60 years.
John M. Ely was born in Cedar Rapids in 1884 and lived to be 103. He was the grandson of Cedar Rapids pioneer, Dr. John Fellows Ely.
John M. Ely Sr. married Laurel Sullivan in June 1912. The couple asked Cedar Rapids architect Harry Hunter to design their new home on First Avenue NE in 1916. It was next door to the large estate built in 1910 by John’s father, John Stoney Ely, at 2222 First Ave. NE.
John M. and Laurel Ely moved into their new home in 1917 and raised their four children there: Frederick, Helen, Elizabeth and John M. Ely Jr.
Laurel died in 1958, but John M. Ely Sr. continued to live in the home well into the 1980s.
In his later years, he was known for his sharp memory and recollections of Cedar Rapids dating back to his childhood in the 1880s and 1890s. Many of his thoughts were recorded in 1981 and 1982 interviews conducted by Eliza Hickok Kesler and published in “John M. Ely Remembers” and “John M. Ely: Recollections II.” Ely’s memories of early Cedar Rapids history and his willingness to have those memories preserved were — and are — invaluable to the community.
After his death, the house at 2218 First Ave. NE became the home of photographer Rod Bradley and family in the 1990s.
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In later years, the home was converted for use as offices, most recently for Marketing and Communication Strategies.
The home is now vacant and awaits its fate. It has been photo-documented throughout, and a recent exploration of the house yielded the original 1916 blueprints for the house drawn by architect Hunter, designer of many Cedar Rapids landmarks, including the recently demolished Bever Building in the downtown at 417 First Ave. SE.
The home is not the first Ely home to be felled by time.
The John Stoney Ely mansion built next door, at 2222 First Ave. NE, featured a long, colored stone wall along First Avenue. The stone was provided by local contractor Mike Ford, who was about to build a striking house of the same stone at the corner of Third Avenue and 19th Street SE.
John Stoney Ely died in 1950, 40 years after he built the mansion, and the large home stood empty for years. During the 1950s and 1960s, many children underwent a rite of passage of being “dared” to sneak onto the vacant mansion property.
Eventually, when it was time to build Blair House, the mansion was set on fire in 1963 in a controlled burn supervised by the Cedar Rapids Fire Department. It was one of the largest such controlled burns in Cedar Rapids history and remembered by many as a dramatic event. Today, the mansion’s stone wall still stands in front of Blair House.
EARLIER ELY HOMES
The Ely line started in Cedar Rapids when city founder George Greene encouraged Dr. John Fellows Ely and his brother, Alexander, to come to Cedar Rapids and invest in the new community as early as the 1840s.
Dr. Ely built a home in the 200 block of Second Avenue SE. In 1880, his son, John Stoney Ely, had the home demolished so the family could build the three-story Ely Block Building, which opened at the southwest corner of Second Avenue and Third Street SE in 1881 and still stands today.
In 1880, John Stoney Ely bought the stately new brick home at 527 Second Ave. SE built by Lowell Daniels. The Ely family lived there for 30 years, and John M. Ely was born in that house in 1884.
The brick house was torn down shortly after 1920 to make way for commercial buildings on Second Avenue’s “Automobile Row” after the Lincoln Highway was routed along that avenue. These buildings were later replaced by a parking facility for KCRG television and radio studios.
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John Stoney Ely then built the mansion on First Avenue NE, which lasted 50 years before being set ablaze.
Still standing is the longtime home of John M. Ely Jr. and his wife, Polly, at 203 23rd St. NE. It is behind Blair House and near St. Matthew’s Catholic School. John Jr., as a member of the Iowa House and Iowa Senate, was instrumental in abolishing capital punishment in Iowa. He died in 2007 at age 88.
Four generations of John Elys have played prominent roles in Cedar Rapids history:
• Dr. John Fellows Ely: 1821-1902. Moved to Cedar Rapids in the 1840s. Home became site for three-story Ely Block Building, which still stands.
• John Stoney Ely: 1853-1950. Built home at 2222 First Ave. NE in 1910; home was removed in controlled burn in 1963.
• John M. Ely Sr.: 1884-1987. Built home at 2218 First Ave. NE in 1916-17; home soon to be razed.
• John M. Ely Jr.: 1919-2007. Built home at 203 23rd St. NE (behind the other Ely mansions); home still standing.
l Mark Stoffer Hunter is a research historian for The History Center in Cedar Rapids. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org