Soon an entire city block within the New Bohemia neighborhood in southeast Cedar Rapids will change dramatically. This is the block bounded by Ninth Avenue SE across from Bills Brothers furniture; Third Street SE across from the Bottleworks building; 10th Avenue SE across from the Cherry Building; and the Fourth Street SE railroad tracks.
A $28 million building development will be happening there soon, requiring the demolition of all the existing structures on this block.
For more than 35 years, this city block has been occupied by structures and areas used by Loftus Distributing, a wholesale lumber company operated in recent decades by the O’Connell family. Until the Flood of 2008, the Ninth Avenue and Third Street SE corner of this block had a couple of lumber sheds with metal exteriors facing the streets. These metal walls became a place to hang “2X2XU” (Two by Two by You) New Bohemia public art projects.
Looking back into the history of this particular corner of the block, a little cluster of small homes and storefronts stood there for almost a century until the 1970s. For many decades, a grocery store was operated at 928 Third St. SE by the Gureno family. Local records also show that Cedar Rapids’ first Muslim resident in 1895, Tom Bashira, also lived on this block near this corner.
In fact, historic maps of this entire block show it was primarily residential structures through the 1890s. It also was part of what was then the most culturally diverse neighborhood in Cedar Rapids, led by a large percentage of immigrants from the Eastern European region of Bohemia, now the Czech Republic.
In about 1905, the residential block was split in half by a railroad service track that ran diagonally through the block, connecting the Ninth Avenue SE railroad track corridor to the Fourth Street SE corridor. This made the block more suitable for commercial development going into the early 20th century.
Very soon, a row of one-story, cinder block and metal structures were built along the Ninth Avenue SE side of the block. All of these have been recently used by the Loftus Company, and, at first glance, they may appear rather unremarkable.
However, they all have an interesting history.
The cinder block structures closest to Third Street SE — at 311 and 315 Ninth Avenue SE — were originally used as an early location for the E E Sovern Co. They also were partially used in the 1950s by an outdoor advertising company owned by Robert Loftus, who then diversified into wholesale lumber. Ownership changed over to the O’Connell family, but the Loftus name was retained.
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A barrel-roofed metal structure at the other end of this block — at 323 Ninth Avenue SE — is a Butler building. This was a post-World War II style of large metal sheds that could be assembled and set up quickly at very low cost when building materials were in short supply right after the war — not too different from the more well-known Quonset hut.
This Butler building initially was a warehouse for the Sears, Roebuck department store starting in the late 1940s when the Cedar Rapids store was still downtown at 313 Third Ave. SE. After Sears moved to the Lindale Plaza shopping center in 1960, the Butler building was used as a general warehouse until it became part of the Loftus Company and combined with other structures on the block.
The building with the most interesting history on this block is also the oldest commercial structure.
It is at 321 Ninth Avenue SE and dates back to 1928 when it was first used as a facility for the Golden West Cheese Company. That venture did not last long, and by 1932, the structure was converted for use by the General Outdoor Advertising Company, a leader in Cedar Rapids billboard advertising for several decades in the mid-1900s.
It then was converted into a club tavern for Fidelity Lodge No. 1058. The club ceased to operate here in the early 1970s, and the space was converted into the Lazy Leopard Lounge. In 1976, the Lazy Leopard offered drinks, food, disco dancing and wigs.
In 1979 and 1980, the Lazy Leopard changed its name to better reflect the times, adopting the memorable name of the Shake Your Bootie Tavern.
By the mid-1980s, though, the former cheese company, billboard company and disco tavern also became part of the Loftus Distributing collection of structures in the 300 block of Ninth Avenue SE.
All of this history will soon fade away as these somewhat unassuming buildings fall, courtesy of demolition crews.
• Mark Stoffer Hunter is the historian at The History Center in Cedar Rapids until the end of this month. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org