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Higley Building: Cedar Rapids landmark turns 100, with its cherubs intact

This is how the Higley Building at 118 Third Ave. SE looks today. (Photo by Mark Stoffer Hunter/The History Center)
This is how the Higley Building at 118 Third Ave. SE looks today. (Photo by Mark Stoffer Hunter/The History Center)
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The century mark has been reached for a splendid downtown Cedar Rapids landmark, the eight-story Higley Building at 118 Third Ave. SE, across from the Paramount Theatre.

When new in 1918, it was one of the three tallest office structures in the downtown, the others being the Security Bank Building and the American Bank Building, both on the same side of Second Street SE as the new Higley structure.

The new “high-rise” Higley Building was built by Elmer Abiel Higley, grandson of Cedar Rapids pioneers Abiel and Prudence Higley.


Elmer Higley was born on Nov. 19, 1856, in the old cottage home of the Higleys that once stood at the southwest corner of First Avenue and Second Street SE. He was the son of Harvey Higley, who was one of four sons of Abiel and Prudence, the others being Mortimer, Henry and Wellington. All of the Higleys were heavily involved in real estate, particularly in the area that is now downtown Cedar Rapids.

HIGLEY BUILDINGS

The new Higley Building that opened 100 years ago was actually the third significant downtown landmark the Higleys had been involved in building at Third Avenue and Second Street SE.

In 1891, the Granby Block was built at the northeast corner of the intersection, featuring distinctive red brick with wonderful Romanesque style arches on the exterior of the fourth and top floor. It was named for the community of West Granby, Conn., where the Higleys lived before settling in Cedar Rapids in the 1840s.

In 1911, the Higleys were part of a company of investors that built a yellow brick, five-story structure at the southeast corner that was initially known as the Fidelity Building. Before construction was completed, the Killian department store agreed to occupy the entire building when it opened in 1913.

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After 1915, Elmer Higley was more than ready to build the largest and finest downtown structure his family had ever built on the intersection’s northwest corner.

At that time, the corner was occupied by five very old and poorly constructed wood-frame storefronts that were seen as eyesores.

According to a letter written in 1996 by Elmer’s grandson, Chandler Higley, his grandfather owned the land that had 120 feet of frontage on Third Avenue SE from the corner of Second Street SE. He made arrangements to acquire an additional 20 feet of land between his property and the alley. That 20 feet was occupied by a two-story brick building at 116 Third Ave. SE that contained the Jay Garzee barbershop.

In the belief that he had a commitment from the owner of the property to acquire it, Elmer Higley proceeded to have his architects design an eight-story building that would front the north side of Third Avenue SE from Second Street SE all the way to the alley.

Suddenly, the owner of the small lot by the alley substantially increased his asking price.

Chandler Higley states in his letter that his grandfather was “outraged” and immediately ordered his architects to modify the plans for the new Higley Building, making it “less wide.” Higley later bought the small lot but not until long after the new building was done. The small building still stands today, home to the Basket Bowtique gift shop.

OPENING

Elmer Higley secured a building permit for the eight-story building on Feb. 15, 1917. It cost $147,500 to build, according to the 1919 City Directory, That’s about $2.7 million in today’s dollars.

The building opened in April 1918. It was described as an “eight-story, marble finished interior, well-lighted building. Stands out as a ‘show’ place for the City of Cedar Rapids.”

The exterior featured a two-story arch window entrance with the name “Higley” proudly visible over the front door. Renaissance and Baroque style architectural features such as cherubs adorned the entrance on Third Avenue SE. Faux balcony designs between the fourth- and fifth-floor exterior facades were a highlight, as was the ornate and impressive cornice overhang at the top of the structure.

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The building’s upper-floor tenants included Cedar Rapids Farmers Insurance Co. and many doctor and dental offices.

The street level provided a new home for the Boyson Jewelry store on the Second Street SE side and the Grant Reynolds women’s ready-to-wear clothing store on the Third Avenue SE side.

Reynolds would be the first in a long line of women’s clothing shops to occupy that corner on the ground floor. These included Higbee’s in the 1950s, which became known as Seifert’s Women’s clothing store by the early 1960s. Seifert’s was a local favorite and a downtown retail landmark into the 1990s.

Just before the 2008 flood, the former Seifert’s space was occupied by Higley’s clothing, the last downtown location for Enzler’s, and a Skogman commercial real estate office.

GOING STRONG

One hundred years after opening, the Higley Building is in excellent shape. It is managed and owned by two companies represented by Jan White and Scott Olson.

It is currently the only older downtown high-rise structure that offers a wide variety of spaces for rent on its upper floors. Since shortly after the 2008 flood, the ground floor has been occupied by the Midwest Athletic Club.

As for Elmer Higley, he died Sept. 4, 1926. His home is now the Higley Mansion care facility on Mount Vernon Road SE.

And the eight-story edifice he opened in 1918 as a testament to his family’s contributions to Cedar Rapids history continues to stand proudly at the corner of Third Avenue and Second Street SE in downtown Cedar Rapids.

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l Mark Stoffer Hunter is a research historian for The History Center in Cedar Rapids. Comments: mark@historycenter.org

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