The building at 329 Second Ave. SE in downtown Cedar Rapids still is known as “the old Dragon Chinese restaurant building,” even though the longtime business has been gone for 15 years.
The three-story edifice has a history that goes back 120 years.
It was in the first half of 1897 that local attorney Ben Heins announced plans to build a new combination retail and office structure at 325-327-329 Second Ave. SE. It would be called “The Musquakie Block,” meant to recognize the local Native American tribe whose members had been a part of the area around Cedar Rapid going back to the founding of the city in the 1840s.
There were a few delays in getting construction started in the summer of 1897. Rumors started to circulate that the building might not get finished and that perhaps Heins had changed his plans. Many speculated the building was actually going to be a hotel and might be taller than three stories.
In the Oct. 2, 1897, Evening Gazette, Heins quelled the rumors by explaining the project was back on track, two stories were finished and that it “will be one of the handsomest little buildings in the city.”
The architect for the Musquakie Block was William Fulkerson of Cedar Rapids. Fulkerson already had designed many important structures, including the old Jackson and Van Buren schools (1883 and 1884, both demolished in 1971) in Cedar Rapids, Irving School in Marion (1888 and now being used as a preschool) and the 1887 Condensed Milk Factory, more recently known as the Knutson Metal Building and now restored as The Chelsea residential structure at 525 Valor Way SW in Cedar Rapids.
Fulkerson’s design of The Musquakie was highlighted by arched windows along the second floor and along the clerestory level of the first floor facing the Fourth Street railroad tracks and an impressive stone-and-brick arch entrance to the upper floors facing Second Avenue SE.
The building was ready for occupancy in early 1898. Early tenants included the Cedar Rapids Creamery Company, Buchanan Grocery and Ranck Undertaking.
By 1908, when the building was 10 years old, the Guest Piano Company was prominently located in the corner storefront with the 329 Second Ave. SE address.
By this time, a rental hall — Muskwaki Hall — was on the upper level. The Cedar Rapids City Directory also listed the structure as The Muskwaki Building.
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Different spellings of the Native American tribe were common and thus “Musquakie Block” became “Muskwaki Building.” (It is now Meskwaki.)
In 1920, the Muskwaki Building contained studios for music teachers on the third floor and the Sovereign Millinery School on the second floor.
Storefronts at 325 and 327 Second Ave. SE contained the Harnish confectionary shop and a cigar store. The former location of Guest Piano on the corner in the 329 storefront had become The Virginia Lunch restaurant, operated by Paul Costas and Harry Halkas. The cafe was later called the Second Avenue Virginia, as there was a Third Avenue Virginia on the other side of the block.
By 1940, the upper two floors of the three-story building has been converted into apartments, and the upstairs entrance architecture was changed. The structure was no longer referred to as The Muskwaki.
In 1948, The Dragon Chinese Restaurant opened in the former Virginia Cafe space at 329 Second Ave. SE. For many years, The Dragon was the only Chinese restaurant in Cedar Rapids. It grew in popularity and eventually expanded into the 327 and 325 storefronts, occupying the entire first floor of the building by the early 1970s.
For years, Jack Wong managed The Dragon and used his savings to buy out his relatives, becoming sole owner of the restaurant in the late 1950s. He operated The Dragon until he retired in early 2001.
Over the next five decades, the Musquakie Block came to be known as The Dragon Building. The second-floor apartments fell into disrepair and were abandoned after 2002. The third floor had been abandoned even earlier in the 1980s.
After Jack Wong closed The Dragon in 2001, it was briefly reopened by another owner until early 2003. Then a series of nightclubs and bars began operating within the space, most recently the Hazzard County American Saloon.
Soon the entire building will be empty, with the future of the 121-year-old historic structure unknown at this time.
Years of passing trains have blackened the original greenish-gold color of the exterior brick as well as the finely cut stone ornamentation.
The building is a historic gem waiting to be polished.
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The building is rare in that it is the last surviving historic structure still standing along the Fourth Street SE railroad track and trail. At one time, many historic hotels were located along the tracks, including the Magnus Hotel, which stood across Second Avenue SE from The Dragon, and The Taft (formerly Lincoln) Hotel, which stood across the train tracks from The Dragon.
These and other structures along the tracks, including the old Allison Hotel by First Avenue SE, are all long gone. Only Ben Heins’ 1897 edifice remains along the tracks in 2018. It deserves to be preserved and hopefully will be.
l Mark Stoffer Hunter is a research historian for The History Center in Cedar Rapids. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org