IOWA CITY — Iowa City is hoping to give — at no cost — the University of Iowa a $1 million sliver of property in exchange for a campus commitment to use the land to save the community’s oldest-known house.
Per the deal, which the state Board of Regents will consider Wednesday, the city will give UI the 0.2-acre parcel in the 100 block of Market Street — which it’s currently using as a parking lot — in exchange for a UI commitment to relocate from across the street the 177-year-old Sanxay-Gilmore House.
The university would be responsible for all costs associated with moving the two-story Greek Revival house and renovating it for use as its new UI Nonfiction Writing Program home. That program is housed in the English-Philosophy Building.
UI officials did not respond to questions Monday about how much they expect to spend on the project, although a city assessment of costs put the total over $1.23 million.
The property transfer “would help establish a writing neighborhood along Clinton Street,” according to a UI proposal, highlighting two other renovated homes along Clinton Street that today house UI writing programs: The Dey House, home to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop; and the Shambaugh House, home to Iowa’s International Writing Program.
Officials said they plan to cover the massive moving and renovation expenses with a “substantial gift.” The university did not provide The Gazette with details of that gift or a timeline for the relocation.
The university had planned to demolish the historic home at 109 E. Market St. after buying it and another connected property from Gloria Dei Lutheran Church of Iowa City in 2018 for $2.7 million.
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Calling the properties “an older rooming house” and a building used for church office space, UI officials in 2017 noted, “Neither building has value to the university so the structures would be razed upon closing on the properties.”
By adding to its property portfolio that prime real estate across from the UI Pappajohn Business Building, campus officials initially aired plans to “develop and construct a new academic building” — potentially an entrepreneurial center associated with the Tippie College of Business.
In hopes of saving the historic house, the city worked with UI on relocation — identifying 10 possible sites, with the Market Street parking lot emerging as the best option.
“Moving a historic house to prevent demolition is always a last resort,” according to a city memo in July 2018. “If the Sanxay-Gilmore House may not remain on its original site, the city-owned parking lot across the street is the best location because it maintains the relationship between extant historic structures and would likely be the least complicated move.”
Making it less complicated than other options — including Mercy Hospital parking lots and property owned by Ace Hardware — is the Sanxay-Gilmore’s close proximity to the city parking lot, affording the shortest move route.
“Within the same block as the original, this site would be the best choice for maintaining National Register eligibility and mitigating moving costs,” according to city documents.
The Iowa City Historic Preservation Commission and the City Council both approved the property transfer, without which would have left Iowa City with a hefty tab to save the historic home. A 2019 estimate put city costs to move the building, prepare a new site, abandon the old one, and then renovate the building at more than $1.23 million.
But it’s perceived as an “important piece of Iowa City history,” in that it was built in 1843 and is associated with the Sanxays — considered a “founding” family in Iowa City.
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“Recent research revealed that the construction of the house occurred at the same time that the capitol building was being built, affirming the fact that it is one of the oldest structures in Iowa City,” according to city documents.
The Iowa City Historic Preservation Commission in 2015 identified the Sanxay-Gilmore House as its top priority for historic landmark designation, and it was pursuing as much when it learned in 2017 that its church owner was selling the house to UI.
Gloria Dei originally proposed moving the house — on its own dime — to a nearby courtyard in a different historic district. But it backed off that plan in response to concerns the relocation “would undermine the historic integrity of both the house and the historic district,” according to the city.
The UI land transfer comes amid tough times for the campus, facing tens of millions in losses from COVID-19 — compelling layoffs, furloughs, hiring freezes, pay reductions, and programmatic cuts, among other things.
Per the agreement to transfer the to-be Sanxay-Gilmore site from the city to the Board of Regents, UI will be responsible for maintaining and preserving the home “with sensitivity to the age, architecture, and historic nature” for at least 40 years.
If UI no longer has use for the home within the 40-year period, ownership will revert to the city, according to the agreement. After the 40 years, UI can either continue preserving the home on site or on another property.
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