CEDAR RAPIDS — The three-story brick building near the railroad tracks on Second Avenue SE was the Dragon Restaurant for 55 years, denoted by a neon dragon sign hanging above the entrance, and it most recently was Hazzard County saloon, but now it sits empty amid an uncertain future other than to become mothballed in the coming weeks.
The structure built in 1897 has been mainly an afterthought in plans for a massive downtown renovation to bring two hotels to the Guaranty Bank block at Third Street and Third Avenue SE. The hotels are destined for the south half of the block, while the old Dragon building, which was acquired as part of the deal, sits outside the footprint of the plans on the northeast corner of the block.
“Honestly, I haven’t given it much thought other than to clean it out and keep people out of the building because it isn’t safe,” said Mike Whalen, president of the Heart of America Group, which is behind the hotel project.
Crews this week were on site, in and out of the building, hauling debris to a large dumpster parked on Second Avenue.
“The building is piled high inside with quite a bit of garbage,” Whalen said. “Our objective is to remove the garbage and rough clean the interior. ... We then will secure the exterior of the building to prevent unauthorized access and install motion and smoke/fire detection equipment.”
A tracking system will be installed to attempt to locate roof leaks and then create temporary patches, he said. Once dry, crews will “laser measure it so we have an idea of what we exactly have in hand,” and then they will mothball the building, he said.
Whalen said demolition has not been discussed.
Whalen, under a company called Columbia Holdings LLC, purchased the building at 325 Second Ave. SE for $150,000 on Jan. 30 from Guaranty Realty Inc., which also controls the bank and World Theater buildings. Those two properties have not yet changed hands, according to Cedar Rapids assessor’s office data.
ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT
However, the $50 million hotel project, which would include a new structure incorporating the front of the World Theater as one hotel and renovating the Guaranty Bank Building into a separate hotel, has been a monumental task, Whalen said. He simply hasn’t had time to contemplate the Dragon building, he said.
“We are focused 24/7 on the other project,” he said. ”At some point this summer I will poke my nose in it and see what we have. I have no plans either way (to sell or develop), but we tend to develop things ourselves. Our company designs, builds and operates, so that would be our first preference, but if someone came along with a great idea, I’d certainly listen.”
Mark Stoffer Hunter, a Cedar Rapids historian, is hopeful the building can be saved. It is significant to the downtown historic district designation and one of the last untouched structures along the railroad tracks.
It was built by Ben Heins and considered part of the “Muskwaki block,” Stoffer Hunter said.
The Dragon Restaurant, which for many years was Cedar Rapids’ only Chinese restaurant, operated from 1948 to 2003 and later became the Dragon Night Club. Three retail store fronts also faced Second Avenue at one point, including a piano store, he said. The Hazzard County bar relocated from the building to the old Goodyear Tire Service center across the street in 2018.
The upper floors have long been vacant, and notorious urban legends surround them, Stoffer Hunter said, including that a person died there but no one discovered the body for several days. It’s also been said that the upper floors served as a “house of ill repute” during a time when that part of town was Cedar Rapids’ version of a “red light district” and could be a scary place, he said.
“I would love to see it saved and restored,” Stoffer Hunter said. “It’s like a lot of old buildings. It’s high quality, good materials, sturdy, but it needs some cosmetics. Clean it up and it will look just fine.”
l Comments: (319) 398-8310; email@example.com