MARION — Marion’s “ghost block,” where 19th-century buildings once stood but now is home to a mostly vacant strip mall primed for redevelopment, presents a stark contrast to the structures immediately north and west — vestiges of the days a century ago that Marion served as the heart of Linn County’s government.
Today, Marion’s Uptown District still is splashed with history, dotted with buildings as old as 1850 surrounding City Square Park, part of the city’s original 1839 plat when it was chosen as the county seat.
A temporary wooden courthouse was constructed on the southeast corner of 10th Street and Sixth Avenue in 1840, followed by a stone courthouse in the middle of the block in 1846, according to Marion Heritage Center and Museum documents.
Settlers, mostly families, first chose the future Marion as home because it was on higher and drier ground than near the Cedar River, and happened to be at the crossroads of multiple trails from places that are now Davenport and Muscatine. There, riverboats would unload settlers’ possessions, according to the History of Marion 1838 to 1827.
The county seat remained in Marion until 1919 when Cedar Rapids residents finally “broke us down,” said Lynette Brenzel, director of the Marion Heritage Center and Museum.
Voter fatigue and the inability of Marion farmers to leave their work to vote yet again in the third county seat election led to Cedar Rapids residents, among them many young factory workers, winning the vote.
“It was a sad day,” Brenzel said, adding that along with its county seat designation Marion lost merchants and commerce that follow a busy town center.
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Despite the loss of the county seat and a massive fire in 1894, which destroyed businesses in the east half of the block on the north of the park from Seventh Avenue to Eighth Avenue, multiple historic buildings still stand around Uptown — so much so that community leaders submitted a National Register of Historic Places district nomination in 2009.
The oldest building still standing and not destroyed by fire holds the Marion Heritage Center. Construction started in 1850 and it began as a Methodist church. Since then, the building at 590 10th St. has served a number of roles including a Baptist church, a YMCA and an auto parts shop before becoming the heritage center.
A number of other notable buildings still stand, including the town’s first bank, which now houses Martin Gardner Architecture at 700 11th St. Construction began there in 1895.
Other structures include a 1885 building that housed a hotel and other commercial spaces at 1104-1120 Seventh Ave. While that building was damaged by a 2002 fire, the structure survives, according to the 2009 application.
Marion’s grocery store, with construction beginning in 1882, was at 1150 Seventh Ave.
The historic Uptown District buildings “ ... convey a strong sense of time and place of the heart of Marion’s commercial district during its heyday as a county seat of government and as the division point for the Milwaukee Railroad,” according to the application. “The surviving north and west sections of the historic commercial area contain a notable collection of buildings dating from the early settlement era of the town and are fairly unique in their survival for a town of the size of Marion.”
Many of the buildings are two-story brick structures designed in the “Italianate” architecture style, which was common for the time. Typical features include long overhanging eaves supported by decorative brackets, tall narrow windows and cast-iron decorations, according to the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Dave Hockett, the city of Marion’s principal planner and staff liaison to the Historic Preservation Commission, said usually only exterior projects on the historic Uptown buildings come across his desk.
“We just try to educate the builders in terms of what are those best practices, hope they try to achieve those best practices. And we try to provide some historical data, pictures and whatnot of the structure so they can try to recreate if they so choose the features that were there originally,” Hockett said.
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The city of Marion itself doesn’t have a lot of requirements for historical building work, Hockett said, but builders who want a State Historical Preservation and Cultural and Entertainment District Tax Credit or other such government incentive must meet a higher threshold of historical accuracy.
Hockett said he believes owners often appreciate the history of their buildings but the cost of properly restoring one, especially without tax credits, can be prohibitive.
“I think they all really try to do the best they can with the budget as allows,” he said.
Hockett said city staff were most recently working with the now-vacant Maid-Rite building at 1000 Seventh Ave. to earn a state tax credit. The 1880 building is now owned by Community Savings Bank after developer Owen Block Holding LLC went into foreclosure.
Previously, the same developer, under the name of Capital Commercial Division LLC, also owned the site at 1204 Seventh Ave. A planned building on the property never was finished after a 2015 construction collapse. Community Savings Bank now owns that, too.
“The bank is actively trying to market it,” Hockett said, adding there is concern the previous builder did work that might hurt its tax credit status. “It’s made it difficult.”
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