Veterans Memorial Building renovation complete

Massive door ready to protect building from future floods

Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette

Columns can be seen as traffic drives along First Avenue outside the Veterans Memorial Building on Thursday.
Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette Columns can be seen as traffic drives along First Avenue outside the Veterans Memorial Building on Thursday.

If the Cedar River ever rises again the way it did in 2008, or even on a more minor scale as it did in 2013, the Cedar Rapids Veterans Memorial Commission is ready.

In the basement of the commission-run Veterans Memorial Building on May’s Island, a massive flood door, which looks something like the entrance to a bank vault, is ready to swing closed to stop the river from surging into the rest of the building.

They tested the system by pouring in water, said Teri Van Dorston, commission assistant director. It held.

The door is just one part of an $18.5 million renovation the building that towers over downtown Cedar Rapids has undergone in the wake of the flood. After six years, it is finally ready to fully reopen to the public.

Instead of offices for City Hall and the Cedar Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, the 110,000-square-foot building boasts several floors of space that can be used as rented offices and venues for wedding receptions, conventions and other events.

The commission also is embracing with new vigor the building’s original mission of serving veterans.

In the basement, past the flood door, is a room that used to be a National Guard armory, where armed service members shipped out during World War II. Now, the armory space is bordered by a fitness center for veterans and families, a locker room complete with an aquatherapy tub to help recovering amputees and offices that will soon house a massage therapist and a chiropractor.

Nearby are offices for Midwest Military Outreach and the Iowa Veterans Welcome Center, two organizations aimed at connecting veterans with resources.

The Iowa Veterans Welcome Center was organized in 2013 by a group of Vietnam War veterans. The group moved into the Memorial Building in February and offers a community center space for veterans, complete with computers, comfortable couches, televisions, pool tables and a small kitchenette.

The group is trying to do more than offer a social space. The organization is working to set up a food bank in the building for veterans and their families.

In a room near the Armory, shelves are starting to fill with donated food.

Nearby, the Welcome Center has also set up a workshop, where members have volunteered to refinish hundreds of stadium chairs from the building’s first-floor Coliseum.

Refinishing the seats was part of the original renovation plans but was cut for budgetary reasons until the volunteers stepped up.

Weddings and Rollergirls

Wedding receptions already have been booked in the Coliseum this summer, along with all the home bouts of the Cedar Rapids Rollergirls roller derby team.

The Armory and a ballroom also are being booked for receptions and social events. A restaurant space and catering kitchens are waiting to serve food at social functions.

New floors and bathrooms are everywhere throughout the building, which now also has elevators and air-conditioning.

“We tried to keep the historical integrity of the building but also added amenities,” Van Dorston said.

She was hired almost two years ago from the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art to bring the Eastern Iowa All Veterans Memorial Museum up to professional museum standards.

The museum space is on the first floor, next to the 24-foot Grant Wood stained-glass window, which was reinstalled in the building last year after its own renovation.

Volunteers are helping unpack and catalog more than 1,000 museum artifacts recently returned from a conservation lab in Chicago.

The museum’s collection was shipped there after the flood, when hundreds of the uniforms, documents and photographs, some going back to the Civil War, were at risk of being destroyed from the mold that quickly grew in the wet, humid summer.

Properly organizing and researching the items in the collection is a daunting task, especially lately as the building has neared completion, Van Dorston’s job has included as much event planning, venue booking and public relations as it has museum work.

Those are important functions — they will help fund the building’s maintenance going forward. The Veterans Memorial Commission, which was established in 1925, is funded by a dedicated Veterans Memorial Levy.

That funding will be supplemented by the venue and office space rentals.

The building’s renovation was funded through $15.3 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, $3.1 million in state I-JOBS funds and $100,000 in state Jumpstart funds for the building’s boiler system.

All that money and the years of work to bring the building, first built in 1927, into the post-flood 21st century, will pay off on Tuesday, when a ribbon-cutting ceremony officially will unveil the building to the public.

Retired General Tommy Franks will be the keynote speaker, along with Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett.

Franks is not just in town for the ribbon cutting, however. He also will speak at a Veterans career summit in the building the same day.

The commission isn’t wasting any time putting their newly renovated building to work.

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