Cedar Rapids to lose another piece of Grant Wood history to demolition
By Cindy Hadish
CEDAR RAPIDS – A newly uncovered piece of history surrounding Iowa’s most famous artist will soon be lost, as Coe College moves forward with plans to demolish another home in the Grant Wood neighborhood.
Mark Stoffer Hunter, Cedar Rapids historian and chairman of the city’s Historic Preservation Commission, recently discovered that Grant Wood’s brother, Frank Wood, lived at 1414 B Ave. NE, with his wife, Clara, when they were newlyweds in 1911.
Coe College intends to demolish the home in coming weeks.
“I almost missed it,” Stoffer Hunter said of the information he found in researching the home. “This is another piece of the Grant Wood story.”
That story is told in a Grant Wood Walking Tour in the Mound View Neighborhood, a central portion of an area called the College District, which was the subject of a city-led “action plan” meeting last week.
While discussion focused on bike trails, new athletic facilities for both Coe College and Mount Mercy University, which bookend the College District, and other amenities, almost no attention was given to the history left behind by Iowa’s most famous artist, who grew up in the neighborhood.
The popular Grant Wood Walking Tour takes history buffs and tourists past the building where Dr. Byron McKeeby, one of the models for Wood’s “American Gothic,” had his dental office and other points of interest, including Wood’s boyhood home.
But piece by piece, the tour is losing its cohesion, Stoffer Hunter said, as more homes are demolished.
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Coe purchased 1414 B Ave. NE as part of its “expansion area,” the 1400 block between A and C avenues. For now, that area is designated as green space. Dozens of homes have been demolished, removing affordable housing in the city’s core and taking those buildings off the tax rolls.
The college demolished five early-1900 homes on C Avenue NE in 2012, citing its expansion and a desire to make the area more attractive.
Five years later, thick weeds, towering mounds of dirt and mud holes now populate the area where the homes once stood.
Coe spokesman Rod Pritchard said most of the former C Avenue lots have been planted to grass and are regularly mowed.
“In addition, we have a campus garden in the lot on the corner of C Avenue NE and 14th Street NE,” he noted in an email, adding that the area does include a pile of fill dirt, which eventually will be used to fill in the hold created by the demolition of 1414 B Ave. NE.
Coe has provided space the past few years for the Mound View Neighborhood Association community garden next to what is now student housing in the Whipple Fire House.
“Thus far, all of the property that Coe purchased in the campus expansion area has been converted to green space, with the exception of a few houses/properties that the college is continuing to use for student housing and the gardens as noted above,” Pritchard wrote. “Longer term, this entire area will accommodate the future growth of the campus.”
College representatives did not attend the Historic Preservation Commission meeting where Stoffer Hunter presented the information on the B Avenue home. The commission placed a 60-day hold on Coe’s demolition permit at its June 22 meeting, but has no other power to prevent the building from being razed.
Pritchard noted that the college began its campus expansion project in 2006. At that time, the college committed to preserving the Grant Wood childhood home, at 318 14th St. NE, should Coe acquire it in the future.
He added that it was premature to say if the home would be moved or preserved in place if it is acquired.
Born on a farm near Anamosa in 1891, Wood moved to Cedar Rapids at age 10 when his mother, Hattie Wood, purchased the home in 1902 for $2,580 after her husband died.
Wood won third place in a national art contest while attending nearby Polk School. He lived in the 14th Street home, and elsewhere in the neighborhood, after graduating from Washington High School.
Stoffer Hunter said he appreciates Coe’s commitment to preserve Wood’s childhood home, but noted the context of the home in its neighborhood surroundings is disappearing, which diminishes its historic value.
He also credited the college with preserving the former B Avenue fire station, for student housing, but wondered how more emphasis could be placed on preservation, rather than demolition in the neighborhood, especially given Wood’s prominence on a national and international level.
Just one block away, the B Avenue Historic District was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2013. The district extends from Polk School to Franklin Middle School, but does not include the block where the historic fire house is located, due to the number of demolitions.
The two-story home with full attic that Coe plans to demolish first appeared in city directories in 1906, but Stoffer Hunter said the house appears to be older and might have been moved from another site to that location.
He pointed to an unusual placement for a prominent curved door at the side of the house and pondered whether or not Wood might have had a hand in creating the entrance, which also featured decorative corbel brackets and two wooden finials carved in pineapple-like shapes.
In addition to his paintings, Wood was known to add architectural touches to homes and businesses in the area, he said, and often used materials from other buildings, such as churches that were being razed elsewhere in the city.
Former Historic Preservation Commission member Bob Grafton plans to salvage the home if no one is able to move it, he said at a commission meeting earlier this month, with the items going to Habitat for Humanity and Habitat’s ReStore. Representatives of ReStore, however, said Grafton is doing the salvaging on his own.
Pritchard said Coe would be willing to give the B Avenue home to someone who could move it in a timely manner, but noted that one previous inquiry years ago showed homes would be expensive to relocate from the area.
“Coe remains willing to allow interested parties to move houses the college has acquired in the expansion area,” he wrote in an email, “but based on the costs involved, we believe it is unlikely that anyone would do so.”
Lifting the 60-day hold on the B Avenue home will be discussed at the next Historic Preservation Commission meeting on Thursday, July 27, 2017. The hold will automatically expire on Aug. 22, but commission members can allow an earlier release date. The meeting is at 4:30 p.m. in the Five Seasons Room of the City Services Center, 500 15th Ave. SW.