Final Hour: Cedar Rapids walking tour offers last glimpse of history as demolitions loom
Oct 2021

Final Hour: Cedar Rapids walking tour offers last glimpse of history as demolitions loom

Photographer Jill Clayton shoots senior pictures of Jamin Stiefel of Vinton-Shellsburg next to the Banjo Refrigeration building Oct. 9, 2021, in downtown Cedar Rapids. “I love this spot,” Clayton said of the brick building, which is also popular for wedding and prom photos. The 110-year-old building will soon be demolished. (photo/Cindy Hadish)

By Cindy Hadish/Save CR Heritage

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa – In an ironic twist, as Save CR Heritage prepares to dedicate its first-ever headquarters in an early-1900s home saved from demolition, just one block away, a different fate awaits several commercial buildings of the same era.

Cedar Rapids Historian Mark Stoffer Hunter will lead walking tours of the neighborhood surrounding the J.E. Halvorson House, 606 Fifth Ave. SE, on Oct. 15-16, 2021, as the building is dedicated in memory of beloved board member John Erik Halvorson, who died last year at age 32.

More: Home to honor memory of Save CR Heritage board member

The nonprofit, organized in 2012 after the demolitions of two historic churches in Cedar Rapids, is dedicated to raising awareness about the value of the city’s historic buildings.

In the case of the Banjo Block, however, its fate was sealed years ago when developers decided that the structures on the site, along Fourth and Fifth avenues between Fifth and Sixth streets, could not be incorporated into their plans for an apartment complex.

This 1915 building, at 515 Fourth Ave. SE, is one of several in the “Banjo Block” slated for demolition in the coming weeks in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. (photo/Cindy Hadish)

The site sits next to the downtown Cedar Rapids Public Library. While original plans were dropped by the Indiana developer, another firm, TWG Development, also from Indiana, proposed its own plans for a 200,000-square-foot building with more than 200 apartments and nearly 150 parking spots.

TWG will receive financial incentives from the city worth at least $5.2 million for the $52 million project.

Plans call for demolishing the building that housed Banjo Refrigeration – from which the block takes its name – and several others, dating back to 1910.

This rendering shows TWG Development’s plans for an apartment complex on the Banjo Block in downtown Cedar Rapids, Iowa. (provided by City of Cedar Rapids)

At its Oct. 7 meeting, members of the Cedar Rapids Historic Preservation Commission unanimously agreed to allow all five of the demolitions to proceed, even though the buildings have not been surveyed for historical significance. TWG representatives said the demolition process will begin later this month.

During his walking tours – at 5 p.m. Friday, Oct. 15, and 11 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 16 – Stoffer Hunter will uncover the history behind the Banjo Block, as well as other homes and businesses still standing in the neighborhood.

Those include the former grocery store housing Runt’s Munchies, 529 Fifth Ave. SE; the Glenn M. and Edith Averill House, which was moved into the neighborhood and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places; the historic Bethel AME church, the city’s oldest Black congregation and more.

Related: Months-long road construction puts popular restaurant at risk

The building housing Runt’s Munchies and adjoining house are among sites to be highlighted on a neighborhood walking tour Oct. 15-16, 2021. (photo/Cindy Hadish)

Stoffer Hunter noted that the neighborhood once had 60 homes similar to the J.E. Halvorson House in the five-block stretch of Fifth Avenue between the train tracks and 10th Street. Now, it has just three.

The public is invited to attend the building dedication at 4 p.m. Oct. 15, outside of 606 Fifth Ave. SE. Tours of the home will be offered for free, with donations accepted to the building relocation fund.

Mercy Medical Center entered into an agreement last winter to sell the house to Save CR Heritage for $1, with the provision that the home be moved.

The J.E. Halvorson House, 606 Fifth Ave. SE, Cedar Rapids, will be dedicated Oct. 15, 2021. (photo/Cindy Hadish)

Board members, volunteers and contractors have spent the past months repairing the building, which needed a new roof, plumbing, ductwork, plaster repair, porch stabilization and electrical work.

More: Fourth-generation plasterers work on the J.E. Halvorson House

The building was among about 500 recently entered into the city’s historic assets inventory and represents a rare “save” for buildings slated for demolition.

Ticket sales for Mark Stoffer Hunter’s walking tours, at $10 each, begin at 4:30 p.m. Oct. 15 and 10 a.m. Oct. 16. Annual memberships also will be offered, at $25 each. Members receive one free walking tour and salvage sale discounts.

See more on Save CR Heritage’s Facebook page.

Save CR Heritage has been raising awareness of at-risk historic properties in Cedar Rapids since 2012. Help continue this important educational and advocacy work by donating here. We can’t do it without you!

New neighbors look out from the porch of their early-1900s home on Sixth Street SE, one of the buildings to be highlighted on a neighborhood walking tour in Cedar Rapids. (photo/Cindy Hadish)
This entire block of buildings is slated to be demolished in upcoming weeks in Cedar Rapids, to make way for an apartment complex and nearly 150 parking spots. (photo/Cindy Hadish)
The Glenn M. and Edith Averill House was moved onto Fourth Avenue SE in recent years and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. (photo/Cindy Hadish)
The historic Bethel AME church, the city’s oldest Black congregation, is among buildings on the Oct. 15-16 walking tour. (photo/Cindy Hadish)
Cedar Rapids historian Mark Stoffer Hunter will uncover the mystery behind the “stairs to nowhere” during his Oct. 15-16 walking tours. (photo/Cindy Hadish)
This red brick house on Sixth Avenue SE and neighboring Safe Place house are among sites to be highlighted during walking tours Oct. 15-16 in Cedar Rapids. (photo/Cindy Hadish)
The J.E. Halvorson House lights the night as volunteers prepare for the Oct. 15-16, 2021, building dedication. (photo/Cindy Hadish)



The banjo building I beleive once housed KOJC radio statio sponsored by rockwell collins radio…it started out as a 10w urban radio station with its transmitter on the top of the Roosevelt bldg…they upgraded to 100w after a period of time

    Cindy Hadish

    Interesting to know. Thank you, Dave! That would be some of the history uncovered if the buildings had actually been surveyed.


      Why weren’t they surveyed?

      Cindy Hadish

      Good question, Nancy! It’s not required, but would be a good idea to do so.

Sherry Smestad

If they aren’t that bad they need to STOP do that to them & make something out of what’s there instead.

Mauryne (McGregor)Simoens

Cedar Rapid has torn down many historic sites and once they are gone, they are gone. In the name of progress we have lost lots of wonderful sites. I can see some would be too expensive to renovate, but to eliminate blocks and blocks seems excessive.

    Cindy Hadish

    Good points, Mauryne!

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