CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — Bruce Thiher was among those heartened to hear that Save CR Heritage would be able to save one of the last homes of a once thriving neighborhood near downtown Cedar Rapids on Fifth Avenue SE.
“I was in that house many times when Jerry and Geraldine Fowler lived there many years ago,” wrote Thiher, who now lives in Florida. “It is a real beauty, emblematic of what all the great houses used to be between Fifth and 10th Streets SE.”
Of the 60 homes that once populated the neighborhood, only three remain: at 525, 606 and 820 Fifth Ave. SE. Mercy Medical Center and Save CR Heritage entered into an agreement to save the home at 606 Fifth Ave. SE, which will be named the J.E. Halvorson House, in memory of board member John Erik Halvorson, who was killed in a car crash in 2020. The house will become the headquarters for the nonprofit Save CR Heritage.
The home was likely built in 1905, with the first occupants, Thomas B.F. and Edith L. Leinbaugh, listed in the January 1907 city directory. Thomas worked as a clerk for the Railway Mail Service.
Thiher’s family operated the Food Center grocery store at 866 Fifth Ave SE, and he still remembers the old neighborhood.
“We had many wonderful customers in those old days who lived along 5th Avenue in the grand old houses that used to line all the avenues below 10th Street SE in those days,” he wrote. “I recognize the need for progress and moving forward with change, but it certainly is a great tragedy that the big fine houses that used to line the avenues below 10th Street have nearly all been lost.”
Thiher’s grandfather came to Iowa from the Bekaa Valley, east of Beirut, among the Lebanese/Syrians who made their way to the Midwest.
Thiher was born in 1947 at Mercy Hospital, then in just one building on Sixth Avenue SE. He lived at 866 Fifth Ave. SE for the first eight years of his life.
“We used the address of my parent’s grocery store, The Food Center, as our residential address in those days since we lived in the front apartment above the store,” he wrote. “The address of the apartments more correctly used later was 423 10th Street, but we never used it.”
“My parents, George and Dolores Thiher, ran the grocery store with the assistance of my uncle, Lynn Thiher, from 1946 until 1955 when one of my other uncles, David Thiher, bought out my father’s share. When I was a teenager, I helped out at the store a lot.”
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Thiher remembers some of the customers: “Tom and Eleanor Brady, who had the mortuary at 840 5th Ave SE. All the wonderful sisters from the Immaculate Conception Convent that was one block up 10th Street,” he wrote. “I got to know a lot of the sisters since they walked up and down 10th Street from the Convent to the hospital in those days. In particular was one Sister Mary Bernard who was in pediatrics, I believe.”
Many of the customers became family friends whose friendship lasted a lifetime until either they or his parents passed away.
“My dear Mother, Dolores, passed in 1981 after a long battle with multiple myeloma. My father, George, passed in 2009 after a lengthy illness,” Thiher wrote. “I remember so well in later years if we would be at the mall that seldom could we go more than 100 feet between Dad greeting some of his old friends. After Dad sold his interest in the store, he went to work at the old Cedar Rapids Auto Supply Company at 616 2nd Ave SE. He worked there from 1955 until 1984 and so continued to see many customers over a lifetime.”
“In those days Cedar Rapids was much like a small town, particularly for people involved in business,” Thiher continued. “I remember so well one of the things my father told me from his time in business. We were involved in some type of family business proposition and my brother wanted to draw up a written contract. To which my father responded, ‘Why? Isn’t your word worth anything?'”
Thiher recalled Gerald Fowler, “the bread man,” who lived at 606 Fifth Ave. SE from at least 1945 to 1960, and worked as a salesman for Colonial Bakery, then located just two blocks away at Fifth Avenue and Eighth Street SE.
“I was inside his home many times when I was young,” Thiher noted.
In later years, the home was a rental and in more recent history, the building was converted to commercial use, serving as a gift shop called The Laughing Lilac from 2003 to 2004. The Teacher Store became operational in 2009, offering free classroom supplies to area educators, and was located at 606 Fifth Ave. SE through early 2018.
“I am so happy that at least one of the old houses will be saved from the wrecking ball,” Thiher wrote. “Cedar Rapids was a wonderful place to grow up and I have many wonderful memories even though now I am far away in Florida.”