Historic Sokol building could soon take turn for the better
CEDAR RAPIDS — The gymnasts have vaulted off, but a developer hopes to bring a new form of activity to the historic Sokol building in downtown Cedar Rapids.
Where children once learned to tumble and adults strengthened their Czech social ties, Charles Jones of CJE Properties envisions a ground-floor restaurant, upscale basement lounge, high-end residential lofts and two artisan shops. A rooftop lounge would offer a projector screen for games, movies and other digital media.
Under a plan presented to the City Council this week, Jones would invest $2.5 million in the building at 417 Third St. SE. In return, he is requesting a property tax reimbursement from the City of about $300,000 over a ten-year period.
For years, the property has been tax-exempt, so the development would return the flood-damaged building to the tax rolls, Jones said.
“Projects like this make the entire length of Third Street strong and vibrant,” said Sarika Bhakta of the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance.
Anchored by the New Bohemia neighborhood and U.S. Cellular Center, Third Street has been designated an Arts Culture & Entertainment District, she noted, adding that more is needed to strengthen the district between the two ends.
Bhakta said the proposed project will maintain the historic character of the building, create jobs and market-rate housing downtown and serve as a new downtown destination.
Built in 1908, the three-story hall was inundated with 4 feet of water during the floods of 2008, just as Sokol members prepared for a 100-year anniversary celebration of the building.
Sokol, (the Czech word for “falcon”) was founded in 1862 in what would later be the Czech Republic, to offer physical training along with cultural awareness and social activities. Czechs who immigrated for work and other opportunities in Cedar Rapids founded a local Sokol unit around 1872.
Over the years, hundreds of gymnasts turned cartwheels on the wood floors of the gym, learned vaulting, worked out on parallel and uneven bars and balanced on sturdy beams. Dinners and other social events also were held in the downtown hall.
The group struggled to come up with funding to restore the building after the 2008 floods and moved to a new site for the gymnastics program at 5200 18th Ave. SW.
While the first floor was gutted, hardwood floors, built-in cabinets, original tiles and a painting of the Sokol falcon remain intact and the downtown building was recently added to the National Register of Historic Places.
With a nod to that Czech heritage, Jones plans to install a stained glass mural of Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, where towering windows line a wall in what is planned as the main-floor restaurant.
The menu might take on a Brazilian steakhouse theme, while including Czech appetizers, he said.
One living unit would be on the second floor, with three on the third, and the two artisan shops planned for the main level.
The City Council voted unanimously Tuesday, March 25, on a resolution in support of the project and for the city to enter into negotiations with Jones.
Under preliminary terms, besides a minimum investment of $2.5 million, the project would need to employ 24 full-time employees and construction must begin in June, with completion by April 30, 2015.
Jones, who also intends to seek historic tax credits, has had success with other preservation projects in Cedar Rapids. He saved the Averill Building from demolition in the city’s medical district and had the house moved to 616 Fourth Ave. SE.
The building is now rented to several tenants, he said.
Jones previously restored the former Witwer Building, 305 Second Ave. SE, which now houses White Star Ale House, and two smaller buildings near the New Bohemia neighborhood in southeast Cedar Rapids.
Sweetiepie’s Chicken & Fish Fry occupies one of the buildings at 624 12th Ave. SE, while the former Village Auto Repair Service, 629 12th Ave. SE, is now home to “Bigg” Daddy’s Hot Dogs & More.
Jones sold his interest in the Witwer Building to help finance the purchase of the Sokol building, he said. Closing on the building could come in another month or so.
“I think Sokol is really beneficial to bridge downtown and New Bohemia,” he said. “I’m really excited to work on it and get started on it.”