Immigrant home demolished in Cedar Rapids among oldest in New Bohemia
Note: The Cedar Rapids Historic Preservation Plan will be discussed Wednesday, April 29, 2015, at the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library, 1400 Inspiration Place SW, during an open house from 5:30-7:30 p.m. Also, the Cedar Rapids Preservation Showcase is set for 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday, May 2, with workshops from renowned preservationist Bob Yapp, tours, historic preservation awards and more at CSPS, 1103 Third St. SE. Both events are free and open to the public.
By Cindy Hadish/Save CR Heritage
CEDAR RAPIDS — A loophole in the city’s permit process allowed the demolition of a historic immigrant home in New Bohemia to bypass review by the Cedar Rapids Historic Preservation Commission.
The home, likely one of the oldest in the district, was located behind the White Elephant Building, 1010 Third St. SE.
“It’s always been a highlight of our walking tour,” said City Historian Mark Stoffer Hunter, a member of the commission, as well as a member of Save Cedar Rapids Heritage.
Stoffer Hunter estimated that the single-story home was built in the 1870s, and was one of the few remaining examples of the home-business relationship built by Bohemian immigrants in the neighborhood.
He said the home preceded the commercial portion of the building that would later house the White Elephant consignment store, which began in the 1930s during the Great Depression and was still in business decades later.
“It was probably one of the first houses to show up there,” Stoffer Hunter said.
Merchants in the district often would live next to or above their businesses; one of the characteristics of the area considered a key element in New Bohemia’s listing on the National Register of Historic Places.
The city demolished numerous examples of immigrant housing in the historic district after the 2008 flood, and many commercial buildings also were razed.
As part of the city’s permit process, the Historic Preservation Commission is allowed to review demolition permits for buildings over 50 years old, but last week’s demolition of the immigrant home did not go before the commission.
“Even if we couldn’t stop the demolition, we would have liked a heads-up,” Stoffer Hunter said, noting that without notification, no one was able to document the home before it was razed.
Commission members can place a 60-day hold on demolitions in order to find alternatives, such as moving a building, or to see if parts of the building can be salvaged. At a minimum, the hold, which is only occasionally used, allows a home or business to be photographed before it disappears forever.
The city demolished more than 1,200 buildings after the 2008 flood; much of those in core neighborhoods of Cedar Rapids.
Jeff Hintz, a planner in the city’s Community Development Department, said the immigrant home was attached to the commercial building and the commission does not have review authority over partial building demolitions.
“Regarding what constitutes a partial demolition, right now we have no definition,” Hintz wrote in an email. “Had the structures not been connected, an HPC review would have taken place, as an entire free-standing structure would have been demolished which was older than 50 years.”
Hintz noted that an initiative within the draft Historic Preservation Plan includes updating Chapter 18 of the City Municipal Code, which contains a section pertaining to demolition review.
The issue has been ongoing for years, with numerous examples in other parts of the city, and is one the Historic Preservation Commission had hoped to have resolved by now, said commission member Bob Grafton.
“Context and interpretation of historic development of the era for this area is being lost,” Grafton said of New Bohemia, noting that the small house was constructed first and followed by the attached storefront building.
He commended the owners’ efforts to save the storefront and structure, but hoped that the building would be restored, rather than rebuilt as a “fake facade attempt.”
Building co-owner Jamey Stroschine said he is one in a series of owners that followed the flood. Nobody has been able to find assistance in funding restoration of the entire building, he said, adding that the immigrant home was structurally unsound.
Stroschine said he presented his plans to the Czech Village/New Bohemia Main Street Board in September and had spoken to others in hopes of obtaining financial assistance that would make the project feasible.
“We tried to go through (the State Historic Preservation Office) and the resources aren’t there,” he said. “The building sat idle for eight years and we’re doing the best we can with what we have.”
Stroschine said city officials also were aware of the plans, so the demolition should not have come as a surprise.
“We’re trying to be stewards of what we have,” he said.
Plans call for the commercial portion to be moved onto a new foundation, adding space that will allow for a shared patio between Bata’s Restaurant in the neighboring Suchy Building and a proposed deli in the White Elephant.
Stroschine said the White Elephant’s facade will be retained, while an addition will be made to the building in its new location. Parts of the immigrant home were salvaged to help restore the commercial structure.
“We put together our best effort to save what was there,” he said, noting that the project could be completed by August.
Jennifer Pruden, executive director of the Czech Village/New Bohemia Main Street District, said the owners presented their plan, including the demolition, to the Main Street board when they applied last year for a Main Street Iowa Challenge Grant.
Pruden had encouraged the developers to speak to The History Center and State Historic Preservation Office about the significance of the rear portion of the building, she said.
“While it is unfortunate to see an important part of our District’s story lost, we are encouraged by the redevelopment plans for the former White Elephant building,” Pruden said in a statement. “Rehabilitation of this structure will provide a contiguous grouping of four similarly-scaled historic buildings and an opportunity for new business offerings in the District. The project will also allow for outdoor seating for the adjacent Bata’s Restaurant, helping fill the high-demand for pedestrian-oriented amenities in our walkable neighborhood.”