New life sought for BetterLife building in Cedar Rapids
Dec 2021

New life sought for BetterLife building in Cedar Rapids

Bethany Jordan and Mike Esker discuss the BetterLife building inside the office at 1900 First Ave. NE, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. (photo/Cindy Hadish)

By Cindy Hadish/Save CR Heritage

CEDAR RAPIDS – The BetterLife site in Cedar Rapids is back on the market after Kwik Star officials backed out of a proposed convenience store and car wash at the location at 1900 First Ave. NE.

Related: Residents push back on Kwik Star proposal

Architect Bethany Jordan, a board member and past president of Save CR Heritage, met with Mike Esker, president of Coldwell Banker Hedges Realty, to discuss potential reuse of the two buildings on the site.

Built as headquarters for the Western Fraternal Life Association in 1958, the main building features 7,500 square feet on each of its two levels. The WFLA, as it was known, changed its name to BetterLife and moved its headquarters to Madison, Wisconsin, earlier this year.

The asking price of $1.6 million includes the BetterLife building and the 1960’s former Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints building behind it – later Odd Fellows hall – and a large vacant lot next to both buildings.

The BetterLife Building is back on the market in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. (photo/Ben Kaplan)

Constructed with five types of stone, the BetterLife building opened to a three-day ceremony during its dedication in 1959. Known as ZCBJ – for Západní Česko-Bratrská Jednota (Western Bohemian Fraternal Association) – at its inception in 1897, the association provided life insurance and a social connection to members’ Czech/Bohemian origins.

The ZCBJ was previously located in a building at Third Street and 12th Avenue SE in Cedar Rapids that still stands today and is now known as The Olympic.

Jordan said the mid-Century BetterLife building could potentially qualify for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, which would open up the possibility of grants and historic tax credits for expenses invested in the building.

“It can cost less to renovate” compared to new construction, she noted.

Unique patterns of tile are featured in the kitchen area of the BetterLife building. (photo/Cindy Hadish)

An elevator, estimated at up to $150,000, or a less expensive approach with ramps, could make the building ADA compatible, Jordan said, but depending on the use, is not necessarily required by code.

Esker noted that the site will also be designated as part of the city’s new urban renewal district, opening up further economic incentives.

Various proposals have been made to repurpose the building, including advocates who would like to see it used as a senior center.

Peg Oettinger, who suggested that particular reuse to the Cedar Rapids City Council, noted the building is located on city buslines, is centrally located and includes amenities that seniors would enjoy, such as a sunken garden.

The BetterLife building, shown earlier in 2021, features a sunken garden. (photo/Ben Kaplan)

Other proponents of saving the building, which would have been demolished under Kwik Star’s proposal, cite the structure as an excellent example of mid-Century architecture.

Jordan pointed to long-lasting terrazzo flooring in the entrance lobby, various designs of tile in restrooms and kitchen and detailing on stair railings.

“It’s clear someone put thought into the design,” she said.

Call Mike Esker at (319) 378-8760 for more information about the building.

More: Two 1880s houses in need of new homes


Jim Snyder

Yes. A Facility for Senior Center activities, including life-long learning programs, in partnership with Community and Other Colleges and Universities, offering multiple educational opportunities; a variety of physical activity programs; including dancing and simple exercise sessions; are among the many possibilities for this Proposed, Cedar Rapids Senior Center!

    Cindy Hadish

    Sounds like an excellent idea, Jim!

    Judy fries

    Excellent idea we need a senior center

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