Advocates hope to save 1890s home as church seeks demolition
Note: Anyone interested in saving this home and in the historic tax credit process can email Save CR Heritage at:SaveCRHeritage@gmail.com
By Cindy Hadish/Save CR Heritage
CEDAR RAPIDS – The clock is ticking for a house that sits just doors away from the childhood home of Mamie Eisenhower in southeast Cedar Rapids.
Westminster Presbyterian Church took out a demolition permit for the home at 1257 Third Ave. SE, which was built in the 1890s and is located next to one of the local historic districts in Cedar Rapids.
The church has owned the house for more than a decade, but, said David Jiruska, one of Westminster’s session members, (the church’s elected board) the building has become an eyesore.
“We rented it out and it became unrentable,” Jiruska said, citing the need for a new roof and an interior in poor shape. “Repairs would exceed the value of the house. It’s not economically feasible.”
Jiruska said it would cost more to renovate the house than the $10,000 to demolish it.
At a meeting Sept. 18, 2014, the city’s Historic Preservation Commission placed a 60-day hold on the demolition to provide time for review. That hold expires Nov. 17.
A past survey had shown the home was eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, based on a historic event that took place at the property, but city historian Mark Stoffer Hunter said he was unaware of any significant event.
Emily Meyer, a member of Save Cedar Rapids Heritage, said the building still is likely eligible for the National Register. That would qualify the repair work and other expenses for historic tax credits that would offset those costs.
The home sits just three doors down from the childhood home of former first lady Mamie Doud Eisenhower, Stoffer Hunter noted. That home could be equally vulnerable as it also is situated outside of the local historic district. Local districts offer some protection against demolition, as homeowners must receive approval from the Historic Preservation Commission.
Church leaders at Westminster, built in 1904, have had 14 houses surrounding the church demolished since 1964, Stoffer Hunter said. Those demolitions, and the resulting parking lots, were among the reasons that the block was left out of the historic district.
Built around 1895, the story-and-a-half, two-bedroom home was one of the first constructed on the block, Stoffer Hunter said, and still retains its original gingerbread trim and other features.
“This is a special house,” he said. “All of its exterior architecture is intact.”
Newspaper archives show the home originally belonged to Dr. Frank Woitishek and his wife Josephine. Frank was the son of Linn County pioneer Joseph Woitishek, who was a merchant and grain dealer in Ely. His sisters were prominent Cedar Rapids club women; one was a teacher and one managed her father’s farms. Frank and Josephine’s four-year-old son Frankie died in the house in 1898. Frank was recognized for his research into the high number of suicides among Bohemians in the late 19th-early 20th centuries.
Stoffer Hunter and other commission members would like to see the house moved.
At a meeting Oct. 9, however, city planner Jeff Hintz, staff liaison for the Historic Preservation Commission, suggested that the commission lift the 60-day hold on demolition, noting the challenges involved in moving the building before the church’s deadline.
Chairwoman Amanda McKnight Grafton countered by saying she hoped the church would allow time in case someone did come forward with a plan to move the home.
She noted that St. Luke’s Hospital had worked with developer Charles Jones when Jones moved the Averill House, the only building saved when more than a dozen were demolished nearby to make room for a new medical mall for Physicians’ Clinic of Iowa.
“They held off on their deadline and that’s why the Averill House was moved,” she said of the historic building, which now serves as office space at 616 Fourth Ave. SE. “My point is, I don’t want to give up.”
The home is much smaller than the Averill House, and would likely be less expensive to move, but Jiruska said he doubted that anyone would be able to move the building, citing the costs to temporarily move utility wires and other expenses.
He said the church would like the house gone by the end of October to provide green space for church functions and to allow time for the ground to settle.
“We’re ready to get it off our problem list,” Jiruska said. “We want to get rid of the liability.”
Diane Langton of The Gazette contributed to this article.