Final Hour: Cedar Rapids walking tour offers last glimpse of history as demolitions loom
By Cindy Hadish/Save CR Heritage
CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa – In an ironic twist, as Save CR Heritage prepares to dedicate its first-ever headquarters in an early-1900s home saved from demolition, just one block away, a different fate awaits several commercial buildings of the same era.
Cedar Rapids Historian Mark Stoffer Hunter will lead walking tours of the neighborhood surrounding the J.E. Halvorson House, 606 Fifth Ave. SE, on Oct. 15-16, 2021, as the building is dedicated in memory of beloved board member John Erik Halvorson, who died last year at age 32.
The nonprofit, organized in 2012 after the demolitions of two historic churches in Cedar Rapids, is dedicated to raising awareness about the value of the city’s historic buildings.
In the case of the Banjo Block, however, its fate was sealed years ago when developers decided that the structures on the site, along Fourth and Fifth avenues between Fifth and Sixth streets, could not be incorporated into their plans for an apartment complex.
The site sits next to the downtown Cedar Rapids Public Library. While original plans were dropped by the Indiana developer, another firm, TWG Development, also from Indiana, proposed its own plans for a 200,000-square-foot building with more than 200 apartments and nearly 150 parking spots.
TWG will receive financial incentives from the city worth at least $5.2 million for the $52 million project.
Plans call for demolishing the building that housed Banjo Refrigeration – from which the block takes its name – and several others, dating back to 1910.
At its Oct. 7 meeting, members of the Cedar Rapids Historic Preservation Commission unanimously agreed to allow all five of the demolitions to proceed, even though the buildings have not been surveyed for historical significance. TWG representatives said the demolition process will begin later this month.
During his walking tours – at 5 p.m. Friday, Oct. 15, and 11 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 16 – Stoffer Hunter will uncover the history behind the Banjo Block, as well as other homes and businesses still standing in the neighborhood.
Those include the former grocery store housing Runt’s Munchies, 529 Fifth Ave. SE; the Glenn M. and Edith Averill House, which was moved into the neighborhood and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places; the historic Bethel AME church, the city’s oldest Black congregation and more.
Stoffer Hunter noted that the neighborhood once had 60 homes similar to the J.E. Halvorson House in the five-block stretch of Fifth Avenue between the train tracks and 10th Street. Now, it has just three.
The public is invited to attend the building dedication at 4 p.m. Oct. 15, outside of 606 Fifth Ave. SE. Tours of the home will be offered for free, with donations accepted to the building relocation fund.
Mercy Medical Center entered into an agreement last winter to sell the house to Save CR Heritage for $1, with the provision that the home be moved.
Board members, volunteers and contractors have spent the past months repairing the building, which needed a new roof, plumbing, ductwork, plaster repair, porch stabilization and electrical work.
The building was among about 500 recently entered into the city’s historic assets inventory and represents a rare “save” for buildings slated for demolition.
Ticket sales for Mark Stoffer Hunter’s walking tours, at $10 each, begin at 4:30 p.m. Oct. 15 and 10 a.m. Oct. 16. Annual memberships also will be offered, at $25 each. Members receive one free walking tour and salvage sale discounts.
Save CR Heritage has been raising awareness of at-risk historic properties in Cedar Rapids since 2012. Help continue this important educational and advocacy work by donating here. We can’t do it without you!