Razing of New Bohemia building to leave hole in historic district
CEDAR RAPIDS — When New Bohemia’s Hach Building is bulldozed in coming days, it won’t be due to a lack of interest in restoring the historic structure.
An investors group made a cash offer to owners Diane and Leon “Tunnie” Melsha, but the couple instead decided to move ahead with demolishing the iconic building at 1326 Second St. SE in the New Bohemia neighborhood.
“What the hell. You can’t win ’em all,” Tunnie Melsha said when asked the reason behind the pending demolition of the building — a contributing structure in the Bohemian Commercial Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places. “We don’t need the competition here.”
The family owns the Little Bohemia Tavern, just one block away, and after the 2008 flood purchased the Hach Building, which most recently operated as the South Side Tap.
Little Bohemia, at 1317 Third St. SE, is one of just two buildings in the district to be individually listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The other is CSPS, 1103 Third St. SE.
Contributing structures in historic districts, like the Hach Building, are those with distinctive architectural features. But the history of the building, named for the Peter Hach family who built the saloon and bottling works in 1901, appears to be lost.
A listing on the National Register offers no protection from demolition and groups that represent the New Bohemia area opted not to seek a “local” district designation. Cedar Rapids has two local historic districts and any changes to buildings in those districts must go through the city’s Historic Preservation Commission, which has stood firm against demolitions.
Mark Stoffer Hunter, a member of Save Cedar Rapids Heritage and the city’s Historic Preservation Commission, said a local historic district could have saved the Hach Building and others, but investors preferred an overlay district, with a committee that reviews building designs, but cannot prevent demolitions.
“The people involved – the investors – apparently were worried about the potential restrictions of a local historic district,” he said. “I think their fears are unfounded.”
Records on the city assessor’s website show the Melshas paid $35,000 for the flood-damaged Hach Building in 2009. The structure has since been left vacant, and open to the elements.
Brad Danielson, who led the investors group, made an offer of $80,000 to the couple in recent weeks. Danielson said the plan was to restore the structure and use it as an Iowa-focused bar, with a small-scale bottling production in a nod to the building’s origins.
Danielson, a Cedar Rapids native who recently restored a home in Belle Plaine, said he was interested in the historic nature of the Hach Building and in the neighborhood.
“They thought it was worth more torn down as an empty lot,” he said, wondering if the plan is to sell the land to a developer who will build a convenience store at the site, as has happened elsewhere in Cedar Rapids. “A historic district with no historic buildings isn’t a historic district.”
Since the 2008 flood, the city has demolished more than 1,200 buildings in Cedar Rapids, including dozens of homes and businesses in the New Bohemia neighborhood.
Beth DeBoom, president of Save CR Heritage, noted the contrast in the pending demolition of the Hach Building, compared to a home just down the street at 1018 Second St. SE, known as the Kurik House, which the city offered to an investor to save and move.
“The city is always seen as the ‘bad guy,’ that’s too eager to demolish,” she said. “But in this case, it’s a flood buyout building that’s being saved and a privately owned one that’s coming down.”
DeBoom said the twist of fate was one investor seeing the potential of a building, while the owners of another “saw a burden.”
Diane Melsha said, in the end, the couple decided demolition was the best route for the Hach Building.
“We thought it would be too much of a mess and would be too drawn out,” she said of the offer from the investors group. “Everyone has told us this would take a minimum of $500,000 to bring back and it would probably take 10 years.”
Not true, said Danielson, who was working with contractors on plans to restore the main portion of the building within a year, for under $200,000. The upper level, originally used by the Hach family for their residence, would have taken more time, he noted.
“It wouldn’t have been easy, but I could see this building restored,” Danielson said of the late Victorian Italianate-style architecture. “There will never be another one like it.”
Tunnie Melsha, now 82, recalled visiting the bar as a youngster, when his neighbor would bring him along “and I’d get a pop.” Still, the nostalgia wasn’t enough for the couple to acknowledge that the demolition means a loss for the district.
The signature “P. Hach” nameplate on the building, visible to motorists, pedestrians and bicyclists crossing the 16th Avenue Bridge from Czech Village into New Bohemia, might be saved or it might not.
Diane Melsha said the couple will “put it in a safe place” and consider donating it to the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library, but so far, no one has been allowed to remove it, despite offers of help.
Stoffer Hunter said the Carl & Mary Koehler History Center in Cedar Rapids where he works also could provide an option to save the nameplate.
He worried that the couple will allow the building to fall, with that signature cornice damaged. At the same time, he is concerned about a string of other New Bohemia buildings being razed by private owners, including two homes owned by the Vondracek family.
The commission last month put a 60-day hold on the demolition of one of the homes, at 1228 Third St. SE, in hopes someone would come forward to move the building.
They did the same earlier for the Vondracek home at 1310 Third St. SE, which is still standing, next to a former service station being redeveloped at 310 14th Ave. SE.
The Park Fulton Filling Station, built in 1939, is among the key structures in the district, according to National Register documents. The building also has been vacant since the floods, but new owner Frank Stephen said work will begin in coming weeks, with the building restored to historic standards as soon as this summer.
Red Ball Printing & Design, which prints custom t-shirts, will operate in the building, under owner Tony Burnett, Stephen said.
The development is the kind that preservationists applaud. Both Stoffer Hunter and DeBoom noted the irony in the Hach Building demolition, which may happen next week, and the move of the 1910-era Kurik House, named for original owners Wesley and Elizabeth Kurik, which is set to happen soon.
Don Barrigar, president of 3rd Ward Development, said the Kurik House, previously owned by former City Council member Jerry McGrane, will be moved one lot to the corner and will be restored, with commercial space on the lower level and an apartment on the second floor.
“It was just sitting there,” Barrigar said of the home. “It was really a magnificent structure before the flood and it just seemed a shame to tear it down.”
Five row houses, called “The Row Houses On Second,” will be built next to the home on Second Street SE, with four mixed-use, two-story “work/live” units being built on Third Street SE. The project will cover most of the square block between Second and Third streets and 10th and 11th avenues SE.
Barrigar said construction of the row houses will begin this summer, after the Kurik House is moved about 60 feet to the south within the next four to six weeks.
Both Barrigar and Stephen said historic tax credits will make restoration of the buildings financially feasible.
DeBoom said most often, it is preservationists who see an older building’s potential.
“But in New Bo, preservationist developers are seeing a real economic need to restore what’s left,” she said. “With so many buildings now torn down and demand for rental space far out-pacing available properties, every building still standing is invaluable.”
DeBoom, who is restoring a home near Little Bohemia, said the buildings are “authentic pieces of a historic neighborhood that draw people who want an authentic experience.”
The buildings also are valuable investments as historic tax credit projects, she said, noting that she has had so many inquiries about renting space that she wishes she had more to offer.
“The Hach building, because of its size, rich history, and location, leaves a huge gap in the neighborhood,” DeBoom said. “On the heels of that loss I’d hate to see the Vondracek buildings disappear too.”