Service station undergoes transformation in New Bohemia
By Cindy Hadish/Save CR Heritage
CEDAR RAPIDS — Its small size belies the massive attention a newly restored service station is attracting in New Bohemia.
“There goes another one,” Frank Stephen said, as the driver of a truck slowed down to take a look at the 780-square-foot building, at the corner of Third Street and 16th Avenue SE.
Now used for Red Ball Printing — a boutique screen-printing and T-shirt shop that opened just one month ago — the site was originally known as the Park Fulton Filling Station.
Built in 1939, the filling station, at 1390 Third St. SE, is among the remaining key structures in the Bohemian Commercial Historic District.
Stephen, 36, who owns the building, and Tony Burnett, 33, owner of Red Ball Printing, had the site restored to a 1940’s look, which has piqued the interest of numerous passersby.
“It’s all day long,” Stephen said of the traffic that invariably slows down in front of the shop. “They’ll pull up and look in the windows.”
Like the rest of New Bohemia, the building, which served as a used car lot after decades as a service station, was inundated with floodwaters in 2008. It sat vacant for the next six years, and, as many homes and businesses were demolished in the historic district, advocates worried what might become of the filling station.
Cedar Rapids historian, Mark Stoffer Hunter, said the service station was long known as Zitek’s, or Zitek Skelly Service.
The late Lumir “Chic” Zitek, who served in the U.S. Army during World War II, was the owner-operator for 30 years.
After the 2008 flood, the building was purchased at a tax sale. The new owner decided to sell to Stephen, who owns A Touch of Class Banquet Hall & Catering, after hearing his restoration ideas.
Both Stephen and Burnett are grateful. Even as they met with the owner, motorists would drive up and offer to buy the building, with ideas for a tattoo parlor, motorcycle repair shop, gourmet burger cafe and other dreams for the site.
“There was definitely a lot of interest in the building,” Burnett said. “He was getting a lot of offers, but thankfully, he stuck with us.”
During the past year, the service station has undergone a gradual transition, with layers of white paint removed from the exterior to expose the original tan brickwork.
“The brick was in pretty bad shape,” Stephen said. “Part of me wanted to tear it down and use new (material) that looked like the original.”
Richard Luther was hired as a consultant on historic tax credits, which can recoup nearly 50 percent of the cost of restoration work, and the State Historic Preservation Office advised a different approach that called for replacing only brick that was unsalvageable, while using a paint that allows the brick to “breathe.”
A local mason was hired to do the work, resulting in the stunning transformation of the structure, which features deep red highlights on windows and other fixtures.
Inside, new in-floor heating and LED lights provide energy efficiency. The floor, where a car-lift was still in the ground, has new painted concrete, and a glass garage door was installed that offers natural light and reflects the station’s heyday in the 1940s.
Stephen said about $100,000 has been spent on the work. Along with the tax credits, they received a facade grant of $4,000 through the Czech Village/New Bohemia Main Street District and are working on another grant.
The two would like to find photos of the service station as it looked in the 1940s or 1950s, but have had no luck so far. In the meantime, they are adding touches from that era, both indoors and out.
A vintage Skelly gas pump installed out front has the price permanently fixed at 44 cents per gallon, which serves as a running joke for visitors. The non-functioning pump — underground gas tanks were removed before the flood — and other Skelly memorabilia came from Del’s Auto Body in rural Cedar Rapids.
An original light pole, restored by The Little Shop in Iowa City, is another point of pride that adds to the retro look of the site.
Oil cans and a Skelly lubester, inside, provide connections to the past, even as new screen-printing equipment and T-shirts point to the current use of the building.
Burnett, a former mortgage and commodities broker and U.S. Army veteran, started his business in 2007 as Shirt Off Your Back Printing.
The Red Ball name is in tribute to the Red Ball Route, a north-south road that passed through Cedar Rapids as it connected St. Louis to St. Paul, Minn., just over a century ago. Telephone poles and other posts along the way were marked with the route’s logo, featuring the image of a red ball.
“That was our nod to history,” Stephen said, “and that’s the whole idea behind doing this building – the history.”
Besides shirts that can be bought off-the-rack, Red Ball Printing offers custom apparel; graphic design; screen printing; embroidery and coming this spring, bicycle rentals.
Burnett and Stephen are both avid cyclists who have been friends since meeting on the same RAGBRAI team years ago.
Burnett’s Bike Rags apparel uses a soft bamboo material with reflective ink and is an offshoot of the printing business.
Much of Burnett’s work comes from other businesses with a recurring need for shirts, such as Parlor City Pub & Eatery, just down Third Street.
“The atmosphere in the neighborhood is more about community,” Burnett said, adding that he sees Red Ball contributing to that ambiance, with benches and bike racks planned.
Scruffy, a rescue dog, and Luke, a Brittany Spaniel, greet customers as the “shop dogs” and add to the welcoming atmosphere of the business that Burnett and Stephen hope carries over, even to those just curious to take a look.
“Some people are brave enough to walk in the door,” Burnett said. “This sat empty for so long and people saw the transition. They want to know what it is.”