Walking tour to trace what was lost, what remains, 10 years after First Christian Church demolished
By Cindy Hadish/Save CR Heritage
CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa – Ten years after its inception, Save Cedar Rapids Heritage continues the battle to save iconic buildings in the city.
Current efforts focus on buildings such as Wilson Middle School, which is at risk under the Cedar Rapids School District’s facilities master plan.
Even as the nonprofit’s volunteers continue to raise awareness about the school district’s plan, a yearlong commemoration of the group’s 10th anniversary remains underway, with an upcoming walking tour that will showcase the area where Save CR Heritage originated.
Cedar Rapids Historian Mark Stoffer Hunter will take tour-goers back in time during this one-night-only event on Friday, Sept. 23, 2022.
The tour begins at the J.E. Halvorson House, 606 Fifth Ave. SE, the early-1900s home the organization dedicated last year in memory of beloved board member John Erik Halvorson, who was killed by another driver while on his way to work in 2020.
Mercy Medical Center allowed Save CR Heritage to retain the building with the caveat that it be moved in the future. Proceeds from the walking tour and other events, including salvage sales, go towards saving the home, now used as the group’s headquarters.
The walking tours – one at 4 p.m. and one at 5:30 p.m. – will proceed from Fifth Avenue to Third Avenue and 10th Street SE, where demonstrations against the demolition of First Christian Church were held one decade ago.
Sites along the way include century-old apartment complexes and mansions, the former Hawkeye Seed Co. building and surviving churches.
Stoffer Hunter will describe the history behind those sites that still exist and others that have been lost, including the recent demolition of the former Immaculate Conception convent.
Each tour will last approximately 90 minutes.
The walking tour is the latest event that Save CR Heritage has hosted to commemorate its 10th anniversary. Other activities included a tour inside historic buildings surrounding the J.E. Halvorson House, a free window workshop for derecho survivors and homeowners in need of help saving wood-frame windows, and the recent launch of a resource library for owners of older homes.
Save CR Heritage was formed in 2012 by a group of residents in response to the demolition of a local beloved historic building and in an effort to prevent the demolition of First Christian Church, just blocks away.
In October 2011, the city’s oldest church, the 1875-era former People’s Church in downtown Cedar Rapids, was demolished to make way for an office building. It was the first Cedar Rapids building listed on the National Register of Historic Places to be demolished for reasons other than damage from a fire or natural disaster. The loss caught many off guard.
Around the same time and just up the street, First Christian Church was one of several historic buildings slated for demolition to create parking lots for the new Physician’s Clinic of Iowa (PCI) complex. When St. Luke’s Hospital applied for a demolition permit in January 2012, a 60-day hold was placed on the work.
One month into the hold period, local historians discovered something truly remarkable: The church’s 1913 dedication booklet listed nationally recognized architect Louis Sullivan—known as the father of both skyscrapers and modernism—as a project consultant and stained glass artist. It also listed Sullivan-contemporary Louis Millet as the designer of the building’s prairie-style windows and gorgeous sanctuary skylight.
With the demolition of People’s Church still fresh in everyone’s minds, advocates mobilized to make sure First Christian Church wouldn’t meet the same fate.
Funeral-like demonstrations were held daily in front of the church. Behind the scenes, Save CR Heritage applied for its official 501(c)(3) status, began fundraising, and persuaded St. Luke’s Hospital to open the building to interested developers.
There was ample interest from developers, and the city of Cedar Rapids promised $300,000 to the buyer to use toward redevelopment. Then-mayor Ron Corbett was one of several advocates for saving the building and urged St. Luke’s to slow the demolition process while alternative plans were put in place.
Unfortunately, the price placed on the building was too high for interested parties to raise the money for it in such a short period of time. And on May 29, 2012, exactly one week after the 100th anniversary of the building’s groundbreaking, demolition commenced.
While the loss of a Sullivan-Millet building was devastating, Save CR Heritage uses this event to inspire change and work to prevent historic losses in the future.
The group has been behind efforts to encourage the school district to upgrade Wilson Middle School after officials initially stated the nearly century-old building would be demolished to make way for a new middle school.
Cedar Rapids Community School District residents will have a say in proposed changes to the district’s secondary schools when a bond issue comes before voters next spring.
The demolition of the iconic Wilson school would be on a similar level to the city’s 1961 demolition of the landmark Union Depot to make way for downtown parking, and the demolition of First Christian Church, again for parking, more than 50 years later.
Save CR Heritage also continues to ask the School Board to re-examine its elementary schools plan, which calls for the demolition and closure of multiple elementary schools.
The walking tour is among the ways Save CR Heritage raises awareness of at-risk buildings and generates an appreciation for what remains.
Save CR Heritage 10th Anniversary Origins Walking Tour with Mark Stoffer Hunter
When: Friday, Sept. 23, 2022, at 4 p.m. and 5:30 p.m.
Where: Start at the J.E. Halvorson House, 606 Fifth Ave. SE (next to Kathy’s Pies) for a wristband
Cost: $10 each, or free with a new annual membership of $25 (one free tour per membership)