House built more than 150 years ago on Iowa City’s north side to be torn down

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House at 603 E Market St, built before 1867. April 2, 2019. — Jav Ducker/Little Village

A demolition permit has been issued for the house that has stood at the corner for E Market and N Johnson Streets in Iowa City for more than 150 years. The house is still in good shape, but Mercy Iowa City, which bought the property for $240,000 in November, has no use for the structure.

The house is located one block from Mercy Iowa City’s hospital building, and its previous owner, an admirer of Mercy’s work, approached the hospital about buying it, Margaret Reese, president of the Mercy Hospital Foundation and director of communications for Mercy Iowa City, explained in an email to Little Village.

“Mercy purchased it because it offers an opportunity to expand services eventually, although there is no plan in place at the present time. In the near term it will be turned into green space,” Reese said. “The [previous] owner stipulated that the house not be turned into rental units.”

Exactly when the house at 603 E Market St was built is unclear, but according to records in the Iowa City Assessor’s Office, the two-story structure was already standing in 1867, when the original owner built a one-story, 28-square-foot addition to the house. That owner, Peter Roberts, is a significant figure in the early history of Iowa City.

Roberts was born in Bucks County, Pennsylvania in 1809. He settled in Iowa City in 1841, 12 years before the city was officially incorporated. When the city’s government was finally created in 1853, Roberts became one of the original members of the city council. He served on the council until his death in 1878.

Demolition notice on 603 E Market St, April 2, 2019. — Jav Ducker/Little Village

Roberts was a cabinet maker by profession, and among his jobs was work for the Iowa legislature, first convened in Iowa City in 1846. The Acts and Resolutions Passed at the First Session of the General Assembly of the State of Iowa lists three payments to Roberts — two for $12, “for making desk and case for supreme court” and “for stove pipe furnished general assembly,” and one for the unusual amount of “three dollars and sixty-two 1-2 cents” for “repairing and fixing desks in senate chamber.”

He was also an original member of the Old Settlers’ Association of Johnson County, and when the group adopted a formal structure in 1866, Roberts was appointed to be its secretary.

Roberts married Maria Cox, a widow living in Iowa City, in 1846. The couple remained together until Maria’s death in 1871. They had two children, William and Maria. William died during childhood. Maria married James Stuart, a postal inspector, in 1870, and the couple later moved to Chicago.

The Roberts lived at 603 E Market St until 1869, when the house was sold to Herman and Bertha Lorenz.

Despite its age, the house had never been listed as a historic property. A garage was added to the property in 1960, and by the time Mary Stewart bought the house in 1989, its living space had been divided into two units which were being rented out. Mercy purchased it from the Mary Stewart Inter Vivos Trust, which took over the title to the property in 2008.

Reese said Mercy was sensitive to the age of the house, while drawing up its demolition plans.

“We paid to have all asbestos and hazardous materials removed and then invited the Salvage Barn and ReStore to come in and remove whatever they wanted,” she said. “They removed quite a bit including trim, doors, hardware, appliances, radiators and more. We delayed the process towards demolition until their work could be completed.”

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Mercy will also have an architectural historian document the house during the demolition process, according to Reese.

In her email, Reese noted that Mercy “has sold four other properties in the neighborhood to the City of Iowa City and the UniverCity program in the last year or so… Our reason for doing this is that we realized that Mercy would not expand in the directions where the properties are located, and we believe that a mix of owner occupied and rentals makes the neighborhood stronger.”

The house that originally belonged to Peter Roberts, 603 E Market St, April. 2, 2019 — Jav Ducker/Little Village

Reese said a date has not yet been fixed for the demolition of 603 E Market St, but the permit issued by the city allows it to begin as early as April 10.

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  1. So sad!!! So much or our history is being destroyed! It just so sad this is happening across the USA!!! For what reason?

  2. Such a shame that we continue to demolish these old structures and demolish history with it. We should be preserving the history of our cities. I’m very disappointed in Mercy Hospital’s decision with this property.

    1. I stand corrected! The Find A Grave record was missing the photos of the headstones of Peter Roberts and his wife Maria B Cox Roberts. I had shot their son’s Williams previously, but had not gotten Peter and Maria. I went out to Oakland today and photographed these two and added them to the Find A Grave records. They have one very large monument which bears the names of Peter, Maria and William in Outlot 3.

  3. I’m almost always for preserving historical properties, but it sound like this place has been carved up a lot, such that it’s preservation hasn’t really been maintained in any fashion where it could be restored to anything resembling its original glory. It doesn’t look particularly interesting, architecturally, and someone would likely need to put a bunch of work into it to make it properly represent its history. Mercy seems to have taken a reasonable approach, allowing what charms of the house that are remaining to find new homes. As sad moments in the destruction of Iowa City history goes, I’m not seeing this as being a tragedy.

    1. I agree with you Brian. It would be nice to mark the spot with a designation of Peter. Just because something is old doesn’t mean it is historic. The siding was horrible, the windows were not original, the roof was blah, the railing along the steps was sad…It had outlived its purpose i would say (plus it was carved up inside into separate rentals.) Historic preservation needs to be done judicially using good judgement.

  4. Please, community, get aware of which historic properties are being bought/sold. Get involved with the Historic Preservation Commission or the Friends organization or ReStore. Support plans that involve repurposing or renovating buildings that are meaningful to you. Donate to nonprofits that help with those buildings, and volunteer at or shop at organizations or businesses that take over the stewardship of historically meaningful buildings.

    I’m not saying there have never been situations in which community support was shut out. I’m not saying anything that happened here is bad, or is the community’s fault.

    Just – if you love the historic character of a thing, support it. Don’t wait for the Little Village eulogy* to react.

    *Little Village, you write such lovely pieces about businesses that are closing and places changing. Keep up the good work. We as a community need to work on making sure you have fewer to write.

  5. This house is an I-house, a folk form with East Coast and English heritages. I-houses have been well-studied by geographers, especially Fred Kniffen (Louisiana State U), but not well studied west of the Mississippi. Folk houses were not “high style” or architect-designed, but crafted through the generations from the memories and skills preserved and handed down. Folk houses are often updated over the years by removal of any decorative bric-a-brac and the application of siding like this one’s 1950s aluminum cladding. This does NOT mean a house isn’t capable of being restored. One just has understand the architectural significance and history of the form, and see beyond the present issues to the hidden potential that still exists. In the case of 630 Market, while it’s good some of the interior was salvaged, a lot of very nice interior door and window trim, with a complex profile, was left behind. That’s a shame. This type of trim isn’t generally available at any reasonable cost these days. The demolition of 630 Market is another example of this town’s ever-healthy economy, rising land costs, developer demand, and lack of appreciation overall for historic architecture.

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