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

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.”

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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