Looking back: Marybeth Slonneger’s new book about Iowa City history is half time capsule, half love song

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Stop by Prairie Lights Bookstore on Sunday, Nov. 22 at 3 p.m. for a special Finials reading featuring several of the retrospective’s contributors.

Finials - Hamburg Inn
Hamburg Inn, originally built in the 1930s around a blacksmith shed on Iowa Avenue — photo via Finials

By Gemma de Choisy and Kent Williams

Iowa City is home to some 71,591 of us (give or take a census). To Marybeth Slonneger, it’s more—a 176-year-old ongoing public art project. Slonneger holds degrees in art history, book arts and photography. “All those things come together for the books I’ve done,” she told me when we met at Wetherby House, the former home of 19th Century Iowa City photographer Isaac Wetherby. Like Slonneger’s three previous books — Small But Ours: Images and Stories from a Nineteenth Century Bohemian Neighborhood, Wetherby’s Gallery: Painting, Daguerreotypes, & Ambrotypes of an Artist and The Burg: A Writer’s Diner — her newest release Finials: A View of Downtown Iowa City, combines photographs of downtown Iowa City with a collection of essays reflecting on the town’s abiding beauty.

Slonneger bought and restored Wetherby House when it was threatened with demolition—an act of love that speaks to her impulse towards preservation, which is something she has in common with Finials‘ financiers. The book’s publication was sponsored by the Iowa City Friends of Historic Preservation (ICFHP) as part of the organization’s 40th anniversary celebration. The ICFHP was originally formed as the Friends of Old Brick, who came together to prevent the destruction of the historic Market Street brick church.

Photo via Finials
Finials is full of photographs dating back to the mid 19th century. — photo via Finials

The book was, in fact, inspired by recent controversies in Iowa City about development and preservation. Finials, Slonneger says, “reflects on my part the wish to try to do something positive after all the tension because of the railroad cottages being torn down,” she said, “and the controversy about the fourteen-story super-buildings going up.” The friction that debate inspired at recent city council meetings plays no small part in the book’s make up.

Finials is filled with photographs dating back to 1854, separated chronologically and thematically by seventeen essays written by various Iowa Citians, including recently the recently elected  City Councilor Rockne Cole and the recently re-elected Jim Throgmorton.  Both men’s contributions are less essay than soapbox polemic. Throgmorton addressed those contentious City Council meetings and the recent Tax Increment Financing (TIF) controversy directly. “Relentlessly focused on increasing the tax base, this map,” he writes, referring to a vision of Iowa City he dubs “Urban Renewal 2.0,” “charts a course toward a city accentuated by 15-story mixed-use buildings that attract wealthy households and Internet-savvy Millennials (the mythical “creative class”) while marginalizing others.” Cole, meanwhile, writes, “Too often the debate about preservation is often cast as a struggle between the nostalgic idealists longing for a bygone era and the sober minded realists focusing on the immediate needs to ‘grow our tax base.’”

Slonneger had more romantic concerns. “I was interested in going to the earliest photographs and the original way the city was,” Slonneger said of her mission. “The the initial unity of the downtown, the scale and the aesthetics of it, what were people concerned with.” In her research she found, “wonderful detail on buildings, and a lot of craftsmanship, a lot of care.” She drew from the expertise of the State Historical Society’s Mary Bennett, to whom Finials is dedicated, and the vast resources of the University of Iowa Library’s Special Collections, where she gathered a great deal of material from donated student photo albums.

Following a stirring, lyric examination of Iowa City’s geologic and geographic history by Marlin R. Ingalls (arguably the most moving and least politicized contribution to the book), Slonneger quotes cultural critic and essayist Cynthia Ozick: “It’s a very strange American amnesiac development to put all experience in the present tense, without memory, or history, or a past. What is ‘past?’ One damn thing after another. What is history? Judgement and interpretation.”

The quote’s inclusion is a judgement and interpretation in it’s own right. The Urban Renewal projects that took place in Iowa City in the 1970s and 1980s marked a huge change in downtown Iowa City, Slonneger recalls. “The city really took a hit when Urban Renewal began,” she said. “Up until that happened, the city was intact.” The Old Capitol Town Center and the Pedestrian Mall are the main legacy of those urban renewal efforts, and the Hotel Vetro building is on the site of what was a vacant lot for almost 40 years.

“There’s always change,” Slonneger concedes, “but there’s also the beauty of retaining something with historic merit…I’ve left the argument open for people to look through and make up their own mind as to whether these things are beautiful enough, important enough and historic enough to hang on to.”

Gemma de Choisy is proto-nostalgic. Kent Williams is drawing a blank. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 188.

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