Public Space One purchases historic Iowa City mansion

The Close House, an historic landmark on 538 S Gilbert St in Iowa City, is the new home of Public Space One. — Jason Smith/Little Village

Public Space One bought a mansion.

To be more specific, PS1 is expanding into the Close House, a historic building on the well-trekked corner of South Gilbert and Bowery streets in downtown Iowa City. The purchase marks a bold new chapter for the arts nonprofit, which spent the better part of the last decade in a basement, as well as for the Close House, which has survived nearly 15 decades in Iowa City and is set to become more accessible than ever.

The PS1 Board of Directors began searching for a new location this winter, one that could serve as a temporary home for visiting artists as well as a dynamic gallery space. The Close House was among the downtown listings, but wasn’t seriously considered at first, according to PS1 Executive Director John Englebrecht.

Could a local nonprofit really hope to purchase a restored Victorian mansion (listed for $1.35 million) at one of the busiest intersections downtown — in a pandemic, no less?

But the possibilities were too tempting for Englebrecht to ignore.

“I remember the email,” he told Little Village. “I was like, ‘I don’t think we’d be dreaming our best dream if we didn’t at least just take a tour of this place and imagine it.’”

Months of tours, talks and imagination later, that dream is set to come true.

Public Space One

An early outreach event for PS1 in 2004, co-organized by United Action for Youth. — courtesy of Public Space One

As one might expect, space is an important feature for Public Space One. University of Iowa students looking for an off-campus locale to stage a play launched the organization in 2002, working out of a donated space above the Deadwood.

PS1 spent its first decade expanding its multidisciplinary, DIY mission, hosting art exhibitions, workshops, performances and other events in locations around town, from the UI’s Jefferson Building to the Wesley Center on N Dubuque Street.

In 2012, the group established “Iowa’s only community-access printmaking studio,” as they referred to it, today called the Iowa City Press Co-op. Four years later, the Center for Afrofuturist Studies (CAS) was born, providing a residency for artists of color in Iowa City — especially those working within the blossoming Afrofuturism movement.

As PS1 began to outgrow its space in the Wesley Center basement, the Wesley Center began to outgrow PS1.

“In February of 2019, PS1 was looking at being kicked out of our space in the Wesley Center and not having any back-up location secured,” Englebrecht said. “The art world is always precarious.”

Decisions performs at Public Space One in January 2019. — Jason Smith/Little Village
PS1’s Sweet 16 auction in 2019. — Talitha Ford/Little Village

Some of their programs could move online (and many were forced to in March 2020 with the COVID-19 lockdown) or rotate venues rather than work out of a permanent brick-and-mortar location. But Public Space One’s mission is hard to fulfill without a public space, Englebrecht said.

“Having a physical location can really give the community a home that allows for more people to be involved and more visibility and more points of access,” he explained. “If there’s a community of artists, and they all exist in a nomadic or a virtual space, that can be a difficult ‘place’ for someone to find.”

With support from the City of Iowa City, PS1 secured a space of its own — two, actually — in 2019, purchasing a pair of historic houses in the heart of Iowa City’s Northside neighborhood. The house at 225 N Gilbert St is the new home of the Iowa City Press Co-op, complete with classrooms, workrooms and a retail space, while 229 N Gilbert hosts a gallery and reception space, archive and CAS reading room.

The front yards have been transformed into a garden gallery space, which has come in handy in the age of social distancing. PS1 has rotated through a range of outdoor exhibitions since 2019, one featuring pieces made solely of recycled materials, another bold racial justice messages displayed among the flora of the gardens.

“It’s gonna take time for us to convince anyone who passes by that our yards are as much theirs as they are ours,” Englebrecht said. “We want it to be a 24/7 community space, thinking of it as an art park, if you will. But that’s a new relationship for people because they see houses and they’re used to residential rules: ‘I have to stay on the sidewalk.’ [We’re] really hoping to invite people in and see it as more of a common space.”

Kymbyrly Koesters tends to the Public Space One garden in July 2020. — Jason Smith/Little Village

As another public service, Public Access Television, met its end in 2019, PS1 acquired PATV’s space and materials to create the Media Arts Co-op. Multimedia artists are welcome to utilize the cameras, computers, production studios and other resources for their projects.

All this growth has created conundrums, Englebrecht said. The nonprofit would prefer to offload PATV’s old location and move the Media Arts Co-op into a more tailored space. They also hoped to create a residency apartment at 229 N Gilbert — for the current CAS resident and other visitors — but zoning issues halted that project.

“We often have had visual artists who come and install work, and they’re here for three or four days. And we have to find places for them to stay, usually with board members in their guestrooms, or couches, or my couch or basement,” Engelbrecht lamented.

Something that piqued their interest in the Close House right away: “There is an apartment up there,” Engelbrecht said, referring to the third-floor, one-bedroom unit. “That could be full-time visiting artist space. And that could be an artist residency.”

PS1 Executive Director John Engelbrecht stands in the Close House parking lot, in front of the carriage house. — Jason Smith/Little Village

“It has a carriage house; we could build a TV studio that is separate from [the rest of the house] which could be good for sound,” he continued.

“It started to make sense on a functionality level.”

The Close House was also tempting for its location and historic status. PS1 could democratize a mansion that once housed one of Iowa City’s wealthiest families.

“This would be a really visible, iconic place,” Englebrecht said. “A city that calls itself the greatest small city for the arts kind of deserves a really iconic place to be its art center.”

Iowa City industrialists

Today, the area around South Gilbert and Bowery is home to beloved restaurants — such as the Vine, Mosley’s and Shakespeare’s — and 20th century homes and buildings housing a largely student population.

But in the mid-19th century, it was the center of a small industrial empire.

New York native Chalmer D. Close, also called C.D., joined his brother Manley T. Close in Iowa City in 1854. The two partnered up to open a successful candle, soap and lard factory on Gilbert Street.

A photo of Chalmer D. Close sits on one of eight mantles in the Close House, the mansion he had built in 1874. — Jason Smith/Little Village

By 1861, the Close brothers founded a linseed oil mill, also on Gilbert, over which C.D. and his sons eventually took full control. Linseed oil, derived from flax seeds, is used in varnishes, oil paints, putty and linoleum, and can be consumed as a omega-3 fatty acid-rich dietary supplement. The mealy byproduct of the oil synthesizing process was often exported to the U.K. for animal feed, bringing in additional income.

With Southern cotton seed in short supply during the Civil War, the market price of flax seed skyrocketed, encouraging local farmers to grow more flax. “By 1868, Johnson County alone devoted 3,750 acres to flax growing,” historian Irving Weber wrote in his series Irving Weber’s Iowa City.

“The linseed oil mills of C.D. Close and Son are among the staunchest business enterprises of Iowa City,” the Iowa City Republican noted on June 21, 1887. “When times are dull and other houses and manufactories shut down, Mr. Close keeps his mills going, giving constant employment to about forty men. They made a fine quality of linseed oil, which finds a ready sale.”

M.T. Close opened a paper mill in Coralville in the mid-1860s to utilize another byproduct of the oil mill, flax straw. The water-powered plant was located near the future site of the Coralville Dam, and produced six tons of paper every 24 hours. It also experienced one of the area’s worst disasters: In 1875, a chemical accident in the mill caused an explosion, killing six workers instantly and sending their bodies flying up to 100 feet in the air. Needless to say, that was the end of the Close Paper Mill.

A rendering of the water-powered Close Paper Mill in Coralville, 1865-1875. — courtesy of the State Historical Society

The oil mill, on the other hand, went the way of many successful American businesses: It was absorbed by a larger corporation. In the late 1880s, the National Linseed Oil Co. bought the C.D. Close & Co. mill, in addition to the Cedar Rapids Linseed Oil Co. The conglomerate would eventually face an antitrust lawsuit from the Illinois Attorney General.

C.D. Close died of pneumonia in the spring of 1890. His wife Helen wasted little time in cultivating his legacy; by summer, she had donated $10,000 in C.D.’s memory (nearly $300,000 in 2021) to the building of a new multi-purpose facility on the University of Iowa campus. Hers was the single largest donation, so the final $35,000, three-story building was called Close Hall.

Close Hall played a historic role at the university. It contained a YMCA and YWCA, the UI School of Journalism, the Daily Iowan newspaper (founded in 1868), typesetting machines, printing presses, physical education courses and, in 1896, the first collegiate five-on-five basketball game in U.S. history (the University of Chicago beat Iowa, 15-12). Close Hall experienced a devastating fire on New Year’s Day 1940 and was rebuilt as a one-story structure, but soon fell into virtual disuse. It was demolished in the late ’60s. UI’s Biology Building East was built on the former Close Hall site.

In 1898, National Linseed Oil Co. shut down the Closes’ old plant on 521 S Gilbert. It was bought up by Thomas C. Carson, who converted the mill into a grain elevator and warehouse. The building sold again in 1920, becoming a sheet metal and roofing business; in 1926, a carpentry shop. In the ’30s it became a bottling firm, oil heater and sheet metal manufacturing plant, and finally the home of O’Brien Electric Company.

Over time, the historic façade, floors and features had been stripped away, and in 1995 the South Gilbert Warehouse, as it was known, was removed from the National Register of Historic Places due to “loss of integrity.” Chef Bryan Herzic opened Orchard Green Restaurant and Lounge in the building in 2009, where it remains today.

Close to home

The Close House, photographed in ‘Irving Weber’s Iowa’ — courtesy of the State Historical Society

C.D. and Helen Close’s family home was built kitty-corner across the street from the Close linseed oil mill in 1874, costing around $15,000 — approximately $360,000 today. German artisan August Hozelhorst was tapped as the mansion’s contractor, and designed the Close House in the trendy Italianate style of the day, characterized by imposing cornices, tall first-floor windows, ornate corbels and other features reminiscent of Renaissance architecture. You can find mansions of similar appearance in Decorah, Davenport, Maquoketa, Keokuk and Pella, all built in the latter half of the 19th century. The cornice work — the intricate molding on the exterior of the building — was done by Thomas Morrison, father of notable Iowa City pharmacist William W. Morrison.

“It is significant that even in the mid 1870’s, Close built as opulent home [sic] next to his industrial ventures,” Laurence Davis Lafore wrote in the 1973 National Register application for the Close House. “This may indicate that there was no clear distinction between ‘work’ and other aspects of life — a distinction which is now sharp.”

In addition to facilitating a short commute, there was another clever advantage to the home-work proximity: pipes were run under Gilbert Street between the mill and the mansion, providing the Close home with steam heat.

In case the house still wasn’t warm enough for the Closes, it had eight fireplaces, four on the first floor with marble mantles and huge walnut mirrors above them, and one in each of the four second-floor bedrooms. A walnut staircase winds up the building’s three stories, in addition to a basement (including a cistern) and an attic that leads to a widow’s walk and cupola with a great view. There was a second-floor balcony, three restrooms, servant’s quarters, a library, a billiards and chess room and a spacious carriage house and horse stable.

C.D. and Helen raised their three daughters and son in the mansion. Daughter Emma Close went on to marry an heir to another local entrepreneurial family, Hal Stewart of the Stewart Shoe Store family.

Three generations of the Closes called the mansion home. It briefly housed the Acacia Fraternity, from 1923 to ’29, before returning to the Close-Stewart family’s possession. The house was sold to the county on April 24, 1941, for $4,800 (about $89,000 today), becoming the Johnson County Department of Social Services.

The Close House, photographed in the 1970s. — courtesy of the State Historical Society

By its 100th birthday in the 1970s, the Close House was practically unrecognizable. Its most distinctive features — the widow’s walk, glassed-in cupola, balcony, ornate entrance columns — had been removed, and the interior had fallen into disrepair.

“The Close House, now the property of Johnson County, is deteriorating and subject to imminent abandonment and perhaps destruction by the County,” read the National Register application.

Approval of this application saved the Close House from demolition, but it was the Skaugstads that restored its character. Charles and Sheryl Skaugstad bought the Close House in an auction on March 21, 1980, for $174,000 (roughly $578,000, adjusted for inflation). They opened an interior design studio and furniture showroom on the first floor, renting out the upstairs bedrooms as offices. Meanwhile, the Skaugstads spearheaded an extensive restoration process, following the historic preservation guidelines of the National Register and Iowa City Historic Preservation Commission. Crystal chandeliers, vintage wallpaper, beautiful wood floors, functional kitchen and bathroom fixtures, a new 26-foot cupola for the roof — these renovations helped bring a sense of history and elegance back to the Close House, which the Skaugstads called “The Mansion.”

Jason Smith/Little Village
Jason Smith/Little Village

“They’ve done a really good job kind of bringing it back to life, because I think it was in pretty rough shape in the ’70s and early ’80s,” Engelbrecht said.

In January 2019, the Skaugstads moved their showroom to its current location on 12th Avenue in Coralville. By 2021, the Close House was back on the market, listed for $1.35 million by Blank & McCune and boasting 7,572 square feet of commercial space.

‘Does this feel like our place?’

It’s hard to walk by the Close House and not feel the urge to peek inside its huge, dome-topped windows.

The idea of throwing open the doors to the community is certainly attractive to Public Space One’s board.

“You don’t have to pretend like you’re buying a fancy sofa,” Engelbrecht said of a PS1-owned Close House. “If you want to come and walk around our gallery, it will be open and free to visit.”

The juxtaposition between accessible, cutting-edge art and opulent mansion should enhance many of their shows, he added.

“I think people think of us and we think of ourselves in a lot of ways as this kind of raw work-in-process art space. And having a, for lack of a better word, ‘fancy’ new building will definitely challenge what people think of [us].”

But the house would need to adapt to PS1, too. It currently lacks an ADA-accessible bathroom on the first floor (though there is a fascinating little washroom tucked under the staircase, its entrance obscured by wallpaper patterned to look like a bookshelf). There is no elevator to access the upper floors — where they plan to rent out studio space, host the occasional event and house visiting artists/residents — and the estimated cost of installing one is around a quarter-million dollars, Engelbrecht said.

Before inviting anyone in, they also need to install a ramp to make the building itself ADA accessible. The carriage house, an ideal home for the Media Arts Co-op, is still full of construction supplies and old furnishings.

“Our board did talk a lot about, like, does this feel like our place?” Engelbrecht said. “Maybe this has to do with our really broad definition of art, but we feel like any space that we can bring people into and bring artists into and reimagine is a really interesting opportunity.”

Inside the front door of the Close House. — Jason Smith/Little Village

On March 28 this year, the board officially voted to put in a $1.25 million offer on the house, which was accepted. They plan to begin moving in in October, and they are tentatively preparing to debut the new space in 2022.

“Owning the Close House means that PS1 will have 10,000 square feet to program art out,” Englebrecht said. “We’re investing in ourselves knowing that this building is going to be important to Iowa City as long as it’s a city.”

Editor’s note: Two member of Little Village’s staff, publisher Genevieve Trainor and video editor Jason Smith, sit on Public Space One’s board of directors.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly named Skogman as the listing agency for the Close House. This has been corrected to show that it was listed by Blank & McCune.

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