Save CR Heritage marks its 10th anniversary amid efforts to preserve old school buildings

The Averill House, 616 Fourth Ave. SE, was the only building of more than a dozen that was saved in 2013, photographed here on Monday, May 9, 2022. The 1906 stucco home was moved to its new location to make room for a medical complex. – Adria Carpenter/Little Village

In October 2011, Cedar Rapids’ oldest church, the People’s Church Unitarian Universalist, was demolished. It was built in 1875 and became the first building listed on the National Register of Historic Places in the city to be razed without sustaining damage from fire or natural disaster. Today, the location is an office building, housing Morgan Stanley Financial Advisors, Clifton Larson Allen and Wellmark.

A few months after People’s Church came down, St. Luke’s Hospital slated the First Christian Church for demolition.

“It was this gorgeous church, beautiful stained-glass windows,” said Cindy Hadish, who was a reporter for the Gazette at that time. “There were huge rallies to try to save it, and the city even backed saving it.”

Community members organized Save CR Heritage, a nonprofit dedicated to historic preservation in Cedar Rapids. But despite widespread community support, no developers stepped forward to purchase the building, and in May 2012, after a few fixtures were salvaged, the 1913 church was demolished.

The stained-glass windows, designed by architect Louis Sullivan, the father of skyscrapers and modernism, are now on display at the Cedar Rapids Public Library.

Although Save CR Heritage lost these two battles, it’s gone on to win others, and this year, the nonprofit is celebrating its 10-year anniversary.

“What we do is advocate for these buildings because they don’t have a voice,” said Hadish. “We think it’s important to preserve our past, but also as a connection to the future. Once it’s gone, it’s gone, and you can’t replicate it.”

Save CR Heritage’s first priority is to keep historic buildings in place. But for buildings that can’t be used for their original purpose, the nonprofit advocates for repurposing or relocating it. And if all else fails, it salvages buildings to keep intact fixtures and other movable parts out of the landfill.

When Hadish was a journalist, she covered the First Christian Church’s demolition. After leaving the Gazette, she used her skills for Save CR Heritage. Hadish later joined the nonprofit’s board of directors, and serves its secretary and communications committee chairperson.

“I think they just assumed that I was on their board because I was going to all the meetings,” she said.

The J.E. Halvorson House, headquarters for Save CR Heritage, is photographed on Monday, May 9, 2022. The building was named after John Erik Halvorson, a board member who was killed by a drunk driver in March 2020. — Adria Carpenter/Little Village

The volunteer-run organization has 10 active board members, as well as teams of volunteers who help salvage buildings and conduct tours. A few hundred people are members of its mailing list, and over 3,000 provide support on their Facebook page, Hadish said.

“When we hear from people during our tours, they’re very supportive of our efforts, and they want more of this. They want more buildings to be saved. They want more tours. They want to know about the history of this community,” she said. “Some are new transplants to Cedar Rapids, and some have been here for a long time. You want things to be saved and keep that connection to the past.”

Last year, the group dedicated the J.E. Halvorson House — an historic house it rescued from demolition, moved and restored — as its first headquarters. The 117-year-old house is named in honor of John Erik Halvorson, a board member who was killed in a car crash in March 2020, and its rooms are filled salvaged materials. Solid doors and windows are stacked in the living room. The bathrooms have sinks and a clawfoot bathtub. These items are sold to raise funds for Save CR Heritage’s preservation work.

In addition to advocacy, Save CR Heritage holds educational events and programs. Two years after the derecho, many homes still have broken screens and windows, so the nonprofit will host a window workshop this summer. This will help save people money, as well as promote sustainability, Hadish said.

“We want to help people maintain their own homes, and that’s one of our goals for this summer.”

Earlier this year, Save CR Heritage volunteers helped clean and reopen the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Constructed in 1874, it is the oldest Black church in Cedar Rapids.

The Bethel AME Church, Cedar Rapids’ oldest Black congregation, is photographed on Monday, May 9, 2022. Construction at this location began in 1874, and the current brick structure was built in 1931. — Adria Carpenter/Little Village

Even as Save CR Heritage helped save dozens of buildings, hundreds of others have been lost. Just across the street from its headquarters, five 1900s-era buildings were razed to build a high-rise apartment.

“That’s just the mindset in Cedar Rapids, just you know, ‘These are expendable. We’ll just wipe the slate clean, and start over, and build new,’” Hadish said. “You lose the character of the neighborhood. The character of this neighborhood is almost gone, and people don’t have that appreciation, that connection to the past.”

But it’s not just the past, she explained. The erasure of local history affects our future.

“I think it’s a loss for people of your generation, future generations, too,” she said. “I think a lot of young people like yourself do appreciate older buildings and just the unique character of them.”

Garfield Elementary School, an Egyptian revival building, is one of the eight elementary schools that will be closed, photographed on Monday, May 9, 2022. — Adria Carpenter/Little Village

Right now, Save CR Heritage is fighting against the closure, or destruction and replacement, of 18 elementary schools, including Garfield Elementary, a rare Egyptian revival structure that opened in 1915. The Cedar Rapids Community School District’s Board of Education unanimously adopted the Facilities Master Plan in 2018, which calls for demolishing and replacing 10 schools, closing eight and renovating three.

Save CR Heritage collected 597 petition signatures, well over the required 500 under Iowa law, to place Garfield’s closure on the board’s agenda. Hadish says this will give Cedar Rapids residents a voice. The school board didn’t address Garfield during their May 9 meeting, but the board did adopt the OPN Architects, Inc.’s proposal for design and construction of the new elementary school to replace Arthur Elementary in a 6-1 vote.  A discussion of Garfield’s closure is the agenda for a special board meeting on Monday, May 16, at 5:30 p.m.

The school board has previously faced criticism over whether it has done enough to get public input on the master plan. In March of this year, the CRCSD held six community input sessions and four staff input sessions. Hadish attended two in-person sessions at Garfield and Harrison. Turnout was low, about 24 people total, including children, she said.

“When I was out canvassing the neighborhood, I talked to a lot of parents. Some of them didn’t even know the school was going to be closed, which I find outrageous,” she said. “Neighbors are very worried about what’s going to happen. Is it just going to sit there and become an eyesore? Is it going to be demolished there? There’s no plans in place.”

CRCSD argues that the older designs of these schools don’t support “open, collaborative learning,” that repairs and maintenance are too expensive and the schools aren’t in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ACT).

Hadish, a member of the CRCSD facilities master plan task force, said the board’s decision is driven by “the bottom line.”

“We’re not opposed to making them accessible, putting in an elevator or whatever you need, but to tear down a building just because somebody doesn’t like the carpet? It’s beyond imagination,” she said. “The best communities are the ones that have walkable grocery stores and schools and places where you can do business, and we seem to be forgetting that with our schools.”

The task force’s next target is the middle schools, she said.

“Right down the street is McKinley Middle School. That’s about 100 years old. There were four of them that were built in that era, and they could be on the chopping block,” she said. “People say, ‘Oh, it could be apartments or something else,’ but to find a developer to turn all these old buildings into apartment buildings is just wishful thinking.”

McKinley Middle School, photographed on Monday, May 9, 2022. McKinley, along with four other historic middle schools, could be next on the list for closure. — Adria Carpenter/Little Village

Hadish’s kids are in their early 20s, but they went to an “old” elementary and middle school in Cedar Rapids.

“They remember their teachers … I don’t think they’ve ever made a comment about the buildings,” she said. “To say that you can’t learn in an old building is rather ridiculous.”

Hadish doesn’t anticipate that the school board will change its mind, even if it hears from hundreds of parents and residents, but she thinks it’s important for people to have a voice in preserving the schools and their history. As Save CR Heritage celebrates their 10th anniversary, Hadish hopes that everyone will see the value of local history.

“I wish we didn’t have to exist. It would be nice if we didn’t have to salvage buildings anymore or advocate for old buildings,” she said. “They just don’t build them like this. Once it’s gone, it’s gone.”

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