‘Old Blue House’ going away party
WRAC (130 N Madison St.) — Thursday, Dec. 3 at 4:30 p.m.
At the top of the notoriously steep hill overlooking the University of Iowa’s Iowa Memorial Union, a semi truck driver parks his vehicle to make a delivery. Moments after walking toward the Pappajohn Business Building, the driver notices something was amiss: his unattended truck, carrying 200 to 300 gallons of fuel, was in motion once again. The vehicle hurtled down Market Street until it jumped the curb and crashed into the northeast corner of a little blue house. This building was—and still remains—home to the Women’s Resource and Action Center (WRAC), a feminist organization that has served University of Iowa students and Iowa City community members since 1971.
In 1994, current WRAC Director Linda Kroon was working on her computer when the fuel truck careened into her office. Buried under plaster and diesel fuel, Kroon was the only person injured, later noting, “I was very fortunate; I didn’t have any broken bones, no internal injuries.” However, she wasn’t the only thing pulled out of the debris: stacks of corn cobs were discovered in the caved-in walls. When the small blue house was built in 1892, those cobs were commonly used as insulation—the update insulation placed in the walls after the crash is one of only a few real renovations the building has received in its long lifespan.
WRAC has operated out of this house since 1976, and these days, around 12,000 people pass in and out of the blue house’s front door each year. It offers support groups, counseling services, victim advocacy and a variety of training programs. “It’s a long list,” Kroon said. “We also host things within Iowa City—the women’s music festival and poetry readings and film discussions. Lots and lots of groups meet here.”
“We’re never going to be an office where you walk in and there’s a bunch of cubicles—that doesn’t suit what we do.” — Linda Kroon
So many clubs hold meetings in the WRAC that Kroon was worried she would forget some when asked to list them all. In the ‘90s, the WRAC brought author Leslie Feinberg to Iowa City for a reading of her famous novel, Stone Butch Blues. During the reception afterwards, Kroon recalls how there were so many people packed into the small blue house that many were waiting outside on the sidewalk. Even if the house is too small for some events, Kroon said the WRAC prides itself on “being a place where people can come together and start organizations that give back to the community.”
The WRAC’s staff size has increased to six full-time and seven part-time workers, compared to zero paid employees for its first five years. Kroon said there was a huge surge in volunteers this fall, bringing up the count to 100. This is such a large increase that it has been impossible to hold fall trainings in the WRAC itself—new volunteers have to be trained in other places like the Lindquist Center or the Iowa Memorial Union. “There are record numbers of new folks showing up and wanting to be involved, but the house isn’t getting any bigger and it’s in bad shape,” Kroon said.
Many aspects of the building have been haphazardly adapted to suit the new occupants’ needs. The narrow, private staircases toward the back of the house that Kroon jokingly refers to as the “servants’ quarters” have been blocked off by wood and converted into storage areas. What was once a small, quaint kitchen is now a crammed office shared between two people. Old sink plumbing hookups are still prominent in the room, placed in a way that ensures toes are always stubbed. A back room that was added on sometime in the 1940s is multi-functional, holding a large number of desks for staff and an open space for meetings and other events. Upstairs, old bedrooms have become counseling areas complete with soothing paintings, most of which Kroon said were gifted to the WRAC. After walking through most of the house, I was overwhelmed with stark reminders of WRAC’s dire state: peeling paint clumped in the corners of rooms, antiquated items like the Detex watchclock rusting away on the wall, torn screen doors upon torn screen doors piled up in the basement. A thriving organization confined by its debilitating environment.
Nobody goes in the basement because it is “gross and moldy,” according to Kroon. After going down there, I showed her a photo of a strange brown fungus coming out of the wall. She laughed nervously and said she was “glad that [the WRAC] is moving soon.” A porch on the side of the house has been blocked off for nearly three years, with a makeshift sign declaring it closed for repair—a euphemism for “condemned.” The main hangout area’s vintage carpet conceals an asbestos tile floor. The spacious upstairs attic, while a bit scary and hard to climb up into, is home to a single box of Xerox paper. Decades-old air conditioning units have taken up window space ever since the house was retrofitted for central air around 2005. Kroon said she is thankful for the modern commodities in the house. “Apparently if you had one [of the old AC units] on in the room, you couldn’t actually have a conversation because it was too loud,” she said. It’s unlikely that the WRAC will ever turn the air conditioning on again, however. By the time the weather warms up, the organization will have moved to a new house.
Finding a new home
Kroon said the university has a long-term redevelopment plan for this area of campus—one that does not include the old blue house. She said the WRAC members have known for the last 10 years that they would have to move, and they’ve been looking for a place that would fit their specific needs. The good news? They’ve found one. During the first week of January, WRAC will move to the Bowman house across from Daum Residence Hall on Clinton Street, and the house on Madison Street will be demolished in March.
The community will have one last chance to say farewell, however, as WRAC hosts a going away party at the Madison Street house from 4:30-7 p.m. on Dec. 3.
In the meantime, the Bowman house is undergoing a series of crucial renovations. Kroon said all sorts of people, whether they use the WRAC for its services or stop in to the house to rest between classes, seem to be happy that the center is moving into to another house instead of an office.
“I think they value that feeling of homeyness and informality,” she said. “We’re never going to be an office where you walk in and there’s a bunch of cubicles—that doesn’t suit what we do.”
Even though this 123-year-old house has a death sentence, its charm still holds strong. Intricately spiraled woodwork adorns thebaseboards and walls, and Kroon said it is quite unusual to find this level of craftsmanship in modern houses. High ceilings make the small house seem lofty, and the original door’s daunting weight creates a sense of importance when entering the WRAC. The grand staircase dominates the front of the house, bringing a refined air and inviting guests to tread upstairs and peer through the antique green and yellow stained glass window.
Ages ago, one may have been able to spot a neighbor coming home from a hard day’s work through this window. Now, there’s simply a view of cars coming in and out of the parking garage next door.
James Hirsch is a first year-student at the University of Iowa, and former reporter for the Daily Iowan. This article originally appeared in Little Village issue 188.