The Johnson County Courthouse as seen on 12 Sept. 2017. The structure has served as an Iowa City landmark since its completion in 1901. (James Year/The Daily Iowan)

Iowa City to Assess Downtown’s Architectural History


Community members gathered in Englert Theater Tuesday night to discuss a survey being done of 115 Iowa City properties to assess whether they qualify as historical landmarks, or whether the area as a whole can be a historic district.

By Paige Schlichte

The Iowa City Downtown District houses many historically significant buildings, and a new survey of approximately 115 properties aims to protect their history.

Alexa McDowell, an architectural historian of AKAY Consulting in Minneapolis, has been hired by the city to update the “2001 Survey and Evaluation of Iowa City Central Business District” to include the changes downtown has undergone in the past 16 years.

The properties that will be surveyed are located within the boundaries of Iowa Avenue on the north, Gilbert Street on the east, Burlington Street on the south, and Clinton Street on the west.

 Ginalie Swaim, the chairwoman of the Iowa City Historic Preservation Commission, said a survey by an architectural historian is required to assess the conditions, history, and architecture of the buildings to determine if any of the structures can be designated as historical landmarks or if the area as a whole can be designated a historic district.

“Historic areas draw people in,” Swaim said. “It’s a positive economic factor, and we want downtown to continue to thrive. So we need to reassess what we have and share that information with the public.”

The public was invited to a meeting at Englert Theater, 221 E. Washington St., Tuesday night to learn about the survey and hear a presentation by McDowell.

“It’s obvious to people who come here that we’re in a special place,” McDowell said. “The goal of this project is to look at these buildings again to see … whether there are properties that are not yet listed on the national register but should be.”

In deciding the historical character of a building, McDowell takes into consideration the age, architectural style, scale, proportion, and form of the buildings.

However, should the survey identify any buildings as historical landmarks, it could hinder future development.

“When we’re discussing historic designation in this official sense, on one hand, obviously, it’s important that we maintain our history so we know where we came from,” said Benjamin Nelson, the City Council liaison for the University of Iowa Student Government. “But the drawback to that is it does inhibit future renovations and developments.”

This could mean impeding the development of housing downtown, pushing students farther away from central Iowa City.

However, Nelson said he does not foresee any sort of broad labeling of the downtown as a historic district because he believes the people who are in charge of this recognize the disadvantages.

McDowell recognizes the potential conflicts of preservation, particularly with the university and its population in such proximity to downtown.

The survey, which is being funded by the City Council and the National Trust for Historical Preservation, is expected to be completed in spring of 2018.

“We want to preserve what we can because it makes Iowa City unique,” Swaim said. “This is something proactive we can do about preserving that unique character.”

“Unique does not happen by accident,” McDowell said. “Nor is it retained by accident.”

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