Saving the Last House on the Block
The 117-year old Brewer House is one of just a handful of historic homes remaining in Cedar Rapids. When it was purchased by a nearby hospital slated for expansion, the Brewer House seemed doomed. But Dawn Stephens and Greg Young had another plan in mind. Iowa Public Radio’s Durrie Bouscaren reports.
Dawn Stephens clutches a blanket as she introduces me to the Brewer House. Even though we’re inside, the heat hasn’t worked for years. In the foyer are remnants of the home’s past—the wood flooring that was replaced in the thirties, linoleum from the seventies.
“This little area right here is a little snapshot of everything this house has lived through,” Dawn says. “It’s kind of just talking to us through what we see.”
Even a scrap of wallpaper that Dawn’s husband, Greg Young, confirmed as a piece of the original.
“You see something that hasn’t seen the light of day in 117 years, you know. That to me is very exciting,” Young said. In a crawl space in the basement, Young also found two pairs of 1930’s style shoes.
A LONELY SURVIVOR OF MANSION HILL
The home was built in 1897 by the Brewer family in the old Mansion Hill district of Cedar Rapids, just uphill to the north of downtown. Legend has it, President Taft was a regular guest. At one time this part of town was covered with stately homes owned by the wealthiest families in town. But as the city developed, and highways, factories, and hospitals were built, those homes started getting demolished, one by one.
At the Carl and Mary Koehler History Center a few blocks away, historian Mark Stoffer Hunter pulls out a large, yellowed book of maps once used by firefighters to locate individual homes.
“This gives you a good sense of where everything was, and how many houses were up here on Mansion Hill,” Stoffer says, flipping the pages. “The train tracks are here, the US cellular center is here now, taco bell is right here now. None of these stand anymore, everything’s been torn down.”
In the thirties, the Brewer House was converted into one-bedroom apartments. It held on, as the rest of the homes on the block became parking lots and offices for the nearby Mercy Medical Center.
“The feeling is that Cedar Rapids was getting off track from the rest of the country by not paying attention to its historic buildings, and tearing too many of them down through the 1960’s, 70’s, and 80’s,” Stoffer said.
He says many demolitions happened as nearby roads grew busier with gas-powered vehicles, making the neighborhood louder. Cedar Rapids has 40 properties listed on the National Register of Historic Places, including the Brewer House. Local community groups are actively involved in preserving many of them. But by comparison, the city of Davenport has more than 250 entries in the Register.
“If we don’t pay more attention to preserving what’s left, we may not be as successful as other towns,” Stoffer said.
PRESERVATION AND DEVELOPMENT COLLIDE
In 2011, Mercy Medical Center purchased the Brewer House, and it seemed like it would go the same way as many of its former neighbors. Mercy President and CEO Tim Charles says the home carried a personal interest for him.
“As I had the opportunity to walk through this really beautiful, period home, it became clear that what we needed to do was find a solution that enabled this house to be preserved,” Charles said.
Enter Dawn and Greg, who had been looking for a place to live.
The hospital sold the home to the couple for one dollar… under the condition, that they’d move the house. The whole house.
WHEN IN DOUBT, MOVE IT
“We are officially the owners of the building,” Dawn explains. “The site still remains in possession of Mercy. So this house will need to be lifted from this site and moved to the new location, which is actually in the Oak Hill Jackson neighborhood.”
Oak Hill about ten blocks away. There are contractors who can move a historic home, but it can cost about thirty thousand dollars. That’s even before the rehabilitation process. But tax credits are available if the home is listed on the National Register… Greg says that’s what makes this project affordable.
“Our initial estimate is $190,000,” Greg said. “The tax credits are doing what they’re intended to do, and that’s to let us save a piece of history.”
The contractors have to wait until the weather warms up to actually move the house. Greg and Dawn are hoping to complete renovations as soon as this summer—and although they plan to live in the Brewer House, they also want it to become a place for nonprofits to meet.
“With old homes, you have to treat them like people who have lived a long time,” Dawn says, as she outlines the restoration she and Greg are planning. They aim to match much of the home’s original décor—helped in part by original photographs tracked down by a local historian.
“You can’t go in and willy nilly do whatever you want. I love that there’s a huge team of people at the state, local, and federal level who care about what happens and this house is handled,” she said.
And the home’s original owners, the Brewers, would probably be proud of that, too.