After Flood, Former Czech Hall on its Way to Recovery
By Gwendolyn Purdom | Online Only | Feb. 24, 2011
When nearly 12 feet of filthy flood water rushed through Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in the summer of 2008, entire neighborhoods were wiped out, hundreds of residents were displaced, and the city suffered $2 billion in damage. This summer, one of the businesses impacted by the flood, a nonprofit arts group housed in a former Czech social hall, plans to officially reopen its doors after a $7 million renovation, returning the 1891 building to its historic, central place in the community.
"In terms of its architecture, it's quite simple. In terms of its history, it's always been a sort of middle-class building; there's nothing grand about it in that sense," says F. John Herbert, executive director of Legion Arts, which owns the building, known simply as CSPS Hall. "But … it's provided a sort of gathering place for many, many segments of our community over the years. We're very excited that the improvements to the building will enable us to serve the community for another century."
The late Victorian Romanesque-style brick building, named after its builder, the Czecho-Slovak Protective Society, served as a social and cultural hub for Cedar Rapids' growing Czech and Slovak immigrant community around the turn of the last century, hosting weddings, concerts, and political meetings through the middle of the 20th century. In the rear of the building, the Bohemian-American Hose Company operated its first fire station until 1899, boarding its engine-pulling horses in the basement.
"[The Czech population] was a huge part of the development of that community," says Preservation Iowa board member Rod Scott, who worked with the city to help residents and businesses attain historic tax credits for their damaged properties after the flood. "Politically, socially, economically, it truly was the immigrant backbone."
After Legion Arts moved into the space in 1991, Herbert says they knew the well-worn building, with its crumbling brick parapets and a rotting roof, needed some work. But it was the flood that served as a catalyst for the structure's revival. The group's location on the building's second floor kept it from sustaining the devastation the first-floor businesses endured, and even allowed it to serve as a support system for other local cultural groups that weren't as lucky. One of the first businesses in the flood zone to reopen, Legion Arts offered grants and services to local artists who'd lost their studios or work.
With feedback from the community and local artists, plans for renovation of the National Register-listed CSPS Hall got under way in the summer of 2009. The project, which secured a $4.8 million I-JOBS grant, $1.2 million in state historic tax credits, as well as contributions from individuals and businesses, will include restoration of the front facade's glass storefronts and arch entry; uncovering bricked-in windows; and replacing the roof. In addition, workers will add new bathrooms, an accessible elevator, a parking lot, and heating and cooling systems. The center will feature theater and gallery space, a ground floor "arts incubator" for start-up arts organizations, and an artist-in-residency program in the restored adjacent firehouse. To prevent future flood damage, the building's basement will be used only for storage, and all utilities will be housed on the second and third floors.
The space is scheduled to open in June, according to Legion Arts spokesman Todd Kimm.
"People are really excited about it," Kimm says. "It's been a cultural landmark for Cedar Rapids and Eastern Iowa for 120 years now, and [this project is] just continuing that tradition."
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