West Third & Chestnut
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Preservationists requested a chance to buy the historic D.P. Johnson House and Rebecca Hoopes Flats, across the street from the site of Alexander Clark's home. The answer came early on the morning of May 9, 2005. "We'll have this mess cleaned up within the week," said a representative of the owner, Muscatine Beyond 2000. The Johnson House was the home of Muscatine's mayor Stephen L. Foss when Iowa became a state in 1846. Photos at http://www.alexanderclark.org/demolition/.
Reports and opinions from the Muscatine Journal
MUSCATINE, Iowa - A Muscatine historian and preservationist is concerned that the demolition of two historic properties could hurt Muscatine's chances of being named a "great place" by the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs.
Kent Sissel said community reaction to the demolition of the houses at 126 and 122-124 W. Third St. this week could negatively affect Muscatine under the Iowa Great Places selection criteria.
The houses were torn down by Muscatine Beyond 2000, a nonprofit organization aimed at improving the appearance of Muscatine, attracting new businesses and developing and fostering civic pride.
The organization purchased the dilapidated properties the city of Muscatine. The Muscatine City Council purchased the homes more than a year ago with a $130,000 federal grant, intending to turn the property into a parking lot for the nearby Clark House. The city's demolition plan was stopped by federal housing officials due to the buildings' historic value, and funding to renovate the properties could not be found.
As part of launching the new Iowa Great Places program, government agencies will work together as partners in pilot projects in three communities to be selected later this year. The program is intended to help stimulate ideas and planning, streamline access to available state resources, help leverage local and private resources, and share technical expertise, according to Iowa Great Places officials. The end goal is to "cultivate the unique qualities that make the places special," according to Gov. Tom Vilsack.
A public forum on the program will be held in Muscatine on May 26, 3:30 p.m., at Stanley Consultants' auditorium. The forum is one of 10 being held across the state to raise interest and awareness of the project.
"If you look at the criteria for selection for the pilot projects, one of the important criteria is how the community responds to its history and culture," Sissel said, adding that the demolition would not reflect well on Muscatine.
Despite Sissel's concerns, Iowa Great Places coordinator Monica Fischer said that many communities throughout Iowa will not meet every specific criteria, and that one incident does not necessarily warrant concern.
"Not every place is going to meet every criteria," she said.
After the public forums are held, interested communities can apply for the program by submitting an invitation by July 1 to the Iowa Great Places team, made up of representatives from 18 state agencies. A Great Places coach will be assigned to help create a community profile and presentation to the judges. After September presentations, three pilot places will be chosen in October.
Muscatine City Council member Jerry Lange, also a member of the Muscatine Historic Preservation Commission, said that although the demolition was regrettable, it was necessary due to a lack of funding for renovation.
"I'm sure the lot will be put to good advantage," Lange said. "And right now, I think our focus needs to be on the (remaining) homes and buildings in Muscatine that do have historic value."
Lange also said the Commission is in the process of identifying local buildings with possible historic value, and that concentration should be on properties that do not need extensive renovations.
Lange doubted the demolition would hurt Muscatine's chances of qualifying for the Great Places program.
"Muscatine will be identified as one of the great places because of all the good things that are going on," he said. "There are lots of good things happening right now, especially on the riverfront."
The Dimensions of an Iowa Great Place
Source: Iowa Great Places Web site, www.iowagreatplaces.gov
MUSCATINE, Iowa - Two historic houses at the center of an ongoing battle between local preservationists and the city were torn down Monday, putting an end to any future speculation except for what might be built at their location.
The homes at 126 and 122-124 W. Third St. were purchased by the Muscatine City Council more than a year ago with a $130,000 federal grant. The city had planned on turning the property into a parking lot for the nearby Clark House. The demolition was halted by federal housing officials when it was discovered the homes might have a historic significance.
With no choice but to keep the homes, the Council offered them for sale in hopes of recouping some of their cost.
In April, the buildings were purchased by the non-profit group, Muscatine Beyond 2000, for $25,100. The group announced plans April 28 to demolish the homes.
"It will be something to better the community," said Roger Lande, a member of the group's board of directors, although he said there were no set plans for the property. The group's mission is to improve the appearance of the primary corridors of Muscatine, and the downtown area, in order to attract new business and development and foster civic pride.
Jay Brady, chair of the Muscatine Historic Preservation Commission, said the demolitions were regrettable.
"My perspective is, it's a sad end to those buildings," Brady said. "I believe there was a game plan to save those buildings but the private owners decided to do otherwise and that's their choice."
If there are any lessons to be learned from the situation, Brady said, he hopes to find them in the community.
"I guess my question to the community is when should we be saving historic buildings?" Brady said. "And that's the question that has to be answered before we put a lot of effort into trying to retain our historic resources here.
"So far, I don't believe there's been a lot of community support for historic preservation. I think for policy makers to be comfortable with historic preservation, they need to see a desire to see them preserved."
Time has apparently run out on efforts to save and restore two homes on West Third Street that local preservationists and state historical officials consider historically significant. [...] Whether you believe these houses should be saved or torn down, the West Third Street case does highlight the community's current struggle to define how much of our historic and cultural heritage should be preserved and/or restored.
Two long-neglected houses on Third Street with documented historic significance are slated for demolition as early as next week. [...]
Kent Sissel, a local historian with a strong interest in preservation, is upset about the demolition plans.
"There's a public meeting here May 26 about Great Places, the governor's new program. The boards of the State Historical Society and the State Historical Foundation are coming here primarily because those buildings could be part of the project, if they're still around," he said. [...]
Sissel said demolition will negatively impact "a very significant Abolitionist historic neighborhood," including the Alexander G. Clark House, 205-207 W. Third St., which Sissel bought and renovated 26 years ago.
A recent Muscatine Journal editorial (March 1) asked: "Who was Alexander Clark?"
And answered: "Clark is regarded as Muscatine's most prominent black citizen and one of the community's most accomplished residents from any race."
If the story of the famed "colored orator of the West" is indeed being taught in our schools, that speaks well of our educators and bodes well for the future keepers of Clark's legacy.
Meanwhile, let's hope the rest of us at least know his name and recall he was somebody important and associated with our place n just as we know Mark Twain lived here, however vague we are of the facts.
No, nobody is hiring today or next month for tourism jobs based on reciting where Clark walked and worked and telling what words he spoke, but it's not far fetched to imagine such a future. It's not too soon to rediscover our heritage.
So, what did Clark do to become famous?
Many could cite his successful challenge to Muscatine's separate "African" school as Iowa's first court victory for civil rights. That's a good start.
Some know he was the second black Iowan (after his son) to earn a law degree. And that President Benjamin Harrison named him U.S. ambassador to Liberia.
But who can explain why Liberia was a big deal in the 1800s? And who can tell about Clark's Chicago newspaper, The Conservator?
Or his other travels? Travels throughout the southern states, and to Washington and Philadelphia and London - for the Republican party and black Masonry and, not least, the churches. As a Republican leader, both state and national, Clark led a delegation that greeted President Grant on behalf of the whole "colored race."
How did such a thing come to pass? Why did Clark live here anyway? Who were his friends and neighbors during almost 50 years as a Muscatiner? What was their life like? Did everyone admire him then?
Will anyone care about any of this in 50 years? Will it ever matter that J.B. Lee and A.W. Lee boarded at Clark's Third & Chestnut home while working a block away at the Journal (the newspaper owned today by Lee Enterprises)?
If so, it will matter also that one of Clark's nearest neighbors and likely associates was D.P. Johnson, M.D., the physician whose home and office were just across the street toward the river.
When Johnson died in 1900, the Journal called him "one of the oldest practitioners in Iowa" and hailed him as "a favorite among all classes." Like Clark, Johnson resided here almost 50 years. His longest time away was during the Civil War when he served as assistant surgeon of the Iowa infantry regiment first led by another Muscatine neighbor, Col. A.M. Hare.
Passersby might be forgiven for mistaking the handsome brick duplex at 205-207 W. Third as the beloved doctor's residence. Instead, it is the relocated and restored Alexander G. Clark House and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
After he retired, Johnson moved into a mansion he built just up the hill on the other side of the First Congrega-tional Church, where the Johnsons were longtime members. The congregation was known for antislavery sentiment, with many members active in public affairs.
Today the site of the large, beautiful church is a parking lot. The mansion is River's Edge Gallery. The Johnsons' original house stands empty, decried as an eyesore. Almost everyone wants it gone.
I really believe our perspectives would be different if more people realized this was one of our oldest structures. The oldest existing portion was probably built in 1843 by Stephen L. Foss who was president of the city in 1844 and 1846. (Before Muscatine had mayors, we had presidents.)
Although identified as potentially historic 30 years ago, the Foss-Johnson house was anonymous and advancing in disrepair when the city acquired it in 2003, along with an adjacent 99-year-old apartment building.
The plan was to raze them to create additional parking for residents of the city's Clark House retirement home. (Its parking garage stands on the actual spot where the Clark family resided.) Federal housing authorities held up those demolitions, however, because of the potential historic value of both buildings.
Now the city is advertising them for disposal, seeking any reasonable offer.
Someday there could be an Alexander G. Clark Historic District. Clark's house was "also an eyesore" slated for demolition in the 1970s before preservationists got it moved uphill to its present location, according to restorer and current owner, historian Kent Sissel.
If we "connect the dots" before it's too late, future students and other visitors could thank us for saving our pre-statehood, pre-Civil War doctor's house.
Daniel G. Clark is a Muscatine resident who operates Muscatine Trolley & Tours L.C.
Editor's Note: Welcome to 10 Questions. Each week, the Muscatine Journal will submit a set of questions to a local newsmaker. Whether they're young or old, high profile or behind the scenes, new to the neighborhood or a lifelong resident, we'll try to pick the minds of every kind of person in the Muscatine area.
Name: Kent Sissel
Address: 205-207 W. Third St., Muscatine
Immediate family members: Mother, Leona; brother, Tim
Other background: Local historian with interest in preservation
1) Last year, using federal funds, the city of Muscatine purchased houses at 122-124 and 126 W. Third St. The City Council voted to tear down the houses for a parking lot. But recently, federal officials denied approval of that option because of the houses' potential historic value. How would you rate the historic value of these houses?
A: Determining the historic significance of a building is a process that requires time and patience. It should be and is determined by knowledgeable professionals who have extensive experience and training in appropriate research methods and community history.
In general, two types of research are required to document a building:
- Architectural evaluation, including design and construction methods, as well as line of property ownership and probable date of construction.
- Social history, including owner occupations or professions, affiliations, involvement in the community, as well as relationship to the other members and events within the community.
Architectural evaluation usually has a beginning and an end. The physical evidence exists.
Social history does not have an ending - history reveals itself over time. The best the research can do is document as much as possible at any one time, creating lots of data and then, over time, attempting to find logical connections.
Ultimately, only the State Historic Preservation Office can determine official historic significance using the criteria established in the 1966 act of Congress that created the National Historic Preservation Act. Those criteria are the evaluation process for possible listing in The National Register of Historic Places.
The Dr. D.P. Johnson House, 126 W. 3rd St., was identified as a historic building in 1977 as published in a city planning document, "Historic Architecture of Muscatine, Iowa." That document recommended the nomination of the building to the National Register of Historic Places.
In May of this year, the State Historic Preservation Office reviewed preliminary architectural evaluations of both buildings in question and determined that both buildings (the other is the Hoopes Flats) fit evaluation criteria for nomination to the National Register.
If Muscatine is a historic community, then research would indicate that the buildings are historic. If Muscatine is not a historic community, then it really doesn't make any difference. It's the attitudes of the community and its leaders toward the town's culture and the economic value of its history that really makes the difference.
2) What do you think is the most desirable outcome for these properties?
A: Certainly, alternatives could be developed for solving the parking needs of the neighborhood. The most obvious, it seems to me, is rebuilding either nearby parking lots with a multiple-level facility. Rehabilitation of the Hoopes Flats and Johnson house could return those properties to the tax rolls and draw residents or business to the area. The grant application the city has made to the State Historic Preservation Office, if awarded, could act as an incentive for quality restoration of these properties.
3) How would you like to see the City Council and Muscatine Historic Preservation proceed on this issue?
A: The Historic Preservation Commission is advisory to city staff and City Council. Although the volunteer members are still learning the process and information required for an effective commission, City Council members should consult them. Most important to avoiding future problems is to have as much information as possible before making decisions. (I should add that I am not a member of the Commission).
4) Who has made the biggest impact on your life? How?
- Dr. Margaret N. Keyes, University of Iowa, retired, who made it possible for me to study domestic architecture, and taught me that we own nothing - we are only caretakers of our history and the objects that reflect that history.
- Leona Sissel, my mother, an educator who was strong and independent before her time.
5) What's the most important thing other people should know about you?
A: Declined to respond
6) What do you like to do most during your free time?
Connect "dots"! I'm presently having fun trying to find the connection between Alexander G. Clark and Samuel Clemens, and that connection to Mark Twain's storyline of Jim, the runaway slave, and Jim White, the slave who was protected by Clark and the neighborhood in question. (Jim White was granted his freedom about 1848 on the steps of the American Hotel, Muscatine.)
7) What do you like most about the community in which you reside?
A: Once in a while, the community and local government forgives the transgressions of its citizens and moves on for the betterment of the community.
8) What should be changed to improve your community and how should that be done?
A: Declined to respond
9) What public service or volunteer work have you done?
A: My advice: Don't keep track; just keep doing it!
10) What is your most important personal goal for the next 5 years? Why?
A: I will continue researching the properties along lower West Third Street, gathering information for a possible Alexander G. Clark Historic District. In addition, work will continue on the establishment of the Alexander G. Clark house as a research facility for early Iowa black history as well as early Muscatine history.
MUSCATINE, Iowa - A couple of old houses on the corner of Third and Chestnut streets have received a reprieve from demolition plans - at least for a while.
The original plan was to demolish the houses and create a parking lot for Clark House residents. The city received federal money from Housing and Urban Development (HUD) for the project.
James Nepple, chairman of the city's Historic Preservation Commission, reported to the Muscatine City Council Thursday that the houses have been identified in a preliminary survey as very rare and could be eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.
The house at 126 W. Third St., known as the D.P. Johnson home, was built in 1843 - before statehood. Nepple said there are fewer than 100 homes remaining in Iowa that were built before Iowa became a state.
The other house, at 122 and 124 W. Third St., is known as the Rebecca Hoopes flats (apartments). Historically, they're referred to as double deckers, also unusual in Iowa.
Nepple said the buildings were cleaned and appraised in November and if renovated they would each be worth around $100,000.
Nepple said the city received a grant of $11,000 to hire an expert to survey and evaluate several buildings, including these two, but the job is not likely to begin before July 1. He said it could take a year to complete.
Nepple asked the Council to lead a dialogue on what to do with the two buildings in question. [...]
MUSCATINE, Iowa - Although the population of Iowa's African-American community has always been small, black Iowans, past and present, have made valuable contributions to the economic, political and cultural life of the state, according to historian David Brodnax. [...]
MUSCATINE, Iowa - A group of local residents believe much of Muscatine's identity and character will remain a historical mystery if present generations fail to document it.
On Saturday morning, about 15 people met for the first time to discuss the establishment of a Muscatine historical society.
Local historian Kent Sissel moderated the meeting and described a recent research project on a half-block of West Third Street between Iowa Avenue and Chestnut Street. [...]
MUSCATINE, Iowa - Who would have thought downtown parking could have elicited descriptions of "bombed-out holes" and concerns about the preservation of Muscatine's history?
But that's just where the conversation headed during Tuesday's public forum on parking, held by the Historic Preservation Commission.
The commission held the forum in an effort to gather information, viewpoints and ideas from the community on the impact of demolishing two homes on West Third street to make room for a parking lot.
Many feel the two homes, located across from the Clark House at 124 and 126 W. Third St., are historic structures and would like them to remain standing.
However, earlier this summer the City Council approved the demolition of the two buildings for construction of a parking lot for residents of the Clark House. [...]
MUSCATINE, Iowa - The Muscatine Historic Preser-vation Commission honored five individuals and one governing body for their contributions to historic renovation in celebration of Historic Preservation Day Saturday.
Elizabeth "Bette" Veerhusen received an Excellence in Preservation Award for Outstanding Contribution to Historic Preservation in Muscatine.
"Veerhusen's interest in Muscatine's history has benefited the community for many years," councilman Jerry Lange said during the ceremony.
"I was really surprised by the recognition," she said.
Her research during the 1970s on the Governor Lucas House and the Alexander Clark House helped contribute to the story of Muscatine's history.
Veerhusen found that Iowa's first Territorial Governor, Robert Lucas, had lived in Muscatine on the corner of Lucas and Cook streets. The house has since been torn down. His sister is buried in Greenwood Cemetery. A historic marker was placed on her grave.
The Alexander Clark House caught Veerhusen's eye. During the mid 1970s, the Clark house was in a state of disrepair.
Veerhusen's interests and the work of others ultimately led to its listing on the National Register of Historic Places. The Clark house was once located at 117 W. Third St., and in the late 1970s it was moved to its current location at 205-207 W. Third St. Veerhusen said she remembers how problems moving the house left it stuck in the middle of Third Street overnight.
Kent Sissel received an Excellence in Preservation award for Outstanding Contribution to Historic Preservation in Muscatine.
"We are all truly fortunate that Kent has used his expertise to better our community," said Lange.
In the late 1970s, Sissel purchased, designed, managed and rehabilitated the Alexander Clark House.
Alexander Clark, a former ambassador to Liberia, made contributions to Iowa's history on behalf of African Americans. His house, built in 1878, sat at 117 W. Third St., until the late 1970s, when engineers decided to use that space to construct the Clark House, an apartment complex. The house was moved to 205-207 W. Third St.
"Kent's loving restoration of this essential piece of Muscatine history has made it one of the community's crown jewels," Lange said.
As a freelance design consultant, Sissel has been involved in more than 200 projects since 1982, including rehabilitation of the Sennett Octagon House, restoration of the interior and exterior of Trinity Episcopal Church and the restoration of the RCI and P railroad station in Wilton. [...]
Daniel G. Clark, 2005
Posted May 12, 2005