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The early history of Davenport was closely tied to that of Rock Island in the Mississippi River (between Iowa and the Illinois shore where the river curves to the west). 12In 1816 the federal government established Fort Armstrong on the island. Two prominent figures who later were to be involved with the founding of Davenport were Col. George Davenport, a fur trader, and Antoine Le Claire, an early landowner. In 1836 a six-by-seven-block grid was laid out on the Iowa shore. Since a segment of the river at this point runs east-west, the grid was oriented parallel and perpendicular to the river. The area adjacent to the riverbank was reserved as “public grounds,” and three additional sites were reserved within the grid for public uses. It was noted in the mid-1850s that the city was “delightfully situated on the west bank of the Mississippi, with a bluff 100 foot high skirting its back, and extending for miles up and down the river.” 13

From its beginnings Davenport was both fortunate and aggressive in its economic development. Very early, levees were built at the river's edge so that steamboats could tie up directly at the shore. The city was also the site of the first bridge across the Mississippi (1856). This was a complex wood truss bridge (called the White Bridge because of its paint color) placed on a series of large stone piers. By the seventies, the city was a major railway center for both eastwest and north-south traffic. From its earliest years the city also profited by its proximity to the industrial cities of Moline and Rock Island across the river in Illinois. In the late 1880s, Willard Glazier observed of Davenport that “handsome houses dot the bluffs. River views for residences have been extensively occupied by the well-to-do citizens, and the scope of the country brought within range of the eye from some of these hill-top dwellings is scarcely to be excelled for beauty as anything I have seen on the river.” 14

The residential areas for the middle class and the wealthy tended to extend toward the hills west of the downtown and especially to the northwest, where in many cases they did indeed encompass the views Glazier mentioned. Several of the more prestigious of these developments were Prospect Park (1894), laid out around Prospect Rock, and McClellan Heights (1906) to the north. McClellan Heights was laid out in a rolling wooded section, and its street patterns were accommodated to the terrain.

During its early years the city saw a number of Greek Revival structures built. 15These included the 1842 Scott County Courthouse, the Mount Ida Female College (1857), and the two-story columned house of Dr. E. S. Barrows (c. 1853). More modest Federal and Greek Revival structures were built also for commercial and residential use. Few of these classically inspired buildings remain. One exception would be the Shick Apartments of 1852 (at 201–314 Gaines Street). These two-story row houses on raised basements were constructed of local limestone. Contemporary with these classical modes were versions of the Italian or bracketed style. Early, extant examples of this style would be the Mario Clare Dessaint House (c. 1865–1870), an Italianate villa (at 4807 Northwest Boulevard), and the John Littig house (c. 1867) which, as so often happened, combined the Italian and the Gothic into a single composition. The most stately of these early Italianate houses was the Antoine and Marguerite Le Claire residence (1855), which fortunately is still standing (at 630 Seventh Street).

Along with continual and at times repeated changes within the city, transformations were taking place by way of major engineering projects associated with the river. In 1872 the earlier wood truss bridge was replaced by a new iron bridge. This bridge was provided with two levels, an upper one for trains and a lower one for wagons; it also housed a lift span, so that steamboats could easily pass through. In 1895 this bridge was in turn replaced by the all-steel “Government Bridge.” In the mid-1930s, Dam and Lock 15 were completed. This metal roller-gate dam and lock projects a strong Streamline Moderne image, appearing almost like a 1930s futurist vision from Buck Rogers.

In 1911 the city formed the Levee Improvement Commission, a body that became the prime vehicle for initiating the City Beautiful movement within Davenport. It projected three blocks between Bradley and Scott (designed by the landscape architects Reeves and Ramsey in 1912), which would contain public buildings and a union railroad station, all in a parklike setting. Adjacent to the river, an English-style park was laid out between the railroad and a levee, and a small boat basin was planned. Extensive stone walls were constructed as a levee along the river, and a balustraded walkway ran along the top of much of it.

Architecturally the community mirrored what was going on elsewhere in the Midwest during the years after 1900. 16There were occasional sallies into the more avant-garde styles. At 902 Cole Avenue, William Radcliff built himself an impressive Craftsman California bungalow (1911). A few years later a mild Prairie-style house was built at 2207 Brady Street (1912–1914).

The 1920s marked a high point for Davenport. It was during these years that the downtown sought through its skyscrapers to project the image of a major urban center. These were also the years of the construction of a good number of impressive period revival houses. The Great Depression of the thirties brought all of this to an end, and it was not until the end of the 1950s that there was a new surge of building. The thirties in Davenport is, in many ways, beautifully summed up in Helen Hinrichson's American Scene mural of 1936, Davenport Marches On. This was painted for one of the walls of the downtown Walgreen Drug Store. The 30-foot-long mural can now be seen at the Davenport Art Gallery.

Post-1960 changes entail a new library building designed by Edward D. Stone (1967–1968, at 704 Brady Street) and a group of new buildings for the Davenport Museum (at the east edge of Fejervary Park, off Division St). This latter group includes the Putnam Museum (1962–1963; Palmer Wing, 1966) and the Davenport Municipal Art Gallery (1966; Wiese Wing, 1971). In the downtown area in and around Perry Street the city and private developers have since 1983 been creating River Center, which not only has linked a number of business and performing arts activities but also has combined old and new buildings (especially the Orpheum Theater and the Mississippi Hotel Building). The architect for this project was Roman Scholtz.

Much of the building from 1970 to the present has taken place north of the city in and around Interstate 80. One of the largest of these complexes is Northpark Mall (1973, 1981). Within this one-million-square-foot completely enclosed mall are 160 shops and five department stores. Since the mid-1970s there has been an intensified interest in historic preservation in Davenport. This has led to the funding of detailed historical studies and the establishment of historic districts.


Marlys A. Svendsen, John Pfiffner, and Martha Bowers, Davenport, Where the Mississippi Runs West: A Survey of Davenport History and Architecture; Marlys A. Svendsen, Davenport: A Pictorial History, 1836–1986.

Thomas H. Benton et al., The Garden of the World or the Great West, 155.

Glazier, Down the Great River, 256.

Philippe Oszuscik, “A History of the Architecture and Urbanization of Nineteenth Century Davenport, Iowa.”

Martha H. Bowers, Davenport Architecture: Tradition and Transition; Edmund H. Carroll, Jr., “Davenport's Golden Building Years.”

Writing Credits

David Gebhard and Gerald Mansheim

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