The city was platted in 1841 on the northeast side of a wide bend of the Cedar River. The location was an advantageous one, for it was possible for steamboats to operate on the river up to this point, and the rapids meant that this was a logical place to produce water power. A few years after the city's founding, a dam was constructed and mills were built. The river remained as the principal transportation link to the Iowa River and thence to the Mississippi and beyond until 1858, when the first of the railroads reached the community. The initial grid plan laid out for the future city followed the northwest-southeast alignment of the river; on the southwest side of the river a second grid system (platted in 1855 as Kingston City) ran loosely parallel to the east bank of the Cedar River. Most of the later platted additions revert to the traditional northsouth, east-west alignment; an exception is the single-family subdivision area east of Nineteenth Street, where the hilly terrain encouraged the layout of curvilinear streets within the English Picturesque Garden tradition.
Through the late nineteenth century, and much of the twentieth, the dominant industry for the city was the Quaker Oats Company, which was founded in 1873. Its production plant, north of A Avenue Southeast and west of Fourth Avenue Southeast, conveys an industrial landscape we could easily equate with those often depicted in the 1920s and 1930s paintings of Charles Sheeler. The first units built at a site on Third Street Northeast were two concrete structures that were five stories high. These were constructed in 1910. The centerpiece of the Quaker Oats plant is a modular 10-story factory building (1914, and later) which was joined to other buildings by high aerial bridges of steel, and these were connected to elevator storage buildings and to water tanks. Out of this complex of buildings rise a number of tall, slender smokestacks. Other “industries” expanded the economic base of the community, including meat-packing and food-processing plants, box factories, financial institutions, and, more recently, high-tech instrument firms.
One of the unusual geographic features of the city's location was the existence of an island, May Island (now Municipal Island), situated just below the rapids in the middle of the river opposite the original 1849 plat. By the 1870s this low, wooded island was connected to the east and west banks by a pair of iron truss bridges, one for the railway and one for horsedrawn vehicles and pedestrians.
As with numerous other American cities and towns, the people who governed Cedar Rapids were deeply affected by the turn-of-the-century City Beautiful movement. They centered their attention on May Island (which was purchased by the city shortly after 1900) and the adjacent river frontage as a locale that could be revamped into public parks, boulevards, and a municipal civic center. In 1902 the city established the River Front Improvement Commission. Seven years later the community engaged the newspaper-writer-turned-planner Charles Mulford Robinson to prepare a report “on the civic affairs in the city of Cedar Rapids.” A few years later the community commissioned Daniel Burnham and Company of Chicago, and Burnham's associate, Edward H. Bennett, to make “a survey and plan for the development of the River Island, and for the landscape and architectural treatment of the River Front.…” 7Bennett's scheme proposed that the city hall be located on Municipal Island, with the remaining space of the island to be a formally landscaped park. Other public buildings were to be situated facing onto boulevards that were to run parallel to the walled river embankments. Parts of Bennett's scheme were carried out, including the Beaux-Arts Classical bridges and some of the masonry embankments, but the concept of the river being paralleled by tree-lined boulevards was never carried out; and instead of one public building being placed on Municipal Island, two were finally located there (City Hall and the Linn County Courthouse), destroying in part the Beaux-Arts play between the necessary landscaped open park and the buildings.
In the later 1920s and the early 1930s, the city's planning commission engaged another of America's foremost planning firms, Harland Bartholomew and Associates of St. Louis, who responded with a series of planning reports on topics ranging from the question of “civic art” to the more pragmatic design considerations for the location of major streets and for the needs for public transportation and housing. The Bartholomew firm pressed for a realization of Bennett's earlier river boulevard scheme and went on to suggest that eventually this plan should be extended along the river far out to the east and west. Though many of the recommendations of Bennett and Bartholomew were not carried out, enough was realized to make Cedar Rapids an important example of America's approach to a Beaux-Arts civic center.
As with other American cities, the downtown area of Cedar Rapids experienced numerous economic problems in the years after 1945. Suburban shopping centers arose, causing the usual retail shift to the suburbs, and eventually a freeway (I-380) cut its way through the northern portions of the downtown. The community's response was a classic one for the time: to create a redevelopment authority to replan and rebuild the downtown. To a degree this activity of redevelopment has been successful. The older, 1920s Roosevelt Hotel has been renovated and restored, a new Stouffer's Hotel has been built, and new and revamped office and retail shopping structures have been injected into the downtown. What is lacking is the grand vision expressed in the Robinson, Bennett, and Bartholomew schemes, where the horticultural element of landscape design would pull all of these old and new parts together and finally would meaningfully relate the civic and business features of the downtown to the river.
Turning from the downtown, the visitor will certainly feel that the middle-and upper-middle-class suburban areas to the east and north constitute some of the most pleasant and successful to be found in the state. The low, hilly terrain, with its vegetation and general large individual lots, means that nature indeed predominates as it should within the suburban ideal.
Another planning plus for the community is the number of parks, many of which are of appreciable size. Especially worth a visit are Ellis Park, Shaver Park, and Van Vechten Park. Two nearby “regional” parks should also be experienced as excellent examples of park planning. These are Seminole Valley Park (off Seminole Valley Road and Forty-second Street) and Squaw Creek Regional Park (east on Twenty-ninth Street to route E44).
Historic preservation and restoration activities in Cedar Rapids have recently brought to light the Monroe School (1873), a school that primarily served the local Czech population. Located at the northwest corner of Third Street and Tenth Avenue Southeast, this Italianate brick building with the usual wide entablature, bracketed cornice, and tall round-headed windows is presently hidden behind a number of later additions. Still visible above the nearly obscured entrance are the name and date of the school rendered in cast concrete. Current plans are to remove the later additions and then restore the original building, which will be used as a cultural center for conferences and exhibitions.
Comprehensive City Plan for Cedar Rapids, Iowa (Cedar Rapids: Cedar Rapids Plan Commission, 1931), 9.
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