Iowa City's Jefferson Building may go back to being a hotel

UI leaders see the building as being underutilized and a potential asset to the community

Gregg Hennigan
Published: August 1 2013 | 4:15 pm - Updated: 28 March 2014 | 6:32 pm in
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IOWA CITY – A century after opening as one of Iowa’s nicest hotels, there’s talk of returning downtown Iowa City’s Jefferson Building to its past glory.

The University of Iowa and the city of Iowa City want to study the possible re-purposing of the UI-owned property, 129 E. Washington St., with a leading idea being to convert it from its current mix of retail and office space into a boutique hotel.

“The notion of it going back to a hotel, with everything that is happening with downtown Iowa City right now, we think it’s a consistent vision and would be an asset to downtown,” said Jeff Davidson, the city’s director of planning and community development.

City officials in recent years have pushed for downtown redevelopment, with the priorities including more commercial projects.

The UI has asked the city to coordinate the planning process for the south side of the 100 block of East Washington Street, a stretch that also includes restaurants, retailers and the headquarters of MidWestOne Bank.

The City Council will be asked Aug. 6 to approve an agreement with HDR Inc., an engineering firm based out of Omaha, Neb., to develop a master plan for the block. The contract would require the retention of a consultant with the expertise to evaluate turning the building into a boutique hotel.

Boutique hotels are often small, stylish and not affiliated with a chain.

The Jefferson Hotel opened as a six-story building in 1913. Two more stories were added in the 1920s, bringing it to its current 8-story height.

“For several decades, the hotel was one of the finest in Iowa,” The Gazette reported in a 2011 feature. “It had electricity, telephones, an electric elevator and offered guests hot and cold running water. An ad in the 1928 Iowa City directory also claimed that the Jefferson Hotel was the only fireproof hotel in Iowa City.”

It closed as a hotel in 1967. The building is now primarily used as office space for the UI, with restaurants and retail stores on the ground floor.

One of those stores is Herteen & Stocker Jewelers, co-owned by City Council member Terry Dickens. He praised the possibility of the building having a hotel or residential component, saying more people downtown would be better for businesses.

“I think it’s a great idea,” he said, adding he’d want retail to remain on the first floor. “It (the Jefferson Building) is kind of a focal point of downtown.”

Bill Nusser, owner of Hands Jewelers at 109 E. Washington St., agreed.

“I think there is a demonstrated need for more space, and with that comes their pocketbooks as well, their wallets,” he said

Nusser said he hopes redevelopment of the block allows his business, which dates to the 1800s, to expand.

UI spokesman Tom Moore said the future of the building will be determined after the master planning process is concluded. He also said there were no immediate plans to sell the building.

Davidson, though, said his understanding is it's possible the UI would sell the property to a private developer with an agreement stipulating what it could be used for, although he too stressed no decisions are being made before the study is completed.

He said UI leaders see the building as being underutilized and a potential asset to the community.

Assuming the City Council gives its approval, the study is expected to start in September and last eight weeks. The $55,050 cost would be shared by the city, UI, MidWestOne and Kresge Building LLC, which owns the buildings between the Jefferson Building and the bank.

MidWestOne plans to renovate the exterior of its building at the opposite end of the block from the Jefferson Building to look like it did when it opened in the 1930s. Davidson said with that work and the possible Jefferson Building overhaul, it makes sense to look at the buildings in between them too.

Ideas for downtown projects can be submitted at www.inspiredowntownic.com.

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