David W. King likely would have backed the Cedar Rapids investors here who now want to build the $150-million-plus Cedar Crossing Casino across the Cedar River from downtown Cedar Rapids.
That’s the surmise of Mark Stoffer Hunter, a Cedar Rapids historian, who has advised the casino investors about King — a community founder, early real estate manager, visionary and, in the end, citizen firefighter — and about the piece of vital local history they will be touching if the Iowa Racing & Gaming Commission grants them a license to build where the investors want to construct theirs.
The casino site is nothing less than a centerpiece of Cedar Rapids foundational history, which has flashed into newfound prominence in the past two years as part of the city’s flood recovery even as the casino investors, led by Cedar Rapids businessman Steve Gray, began looking for a spot for their proposed casino.
Gray and his partners landed where insistent local historic preservationists already had arrived and where they now have succeeded in convincing City Hall to help save key flood-damaged, century-old buildings in what once was a healthy westside commercial district along Third Avenue SW.
From there, council member Ann Poe, new to the council in 2011, and council member Monica Vernon tried out a potential new name, West Village, for the historic westside commercial block, a name Poe borrowed from the successfully revitalized East Village in Des Moines.
Council member Don Karr, himself a local historian and who, like Poe, grew up on the city’s west side, would have none of it. Any new moniker for Third Avenue SW, he said, could not work without the name Kingston.
That was the first name of the place that settler David W. King created on the west side of the Cedar River more than 170 years ago, Karr said.
In deference to history, City Hall now calls the area Kingston Village.
In turn, Gray and his investor group plan a Kingston Market Buffet inside their casino in one of several bows to the neighborhood’s history.
Another is the casino name, Cedar Crossing Casino, which embraces the historical fact that the proposed casino site, at present-day First Street and First Avenue SW, is the spot where historian Hunter said David W. King operated a small ferryboat across the Cedar River. That was before a bridge, which stood for 12 years, went up in 1859.
“As a locally owned project, we know how important it is to preserve the area’s history,” Gray said. “We value our connection to one of the city’s historically significant neighborhoods, … (and) we have reflected that in the name of our project — Cedar Crossing.”
As Hunter tells it, King, a native of Pennsylvania, had arrived 20 years earlier, in 1839, after a short stay in Michigan, with a team of oxen, some resources and two other settlers, who staked their future on the west bank of the Cedar River.
They put down there because the first settler, Osgood Shepherd, had “squatted” on the east side of river two years earlier, built a cabin there near today’s First Street and First Avenue NE, and laid claim to all of what today is the core of Cedar Rapids’ downtown.
King’s arrival on the west side of the river brought with it his wife, Mary, whom Hunter said was thought to have been the first white woman to cross the Cedar River.
By 1849, Cedar Rapids had incorporated into a town — it became a city in 1856 — with Kingston to follow across the river in 1852.
By 1852, David King had laid out the city of Kingston between the river and present day Third Street SW across from what was becoming downtown Cedar Rapids.
“He was involved in real estate, he was setting up the blocks,” Hunter said. “So Kingston was really his vision.”
In 1854, King died, at age 46, from exposure helping to fight a prairie fire threatening the west side of his new city.
“He wanted to save the community,” Hunter said. “He didn’t want it to burn.”
With King’s death, Hunter said the momentum and ambition for Kingston to be its own separate place likely died, too. In 1870, Kingston was annexed into Cedar Rapids, a move completed by 1871. In that same year, a Third Avenue bridge opened and an ice jam brought down the First Avenue bridge, which Hunter said was a change in infrastructure that shifted the emerging west-side neighborhood commercial center to Third Avenue West.
Kingston, he said, began to be called West Cedar Rapids.
By the start of the 20th Century, the Third Avenue West district was poised for more commercial development. That was prompted by the founding of the People’s Savings Bank in 1900, the city’s purchase of May’s Island in 1908 for development of a civic center and park and the establishment of the West Side Improvement League in 1910, according to the analysis that is part of the city of Cedar Rapids’s current application to create the West Side Third Avenue SW Commercial Historic District.
Hunter said the catalyst for the Third Avenue SW commercial flowering came when People’s Savings Bank hired noted Chicago architect Louis H. Sullivan to design a new bank building at 101 Third Ave. SW. It began business in 1911 in the same year that a brand new Third Avenue bridge opened.
A flurry of commercial building followed quickly in the first two blocks of Third Avenue SW creating today’s century-old storefronts that, 100 years later, have forced today’s city leaders to decide which structures hit hard in the city’s 2008 flood to keep and which to demolish.
City Hall always intended to save the Sullivan-designed bank, but demolition at one point looked like the preferred option.
To the city’s credit, it reversed direction, said Maura Pilcher, who at the time was chairwoman of the city’s Historic Preservation Commission and has been a leading community voice for preservation of historic buildings. It then worked hard to convince the state of Iowa to adjust rules to allow flood-damaged properties bought out with federal funds to be renovated.
“The city staff has taken time to work through that,” Pilcher said.
The commission, the not-for-profit Save CR Heritage, of which Pilcher is a member, and the city then developed a list of historic buyout properties that had the potential to be restored. They publicized the list, which included five properties on Third Avenue SW in the newly named Kingston Village area, and renovators stepped forward to acquire with the promise of bringing them back to life.
Importantly, too, local developer Fred Timko bought the flood-damaged Sullivan-designed bank and newer bank tower next to it, which he is renovating as he builds a new six-story, river-facing, residential condominium building next door on First Street SW.
But for the public’s interest, and the preservationists’ desire to establish a West Side Third Street SW Commercial Historic District, Pilcher said it was possible that the city could have saved the Sullivan-designed bank without any other historic properties around it to provide a necessary historic context.
KHB Redevelopment Group LLC has been selected by the City Council to develop the one-time Gatto Grocery at 102 Third Ave. SW and the newer, less-impressive Bail Bonds Building next to it at 100 Third Ave. SW.
Tim Blumer, a retired Rockwell Collins engineer and one of the three partners in KHB, said his little company is still developing a required flood protection plan for the buildings, which sit in the 100-year flood plain. But he said they should be ready to begin renovation in the first part of 2014.
He anticipated that offices or perhaps a restaurant would occupy the first floors of the buildings with residential space on the second floor.
“We think it’s something worth saving, something from 100 years ago for people to see,” Blumer said. “We also think helping to bring back the west side of the river was a worthwhile thing to do.”
City Council member Poe remembered how her mother and she would shop at the pharmacy, the grocery and other stores in and around the Third Street SW commercial area when she was growing up.
As she campaigned and won her seat on the City Council in 2011, she said she and council member Monica Vernon did some exercise walking together that took them through downtown and across the river to what the city is now calling Kingston Village.
“Looking at the west side, I just started imaging …,” Poe said. “… At certain points in your life, you can see and feel what can take place. So we decided, let’s sit down and make it become reality.”
Both Pilcher and Hunter like that the name Kingston has been brought back to life in the Kingston Village name.
“We have a great name. It’s not artificial in any way. And it helps explain the history,” Pilcher said.
Hunter said he long has been frustrated that the only things named Kingston in the city have been Kingston Stadium and Kingston Hill, neither of which is anywhere near where the town of Kingston began before it became part of Cedar Rapids, he said.
“So people get confused about where Kingston was and how big it was,” he said.
In fact, Kingston consisted of about 400 residents and a little industry between the river and around present-day Third Street SW at the time it was annexed into Cedar Rapids, Hunter said.
Today’s creation of Kingston Village, he said, brings the commercial district full circle in a way not unlike what has happened in the successful New Bohemia commercial district just south of downtown. That neighborhood began as the commercial center for Czech immigrants in Cedar Rapids in the 19th century, and sat neglected surrounded by industrial brownfields just 20 years ago, Hunter said.
“I’m just so thrilled that the Kingston area came through at the last second,” Hunter said. “To me, it’s one of the great success stories of flood recovery. … We’ve done a really good job of preserving as much as we could.”
By April, the city will know if the state gaming commission will grant an operating license for the Cedar Crossing Casino.
Council member Poe said the casino will bring more people to the city and to Kingston Village, which she said is now another commercial neighborhood like New Bohemia and Czech Village where the city hasn’t gotten rid of its historic buildings.
Pilcher said she isn’t so sure that the casino will do that much more to spur development around it in Kingston Village. However, the portion of casino revenue that goes to local not-for-profit groups might become a pioneering source of funds to help with historic preservation work, she said.
Historian Hunter said the casino brings an “overall good” to the Kingston Village area that had seen little development investment or energy in recent decades and was hit hard by the 2008 flood.
“Obviously the best plan moving forward — if you want to do things in the spirit of David King and other community leaders — you got to keep moving forward with the appropriate respect and nod to the history,” Hunter said.
“You want to have some good 21st century things, but always the proper blending of history. And I think we’re making some pretty good choices at this point.”