United Fire Group buys Cedar Rapid's first 'skyscraper' to reach 10 stories

Officials says acquisition sends positive message about city

Rick Smith
Published: January 8 2014 | 5:00 pm - Updated: 29 March 2014 | 1:49 am in

Historically significant, but more than half empty, the American Building has been purchased by a corporate pillar of the downtown, the building’s next-door neighbor, the United Fire Group.

The purchase comes as the American Building — the city’s first building to reach 10 stories — turns 100 years old this year.

"We are big believers in continuing to be downtown, so this seemed like the right course of action in the interests of our future," Randy Ramlo, United Fire Group’s president/CEO, said on Wednesday.

Mayor Ron Corbett on Wednesday applauded United Fire’s faith in the downtown and in Cedar Rapids.

"Whenever you have one of your largest employers increasing their footprint in the downtown, it’s good news," Corbett said. "United Fire has been a company that has been committed to the downtown. They have seen employment growth over the years, and this is just another vote of confidence by United Fire in the downtown and in Cedar Rapids."

City Council member Scott Olson, a commercial Realtor and part owner of the Higley Building in the downtown, on Wednesday called the purchase "a very logical" one as United Fire has expanded its reach down the block in recent years.

"It’s good to have a solid corporate owner like that look to the future, which is good for the downtown," Olson said. "United Fire keeps all of their properties in great condition, and I’m sure they have the wherewithal to invest in the building to enhance it for future office-users. It’s a positive development."

Ramlo characterized the building purchase as a "defensive" move because the American Building and a second, smaller building next to it, which United Fire also purchased, are connected to the company’s downtown campus.

Ramlo quoted one of United Fire’s board members, who said, ‘If the farm next door comes up for sale, you buy it."

He said the company — which started in 1946 and now has approximately 450 employees in Cedar Rapids and a total of about 950 in seven offices around the country — does not have any immediate plans to expand its company into the newly purchased space.

Ramlo said the company is meeting with architects and engineers to study the American Building’s short-term and long-term prospects, the latter of which could include United Fire’s own use sometime in the future, he said.

He said less than 50 percent of the American Building is currently occupied, but he said the company is exploring ways to improve occupancy, including offering some parking options for tenants. United Fire, which sustained damage in the city’s Flood of 2008, built its own parking ramp next to its headquarters in the flood’s aftermath.

The company may pace renovations with its ability to secure historic tax credits to help fund the work, Ramlo said.

According to the City Assessor’s Office, United Fire paid $1.962 million for the American Building, at101 Second St. SE, and the smaller, newer building at 107 Second St. SE, a purchase price that Ramlo said appeared accurate.

Mayor Corbett said United Fire’s new purchase would send a signal to other Cedar Rapids firms and firms the city works to recruit that the downtown is a good place in which to invest and that the city’s plans to protect it from future flooding will become reality.

"When you have an insurance company the size of United Fire placing a bet in downtown Cedar Rapids, I think that should give the rest of the business community confidence," Corbett said.

Cedar Rapids historian Mark Stouffer Hunter on Wednesday said that he features the American Building on his walking historic tours of downtown Cedar Rapids.

He said the building enjoyed the status of the city’s tallest "skyscraper" when it opened in 1914 until the Roosevelt Hotel and U.S. Bank Building reached a couple stories higher about 10 years later.

Stouffer Hunter said the American Building, which was built for the American Bank & Trust Co., comes with "classic" features and a glazed white terra-cotta exterior, which is similar to material used on the exterior of the Wrigley Building in downtown Chicago.

In its early years, Stouffer Hunter said the bank advertised itself as "The White Bank," not as a racial reference in any way, but to draw customers to the tall, white building in downtown Cedar Rapids.

The white exterior "could use a good cleaning, I’ll grant you that," he said. He said he was happy to hear that United Fire had purchased the building.

"They’ve been doing a great job with preserving the other ‘skyscraper’ down the street, the Security Building, so hopefully they will do the same with this one. I think they will be good stewards of it," Stouffer Hunter said.

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