Architecture Landmarks in Iowa Flooded

Buildings by Sullivan, Wright, Gehry, and Holl impacted.

In the last few weeks, heavy storms in the Midwest produced massive flooding, causing billions of dollars in property damage and destroying untold acres of crops. Much of the state of Iowa has been declared a disaster area. The floods are slowing and moving south as levees along the Mississippi continue to fail.

In Cedar Rapids, the waters have receded, but 25,000 people in this city of 120,000 have been left homeless. One of the hardest hit areas is downtown, where many of the city’s cultural institutions are located. On Friday the 13th, the The National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library was submerged in fifteen feet of water. When the museum staff was allowed inside the building on Tuesday, Gail Naughton, the museum’s president, described the destruction to the main building as “massive.” It was deemed structurally safe to enter, but an architectural and engineering analysis will need to follow at a later time to fully assess the condition of the building. By Wednesday, access to the museum site was denied by the city due to unsafe conditions in the area in general.

A bank by Louis Sullivan (originally known as the Peoples Savings Bank and now the Wells Fargo Bank), located less than a block from the Cedar River, suffered water damage to the first floor and basement, according to the bank’s branch president. The impressive interior of the two-story building was painstakingly restored in 1991 by Chicago architect Wilbert Hasbrouck and features decorated windows and regionalist murals. Another Cedar Rapids landmark, the Sullivan-designed St. Paul’s United Methodist Church, escaped flood damage, according to Blair Kamin of the Chicago Tribune.

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Across the river, the African American Historical Museum and Cultural Center of Iowa and the Science Station and IMAX theater also went under. The museum took on five feet of water, and on Wednesday officials were still assessing the damage. “The museum took every precaution it could to safeguard its collection, and as a result, a number of historic treasures have been saved,” noted Executive Director Tom Moore on their Web site.

Many of the Frank Lloyd Wright buildings in Iowa escaped damage, according to blog posts on . One exception was the Alvin Miller House, a riverfront home in Charles City about 75 miles northwest of Cedar Rapids, where floodwaters possibly reached as high as the roof.

The University of Iowa, thirty miles to the southeast of Cedar Rapids in Iowa City, also suffered major damage when the Iowa River topped its banks. The school was forced to shutter some twenty buildings. Hardest hit was their Art Campus, which houses Steven Holl’s award-winning Art Building West, and several buildings designed by Max Abramovitz, the architect perhaps best known for Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center in New York City.

The University’s Museum of Art, Hancher Auditorium, Voxman Music Building, Clapp Recital Hall, as well as the campus print studio and metalsmith studio—all designed by Max Abramovitz—appear to have been damaged. “Hancher auditorium has taken on several feet of water,” said Larry Weber, professor of hydroscience and civil and environmental engineering at the University of Iowa. Weber oversees the college’s world-renowned water research center. “Everyone has shed a tear over the art campus.”

The fate of the campus’s most famous building—the limestone and stainless steel Advanced Technologies Lab, designed by Frank Gehry in 1992—has fared somewhat better. “A valiant effort was made to sandbag the perimeter of the building, but there is several feet of water on the first floor of the building,” Weber said. The concern over the building hinges not only on its architectural significance, but also because of the work being conducted inside: “There is millions and millions of dollars in research equipment,” Weber explained, adding that as far as he can tell, “there is no structural damage to the building.”

Weber also pointed out that there is an immediate concern for safety on the campus. “All of our buildings are connected with a very complicated underground utility infrastructure, so there is as much complication going on underground as there is above ground,” he said.

A tremendous amount of information has been gathered since the flooding occurred, such as aerial surveys of flooded areas, but Weber explained that the longer term planning hasn’t really started yet. He expects that some of the buildings won’t be accessible for a few weeks until they are evaluated and cleaned. Weber believes this will lead to more research in river hydraulics. “There will likely be an onslaught of potential studies and improvements, to be evaluated over the coming years, in order to help the university community.”

While the devastation has been difficult to take in, Weber, a native of Iowa, said that the community response has been heartening. “In the true Iowa way, when events like this happen, the volunteer effort and the effort to move people out have been just incredible.”

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