CEDAR FALLS — After years of work by a number of entities, a portion of downtown Cedar Falls has been added to the National Register of Historic Places.
While the city has several individual buildings that bear the historic designation, this is the first district in Cedar Falls to make the list.
The district encompasses portions of Main Street, roughly from First to Fifth streets, and includes four properties already listed on the National Register of Historic Places: Cotton Theater at 103 Main, Black Hawk Hotel at 115 Main, Townsend & Knapp at 119 Main and the Odd Fellows building at 401 Main.
The process also identified three properties that could be individually eligible for placement on the registry: Security Savings Bank at 226 Main, Rice-Dayton Mfg./Armory at 115-119 E. Fourth St. and Maid Rite at 116 E. Fourth St.
Some buildings in the district date back to the late 1800s — with the oldest being in the Miner & Case block, 213-215 Main, built in 1862 — and feature a range of architecture, including Colonial Revival, Neoclassical Revival, Second Empire, Italian Renaissance and others.
The city was notified of the designation in October, and a ribbon cutting was held last month.
Carol Lilly, executive director of Community Main Street, credited a number of groups with achieving a goal that was years in the making.
“We had Community Main Street, the Cedar Falls Historical Society, the University of Northern Iowa history department and the city all working on this,” she said. “And the Historical Preservation Commission was the entity to apply for the designation.”
The process spanned two grant cycles.
In 2014, the Historic Preservation Commission was awarded a $13,000 grant from the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs. The funds were used to conduct an intensive survey of historic downtown properties.
In 2016, the IDCA awarded an $8,000 grant to be used toward preparing an application to the National Trust for Historic Preservation to have several blocks in downtown Cedar Falls placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Community Main Street provided matching funds for both grants.
Lilly said she was excited to learn the district had been added to the register, but wasn’t surprised.
“We were more wondering when it was going to happen, not if it was going to happen,” she said. “We had done all the leg work, and I think we did a really good job of telling our story. I felt pretty confident. We have a strong historic core in place.”
Lilly said the main benefit of the designation is it will allow property owners in the district to take advantage of historic tax credits for renovations or historic rehabilitation.
“Traditionally, properties within a historic district have a higher assessed value,” she said. “That protects our property owners’ investments.”
Lilly also said the designation can be a powerful marketing tool.
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“I think it also provides a quality-of-life benefit and it’s another way to recognize the downtown. It shows our ability to honor and respect the businesses.”
Lilly said Community Main Street is working with the Iowa Department of Transportation to get brown signs for the highway indicating the historic district. Signage within the district will be put up in the spring.
Research was a major part of the designation process, and Tom Connors’ students at UNI did the bulk of it.
Connors, an associate history professor, said students — both graduate and undergraduate history majors — researched the buildings within the district.
“It was great hands-on experience for them,” he said. “History majors do a lot of internships at local museums and historical societies. All history majors need 15 hours of volunteer field hours. But to research and work on an application for the national register was a unique experience.”
Connors said students were each assigned a two-block area. They began gathering information online and then went through records at the courthouse, the historical society and UNI’s Rod Library, mostly relying on old city directories.
Connors said he was pleased to learn of the designation and proud of his students’ contributions.
“It’s a wonderful way to give back to their college town,” he said. “It gives them a real sense of accomplishment.”
The Cedar Falls Historical Society was the biggest resource for the research, said Karen Smith, the organization’s executive director.
“Our staff and volunteers worked with the students,” she said. “It was a great opportunity to go through and see how our system worked and exciting to see the information in raw form, whether it was old photographs, newspapers or city directories.”
Smith said buildings are evaluated for their age, integrity and significance.
“Buildings must be at least 50 years old,” she said. “That surprises a lot of people. But the building must look a lot like it did, especially the exterior. ... If someone who lived back when the building was built came back to life now, they should be able to recognize it.”
Smith said the district’s designation and accompanying tax credits also can serve as an incentive to reverse alterations and return buildings to their original design as much as possible.
“The historic designation is a wonderful honor for all the people who really care about Cedar Falls and its history.”
City planner Iris Lehmann worked as a liaison between the city and the Historical Preservation Commission.
“I did all the administrative work,” she said. “It was a long process, but an interesting one. I learned a lot.
“The designation provides recognition of the downtown historical assets. A lot of people put their hearts and souls into this. It’s amazing to see it all come to fruition.”