CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — City leaders used sledgehammers to mark the beginning of a multi-million dollar project that will replace a century of history with a four-story apartment complex.
Taking swings at the solid brick Banjo Refrigeration building, constructed in 1910, no one made a dent until Mayor Brad Hart cracked a window during the “demolition-commencement ceremony” for the Banjo Block property on Dec. 15, 2021.
Hart noted that the project has been a decade in the making.
TWG of Indianapolis, Indiana, plans a $49 million development with 224 housing units on the site, encompassing the entire city block across from the Cedar Rapids Public Library.
D.W. Zinser has started demolition preparations, including removing trees that survived the 2020 hurricane-strength derecho, which took out an estimated 70 percent of the tree canopy in Cedar Rapids. Hart said TWG would be required to replace the trees.
As with many developments in Cedar Rapids, the slate will be wiped clean before construction begins.
That includes eliminating more than a century of history in the Banjo Block.
Five buildings, encompassing eight storefronts on Fourth Avenue and Fifth Street SE, are scheduled to be demolished.
The oldest date back to 1910.
Star Soft Water and Dry Cleaning opened that year at 509 Fourth Ave. SE, and operated there until 1943, according to Cedar Rapids Historian Mark Stoffer Hunter.
Refrigeration Equipment Company & Ice Machine, owned by the Melsha family and later known as Banjo Refrigeration, opened at the site in 1945, and operated continuously at that location through October 2021.
The brick building is the namesake for the Banjo Block, although a neighboring building has been more recognizable on the site. The two-story structure with bay windows, at 515 and 517 Fourth Ave. SE, also was built in 1910.
According to Stoffer Hunter, the 515 storefront originally housed the Night Commander Light Company, while 517 was the location of the Charles Lydick grocery store, with upstairs apartments.
Stoffer Hunter noted a shoemaker shop, operated by Gus Samos, operated out of 515 by 1920, while the grocery store was then operated by the Trombino family. Both storefronts were used by the J.T. Ure Tile Company through the 1940s and 1950s.
He said competition forced the tile company to downsize, and they shared space with the Cedar Rapids Auto Club by 1960. By the late 1960s, the first level was occupied by the AAA Travel Club until the 1980s.
Ornate tin ceilings, used as a means of fire protection between floors, were recently uncovered under the drop ceilings and portions were salvaged by Terry Philips and Sandra Johnson of Mills Seed Co. in Washington, Iowa.
The one-story structure behind the two buildings was constructed around 1915, with the capacity to hold 16 automobiles, Stoffer Hunter said, and a 5,000-gallon tank located near the alley.
A brick house on the lot had been used as apartments before it was demolished, with two of the infamous “Cherry Sisters” living at 508 Fifth Ave. SE in the early 1940s, he said.
Stoffer Hunter provided the following on the other “Banjo Block” buildings:
The storefront at 501, 503 and 505 Fourth Ave. SE was built in 1919, with 501 housing a pharmacy; 503 containing a grocery store and 505 home to the Denecke Bakery. The Robert Melsha family occupied 503 with Banjo Refrigeration in the 1930s and the entire building merged by the 1970s to house Paulson Electric.
It was most recently home to Dupaco Credit Union.
The single-story cinder block structure at 420 Fifth St. SE is the newest building on the site, constructed in 1952 as the 420 Club & Grill, and later, the Stop-Off Tavern in the 1980s.
Although recently vacant, several of the buildings, with their rustic brick appearance, have been a favorite of photographers who have taken senior portraits, wedding party photos and more at the site. The buildings were not evaluated to see if they would qualify for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.
Save CR Heritage has asked the city and state of Iowa to end financial incentives for projects that involve the demolition of historic buildings.
The nonprofit, which is headquartered just across the street from the Banjo Block, took up a petition that would require developers receiving incentives who choose to build in a historic district or where a building on, or eligible, for the National Register of Historic Places is located to incorporate those structures into the development or move the building, at their own expense, but the Cedar Rapids City Council has not taken action on the petition.