These indescribable two-story apartment buildings in Iowa City reflect our history


A theoretical duplex apartment.

In the fall of 2018, I was waiting for a morning class to start in the semi-basement of Schaeffer Hall when I noticed a friend sitting next to me drawing on the margins of a notebook. square geometric shapes.

Before I even asked him for confirmation, I knew exactly what it was: a floor plan for an apartment building in Iowa City – specifically, the ubiquitous 2.5-story cream and brick duplex apartments that dot it. Iowa City neighborhoods. where students predominate, particularly south of East Burlington Street on South Van Buren and South Johnson Streets. Much like obscenity, you know when you can see it – but for reference, I’ve pulled a few examples from the Iowa City Assessor here, here, and here.

They are favored by tenants for their relatively cheap rent and hated for their poor quality and poor maintenance by absent landlords. However, the ubiquity of this type of building, both in the built environment of the city and in the minds of its inhabitants, suggests that there is really something significant about these duplex buildings, despite their mediocrity. architectural.

Generally speaking, historic preservation in the United States is only about buildings or places that have gained significance over the past 50 years, a standard known as the “50-year rule.” Indeed, at least one of those apartments was completed in 1971, according to the Iowa City Assessor, placing the style just inside that 50-year rule to consider.

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Austin wu

Austin wu

However, many have yet to do so, and it is likely that none were within the rule when most polls and nominations were made for Iowa City’s current historic neighborhoods ago. many years. A 1997 document for the nationally recognized College Green Historic District designates the only multi-level apartment building within its boundaries, the building at 806 E. College St., as “non-contributory” to the neighborhood. historic due to the fact that it fell outside the 50-year rule at the time. However, the passage of time now means that many of these buildings are entering the 50-year mark and therefore deserve to be considered again.

The actual history of these buildings is difficult to trace, possibly due in part to a general disinterest in them among advocates of historic preservation. A quick review of the Iowa City Assessor and historic aerial images of Johnson County suggests that most were built in the 1970s and 1980s. Additionally, a 1999 National Register of Historic Places document titled “Architectural Resources and history of the original Town Plat district (Phase II), 1845 – 1945 ”devotes a few sentences to the trend for duplex apartments at the end of the 20th century:

“The redevelopment at the end of the 20th century differed from the slower organic changes of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The need for student housing skyrocketed in the 1960s and 1970s and the same factors that made the Near North Side a convenient residential choice for college professors and boarding students in 1900 made the area ideal for development. residential buildings. These new dwellings are in the form of four- and six-dwellings built in brick with mansard roofs. The construction of these “attic plexes” had declined in the late 1980s following the adoption of zoning changes making the construction of apartments more difficult on the north side.

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The registration form for the Gilbert-Linn Street Historic District in the Northside describes a “wave” of apartment building construction that took place from the 1960s through the mid-1980s. Moreover, not only these duplex apartments are described as “intrusions” into the historic district, but the only one that managed to get within its limits, at 521 N. Linn St., is described as an “unnamed apartment building” built around 1980, in an unrecognizable style. Unsurprisingly, the building is listed as not contributing to the Historic District. Additional reference to “mansard-plexes”, as well as the zoning changes associated with them, can be found in the city’s central district plan.

Critics may (correctly) note that the construction of these apartment buildings came at the cost of buildings that might have contributed to Iowa City’s current historic neighborhoods, had they not been demolished for make way for the mansard-plex. However, I would say that determining the significance of a building has more to do with the impact it has had on the historical record of a place and the lived experiences of its residents, rather than a simple retrospective evaluation of its exterior aesthetics.

Before being celebrated today, the homes in the Sears catalog and the brownstone townhouses of New York City were criticized in their day for their bland, monotonous and repetitive appearance. The writings of Kate Wagner, who runs the McMansion Hell blog, devoted to soaking up mundane and poorly made contemporary homes, have informed me greatly on this point of view. When discussing how buildings in the United States are deemed “worthy” of preservation, she notes:

“A common mistake of preservation is that it is reserved only for the oldest and most ornate buildings, especially those relevant to the heavily sanitized version of American history taught in elementary schools. I would say preservation is even more important for the buildings we find it hard to like. “

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And these hard-to-love attic complexes have become an integral part of the built environment and lived experiences for generations of Iowa City residents. Even if one did not spend his college years living in one of these buildings, it is almost certain that virtually all of the University of Iowa’s alumni have spent time there in other ways. – at a house party, visiting friends or partner, meeting for drinks and board games.

Fewer people might say the same for the meticulously preserved houses often right next door. As beautiful as most of the historic homes on Northside or Summit Street are, their stories are far less inclusive than those of the humble mansard-plex.

Overall, however, I consider these buildings to be of questionable quality and general appearance. Unlike the aforementioned Brownstone or Sears homes, I doubt this rating will change much over time.

And yet, ubiquitous as they are, mansard-plexes work in a way on borrowed time. Changes to the Iowa City zoning code since their heyday in the 1980s mean that it’s largely impossible to recreate a mansard-plex today if a developer was inclined to do so.

It is likely that their gradual demise over the course of this century will be actively noticed by a few and may even be celebrated by some. Nonetheless, at this point several generations of students have passed through these buildings, and it seems certain that there are still several generations left as these buildings enter middle age. Just because a building is ugly doesn’t mean its presence has had a limited impact on Iowa City’s history – and in the case of these duplex apartments, quite the opposite.

For these kinds of buildings which do not really correspond to a taxonomic architectural style (as is the case for mansard-plexes), Wagner further notes:

“[They] are fascinating cultural bookmarks. Our collective memory is imbued there: both with a vast landscape and with individual human experience. They tell us about the way people live (or want to live) and how society, aesthetics, infrastructure and economies are changing or are changing. Much can be read about the socio-political and socio-economic history of the United States through its suburban homes and dead shopping malls; its dilapidated factories and sparkling new distribution centers.

As these buildings begin to come under the 50 Year Rule, I think it’s time to reassess the contempt with which advocates of historic preservation have treated these buildings. In recognition of the cultural and historical significance of this form of mid-century vernacular housing stock to the thousands of young people who have passed through Iowa City, I suggest that a few of these sites (but only a few -a) be considered for designation as local historic monuments, along with the rigorous documentation that accompanies landmark status.

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A conservation district along South Johnson Street, where many of them proliferate between Burlington and Bowery Streets, might do the trick. It would commemorate the major role the humble mansard-plex has played in student housing as well as the experience of the city’s young residents for at least half a century.

Austin Wu grew up in Cedar Rapids and recently graduated from the University of Iowa’s College of Public Health. In his spare time he has been interested in local history and urban design and, through this column, seeks to imagine a better and tangible future in eastern Iowa drawing on principles from the past. . It will appear in the Press-Citizen twice a month. Follow him on Twitter, @theaustinwu.

This article originally appeared on Iowa City Press-Citizen: Apartments that housed University of Iowa students reflect history

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