June 28, 2022

Historic preservation group aims to preserve, appropriately update historic architecture

Try to imagine Greenfield’s square without The Jewel Box building or The Grand Theatre, The Corner or the Warren Cultural Center, replaced by empty lots, like missing teeth in an embarrassed smile. Those buildings and 44 others in the Greenfield Public Square Historic District provide more than a link to the town’s past. They enhance the quality of 21st Century community life for residents and visitors alike.

Maintaining Greenfield’s historic architecture while helping adapt the district’s buildings to contemporary needs is the goal of the Historic Preservation Commission. It was formed in 1997 when Greenfield became a Certified Local Government by meeting state standards. In 2014 the Public Square Historic District earned a place on the National Register of Historic places. The district includes 48 buildings around the square and extends one block to the east and two blocks to the south.

In that area, 37 buildings contribute historic significance, constructed between 1856, when the town was established, and 1969. Five individual buildings are on the National Register: the Adair County Courthouse, built in 1891-92; the Warren Opera House, 1896; the Adair County Democrat (later Free Press, now part of Hotel Greenfield, housing The Olive Branch restaurant); the Carnegie Library building, 1916; and Hotel Greenfield, 1920.

Many of the buildings feature brick construction, mandated after a devastating fire early in the town’s history, with Victorian style architecture, popular in the late 1800s. But the historic period extends into the 20th Century to include the art deco style of the electric generating plant (1940) and the ‘60s remodel of the Grand Theatre.

When Jane Ahnen needed more space for the Jewel Box, she found a new home for her business on the west side of the square in the Littleton building (1898). Her love for antiques led her to restore the entire building, including features such as the large windows in front. She converted the upper level, which had been two office spaces, into an apartment.

“That’s just always been my passion, to see history passed on to the next generation,” she said. “That’s our responsibility.”

Her building once served as a bank, and when she turned it into retail space in 2001, she left the vault as a prominent feature. Kids on tours love to go in there, she said, and delight in the total darkness when she turns off the lights.

The street layout of the square, known as a Lancaster design, and its three-quarter size blocks create the hometown feel that attracted movie producer Norman Lear with his “Cold Turkey” production in 1969. From its beginning, the unique-to-Iowa square has played host to countless community gatherings, big and small.

The need to repair and upgrade commercial buildings is inevitable, but those improvements need not sacrifice the historic nature of the structures. Studies have shown that appropriately maintained and preserved historic buildings improve community pride, attract new people to live in and visit, enhance economic vitality, and support property values.

Toward that end, the commission in July 2020 developed design guidelines to encourage property owners to use materials and design elements to help preserve the square’s historic nature. The voluntary standards were compiled in a full color illustrated guide, which is available at no charge through Greenfield Chamber/Main Street.

A variety of incentives are available to developers and property owners, including grants and tax credits from several different sources to aid in following the guidelines. Past projects have ranged from a fresh coat of paint to new awnings or windows to roof repairs and more.

In recent times only one building on the town square has been lost, a two-story structure in the southwest corner. Its brickwork failed and it was torn down in about 1997. The space now serves as a parking lot.

A major factor in the success of preservation efforts has been the cooperation of various groups and stakeholders, including private citizens, city government, local banks and foundations, and organizations such as Chamber/Main Street.

While the guidelines emphasize the bricks-and-mortar aspects of preservation, it is the human experience of being in a shared, historic space that first attracted Sheri Blair to Greenfield and to serve on the commission. “Without the human experience the buildings don’t mean anything,” she said. What’s important is “creating the idea that this place matters.”

That includes not just buildings, but all the efforts and energy that goes into using the square for events. “Creating an enjoyable experience for visitors and residents, to go to the square and participate and create new memories of their own,” she said.

The commission continues to look for opportunities to connect people to the historic square. A walking tour guide, which explains the history of buildings around the district, is available at Chamber/Main Street and various businesses. Last week NV school children took a guided tour around the square.

The recent closure of the Presbyterian Church provides an opportunity perhaps to expand the district one more step to the south. Historic architect Pete Franks from Glenwood visited and toured the building to evaluate its eligibility for the National Register and conduct a feasibility study for its future use. Ownership is being transferred to the Greater Greenfield Foundation, which is exploring various options.

Current commission members are Catherine Olesen, Tasia Scott, Ken Sidey, Steve Wolfe, Marty Lonsdale, Suzanne Wagner (city council), and Stacie Eshelman (Chamber/Main Street staff).

Caleb Nelson

Caleb Nelson

Caleb Nelson has served as News Editor of the Adair County Free Press and Fontanelle Observer since Oct. 2017. He and his wife Kilee live in Greenfield. In Greenfield and the greater Adair County area, he values the opportunity to tell peoples' stories, enjoys playing guitar, following all levels of sports, and being a part of his local church.