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Encyclopedia Dubuque


"Encyclopedia Dubuque is the online authority for all things Dubuque, written by the people who know the city best.”
Marshall Cohen—researcher and producer, CNN

Affiliated with the Local History Network of the State Historical Society of Iowa, and the Iowa Museum Association.


From Encyclopedia Dubuque
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Poster celebrating the development of the Town Clock Plaza. Photo courtesy: Bob Reding
Photo courtesy: Jim Massey

TOWN CLOCK PLAZA. The first suggestion of a pedestrian mall for downtown Dubuque came from the (Victor) GRUEN REPORT to the city in 1965. In the 1970s it became common for cities to close a few blocks in the center of town to revitalize downtown business. In Dubuque, the pedestrian mall was believed capable of halting the decay of the business district and helping to revitalize the downtown. (1)

A minimum of sixty-five businesses were displaced by the urban renewal in Dubuque. Thirty-four went out of business, twenty-seven stayed in the Town Clock Plaza, twelve moved to the west edge of town, and the others relocated to a variety of places, mostly in the downtown area. Regional malls nationally within ten years drew the department stores away from the downtown area and tough economic times in the 1980s left much vacant office and commercial space. By the 1990s, pedestrian malls began to decline. (2)

Town Clock Plaza was Iowa's first open tree-lined pedestrian mall. The Plaza was under construction in 1970 when the first changes in signage were made. In keeping with the city's URBAN RENEWAL and rehabilitation standards, signs had to be nearly flush with the building. Older signs had to be removed. Deteriorating buildings along Main and Iowa STREETS were torn down. Raised planters for flowers and shrubs were constructed. (3) Planners declared the result would be a center for business, finance, government, and culture. Named for its most distinctive feature, the TOWN CLOCK, Dubuque's downtown plaza was dedicated in 1971 by George Romney, then head of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. (4)


On April 12, 1973, Dubuque MAYOR Joseph BITTER accepted an award given by Mrs. Pat Nixon on behalf of the American Association of Nurserymen. The award recognized the excellence in design and landscaping of the plaza. The site, featured in national publications, had its southern two blocks planted by Rettenberger Nursery Tree and landscape Service while the northern two blocks were planted by Nauman Nursery. The award given at the White House followed by one year an award presented by the American Association of landscape Architects to Barton-Aschman of Chicago for its design of the plaza. (5)

By 1986 a team of experts from Washington, D.C. claimed the $1.3 million plaza contributed to the decline of downtown Dubuque. While not calling the Plaza unattractive or a failure, they suggested it was just an idea that needing updating.The report of the National Main Street Center proposed reconstructing two of the mall's crossing streets, 6th and 8th, to provide better access. The fact that the project did not develop as planned was blamed by some on the lack of an expressway running along the riverfront as planned by the architects. (6)

Dubuque was not alone in finding the Plaza did not live up to original hopes. Federal urban renewal money led to a wave of pedestrian malls being constructed in the early 1960s through early 1970s. By 1986 the trend had reversed with malls being altered or demolished. Cities had attempted to compete with suburban shopping centers which had such advantages as uniform storefronts designs, uniform hours, and a well balanced mixture of shops. While early malls were not enclosed, this quickly became the norm adding climate control to the benefits downtown areas could not duplicate. Cities which found success with downtown malls were likely to benefit from a large customer base such as college students, white collar office workers, and or a steady supply of tourists. (7)

Promotional packet for the dedication and grand opening of the Town Clock Plaza. Photo courtesy: Bob Reding
Reverse of promotional packet. Photo courtesy: Bob Reding

Led by community leaders like John Butler, efforts were made by the 1990s to convince the City to reopen Main Street to traffic. In 1997 the city staff proposed that at a cost of $1.5 million Eighth Street should be opened between Iowa and Locust and Main Street should be opened between Eighth and Ninth. Town Clock Plaza would receive improvements including lighting, furniture, and landscaping. The staff also suggested a future review of potentially opening 6th Street and/or Main between 5th and 6th.

To fight the recommendation, a group of business owners formed Concerned Citizens for Downtown Dubuque. A petition they presented to the city council called for the opening of the entire plaza and quickly as possible. (8)

Image courtesy Mike Day. Kendall C. Day family collection.

On August 2, 2002 Main Street was opened (ahead of time and under budget) to traffic after an official ribbon cutting ceremony. The day's festivities also included a 365 Lunchtime Jam following the ribbon-cutting and a All That Jazz type event in the evening. (9)

Commemorative token.

The Main Street corridor through the former pedestrian plaza was a combination of an open street and a pedestrian friendly plaza. The street was narrower than the city standard to promote slower traffic movement. The parking areas, where they occurred, were to have standard color curbs but red colored concrete, exactly like on Eighth Street. There were to be 33 metered parking stalls in this four block section (5th to 9th) of Main Street. Between Eighth and Ninth, three loading zones similar to those on Eighth Street would be included along with angle parking in front of Graham's Style Store for Men. Parking locations were based on individual property owner requests. The Town Clock remained in its present location. Traffic would pass it to the east and west. (10)



1. Kirchen, Rich, "Town Clock Plaza: An Idea That Needs Updating," Telegraph Herald, May 4, 1986, p. 1

2. Coyle, Erin, "Many Cities Shared '70s Trend of Pedestrian Malls," Telegraph Herald, April 15, 2001, p. 1

3. " 'Walkway' Begins to Take Some Form," Telegraph Herald, July 10, 1970, p. 15

4. "Main Street is Finally Open." http://partners.dubuque365.com/mainstreetproject/index.html

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.

7. Kirchen

8. McDermott, Brad. "Petitioners: Tear Out Whole Plaza," Telegraph Herald, September 5, 1997, p. 1. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=aEyKTaVlRPYC&dat=19970905&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

9. "Main Street"

10. Ibid.