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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.


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An entire block was scheduled for demolition during urban renewal. Saving the MAJESTIC THEATRE and restoring it led to converting the entire block into FIVE FLAGS CIVIC CENTER. Photo courtesy: Telegraph Herald

URBAN RENEWAL (1960s and 1970s). Wayne Andrew Norman, Sr. once credited Dubuque with having so many styles of architecture because of the growth of its many industries. (1) As "captains of industry" rose, they constructed their homes in the style popular at the time. Often industries developed so quickly that one style of architecture might be seen right next to another.

Dubuque's unusually rich architectural heritage allowed the belief to persist that the loss of a landmark could be afforded. In 1932 Dubuque's first OCTAGON STYLE ARCHITECTURE home was torn down. The demolition contractor remarked that he had never seen a building so well constructed--eight inch thick concrete walls reinforced in the corners with oak branches embedded in the mortar. (2) The list of significant landmarks lost in Dubuque grew to include the passenger depot of the ILLINOIS CENTRAL RAILROAD; ELEVENTH STREET ELEVATOR; DUBUQUE CUSTOM HOUSE AND POST OFFICE; "Ridgemount," the James Langworthy House; the James Marsh residence; James BEACH home; William H. PEABODY house; MILWAUKEE RAILROAD SHOPS; Old Central Engine House; Turner Hall; John Emerson house; Bissell-Babbage-Andrew McDonald house; and GREYSTONE. (3) In 1969 the MAJESTIC THEATRE was scheduled for demolition. (4)

The loss of these buildings took place over a period of many years. In terms of changing the city's appearance, the collective effect was petty compared to the change resulting from urban renewal in the 1960s and 1970s. Dan Savage in his book Skipping Toward Gomorrah went to far as to describe Dubuque as:

           In the right light, Dubuque looks like a tintype 
           of a smiling Victorian woman who has literally 
           had half her teeth knocked out... (5)

Following WORLD WAR II, and continuing into the 1970s, “urban renewal” referred to public efforts to revitalize aging and decaying inner cities. (6) Dubuque, like cities across the country, was faced with the flight of business to suburban malls. Begun locally by PLAZA 20 and then KENNEDY MALL, ASBURY SQUARE, and CENTURY PLAZA, the construction of malls promised to place business near people who were occupying suburbs. Old buildings were considered an eye-sore and a barrier to efforts to rejuvenate the downtown area. Walter A. Pregler, mayor of the Dubuque during urban renewal, stated:

            Probably every building from (West Fourth) to Fifth
            (STREETS along Main Street) with the exception
            of the ORPHEUM, was empty from the second floor
            up. We sent upstairs to look, and Mildred Kennedy,
            the public health director...made us put on masks
            because it was more than 10 inches deep with pigeon
            droppings and dead pigeon bodies in the second and
            third floor floor of most of the buildings. (7)

Mary Jo Graham, wife of Thomas GRAHAM, former president of GRAHAM'S STYLE STORE agreed:

             The stores were deteriorating so badly with the
             absentee landlords. These buildings were just
             falling apart. (8)

On May 11, 1961 the announcement was made that the Dubuque City Council within a week would name a committee to select an expert to make application to the federal government for eligibility under the urban renewal law. This would be the first of many steps required before the city could actually receive a federal grant for carrying out urban renewal in "blighted or deteriorating" areas of the city.

Dubuque's approach to urban renewal would follow the recommendations of City Manager Gilbert D. CHAVENELLE. Chavenelle reported that a site had been considered, but there was some question if it would be the final choice for renewal. Chavenelle was referring to the "14th St. area" which the City Planner Justin Hartzog had recommended. (9)

On January 17, 1962 the firm of Victor Gruen Associates was chosen by a unanimous vote of the city's Urban Renewal Consultant Selection Committee composed of citizens, local officials, and members of the city council to "guide Dubuque's urban renewal program." (10) The company was an architectural, engineering and planning organization with offices in New York, Chicago, and Beverly Hills, California. Projects undertaken by the company ranged in cost from $50,000 to $100 million and included work in Green Bay, Wisconsin, St. Paul, Minnesota; Kalamazoo, Michigan; Fort Worth, Texas; and Redondo Beach, California. (11) The firm specialized "in creating desirable environments in its projects." (12)

The first task of the company was to prepare a "workable program" aimed at eliminating poor living conditions in the city. This program would be submitted to the Federal Housing and Home Finance Agency for approval.

The "workable program" was accepted by the city council in February 1962 when, by a 4-1 vote, it set out its objectives. This was written to outline what had been done and was being done before asking for federal funds to do a better job. The objectives stated by the council were: (13)

        * Institute an urban renewal program
        * Improve business areas and provide traffic circulation and off-street
        * Review and update the city manager's plan and increase the effectiveness
          of building and housing codes 
        * Build or rebuild City Hall, the Ninth Street Fire Station, police station,
          and the municipal garage
        * Expand the city limits
        * Set out a program of schedule for capital improvement financing

The second phase was the preparation of the city's application for federal funds to begin a "community renewal survey" to determine which areas should be given renewal treatment. The application approved by the city council was for a grant of $83,513. Of this, the city's share would be approximately $41,757. The city also planned to make several studies for which federal funds were not available. These included a parking and traffic study already underway. (14) Approval of a federal grant of $83,513 for Dubuque's community development studies was approved by the Housing and Home Finance Agency in September, 1962. (15)

Plans to develop a West side shopping center in 1965 threatened the future of the plan and led to the formation of the CITIZENS COMMITTEE FOR A BETTER DUBUQUE.

Two days after the city council approved the goals, the DUBUQUE CHAMBER OF COMMERCE announced plans to accelerate Dubuque's plans of expansion and urban renewal. A total of $20,000 was received from three Dubuque firms for furthering development plans. The first $10,000 from AMERICAN TRUST AND SAVINGS BANK, INTERSTATE POWER COMPANY, and FIRST NATIONAL BANK OF DUBUQUE was to be used for the purchase of stock in the DUBUQUE INDUSTRIAL DEVELOPMENT CORPORATION. The second $10,000, all from American Trust, was to be used by the Chamber's Board of Directors at their discretion to attract and develop industry in the city. (16)

Map indicating the area for urban renewal and a new county-city building to replace the courthouse. Photo courtesy: Telegraph Herald

On December 7, 1964, a 15-square block area bounded by Fourth, Ninth, Locust and Central was declared a blighted area by the Dubuque City Council and deemed the target for urban renewal in Dubuque. Within that area was a proposed site for a county-city building bounded by Fourth, Fifth, Locust and Iowa STREETS. This proposal, approved by the city council and the Dubuque County Board of Supervisors, threatened the continued existence of the DUBUQUE COUNTY COURTHOUSE. (17) In August, 1965 Cyril FERRING met with a group of members of the Chamber of Commerce to urge "a retention--but a modern one--of what you have." (18) Ferring, a resident of Chicago, had participated in that city's refurbishing of the Old Town Triangle.

                 Practically no one has what you have here, 
                 most of it has been destroyed. (19)

In August 1965 Gent WITTENBERG, then the deputy director of urban renewal in Toledo, Iowa, was hired as Dubuque's first director of urban renewal. The city had just received federal approval for its fifteen-block central business district urban renewal project. (20)

The issue was controversial. In May, 1966, Eldon Pfohl, a councilman, proposed that before work begin a referendum on Dubuque's proposed renewal project should be held. Pfohl believed urban renewal would raise local taxes. The council rejected the idea of a referendum on a 3-2 vote. (21)

Looking north at 4th and Main just before urban renewal around 1969. Note that Main was one-way. Photo courtesy: https://www.facebook.com/pages/You-know-you-grew-up-in-Dubuque-Iowa-if-you-remember/130170407077838

Urban renewal included slum clearance, massive demolition and rehabilitation. (22) In February, 1967 it was announced that the downtown urban renewal would cost the city $2.5 million with the federal share being $7 million. Dubuque would pay its share without a bond issue. (23)

The vote of the city council was subject to a lawsuit. Adam Casutt argued that the council vote violated state law because only 3 of the 5 members of the council voted. Judge Thomas NELSON ruled against the plaintiff declaring that a simple majority of the city council was needed. The case then proceeded to the Iowa Supreme Court. (24) In October 1967 a record 16,813 residents voted to replace anti-urban renewal councilmen with Gaylord M. COUCHMAN and Donald R. MEYERS. (25)

It was announced in June, 1967 that the first buildings scheduled for demolition should begin to fall by Thanksgiving. Before this was possible, the city first had to acquire the property relocate the tenants, and let bids for the demolition work. The federal government approved Dubuque's plan on June 16, 1967. As soon as formal notification arrived, the city would begin hiring a staff of appraisers, engineers and other personnel. (26)

Emphasizing the human factor of urban renewal, in 1969 the Telegraph Herald reported on an elderly woman who had lived in a downtown apartment for more than fifteen years. When fuel ran out for her wood-burning stove, she had to rely on steam from a boiling teakettle to "heat" her apartment. (27) When the relocation portion of urban renewal began around 1967 there were approximately 150 people living in the fifteen-square block urban renewal site. The majority of buildings they lived in were not up to building code standards. (28) As addressed in the Telegraph Herald article, apartments were found with no electrical outlets; single, cold-water faucets over wash basins; a single sheet of plywood used to separate one "apartment" from another; exposed wiring; and a bathtub, toilet, and wash basin located within a foot of each other. (29) The same year, the first new construction, a two-block-long parking ramp along Iowa Street from West 6th to Eighth Street, was celebrated with a ribbon cutting on October 24, 1969. (30)

Louis Barrett, the first relocation agent for the Urban-Renewal Department, and relocation agent Vern Graham agreed that the relocation program was not so much part of urban renewal as taking responsibility the city had neglected for years. (31) To relocate people, a new residence had to meet the standards of the City Building Department before federal renewal funds could be used. Many of the poor lived downtown because they needed close access to shopping and bus lines. For this reason, the majority of those relocated were found housing along the western and northern edges of the renewal district keeping them close to both shopping and transportation. To handle increased rents, the Urban Renewal Department, operating with a federal guideline, provided rent supplements and relocation grants. Rent supplements, an amount between the actual rent and the amount a person was able to pay, were paid monthly for five years. (32) It was hoped that after this time Social Security and old age assistance increases would be enough to replace the supplement. (33) The city coordinated relocation for an estimated 35 families and forty individuals from downtown residences. (34)

In January 1971 Urban Renewal Director Gent Wittenberg reported that twenty-one buildings in the fifteen-square block area had been demolished in 1970 bringing the total of demolished buildings up to 76. (35) Not all of the Gruen plan was carried out. At one time, all of the homes, which he considered substandard around ST. RAPHAEL'S CATHEDRAL would have been replaced with apartment buildings. Much of the Central Avenue corridor would have been demolished because it competed with the business district and much of the Washington Street and St. Mary's districts would have been replaced to allow construction of a freeway. (36)

Construction and rehabilitation followed demolition. In January 1971, Wittenberg reported that nearly $2 million in federal and local money had been spent on public improvements in the project area. (37) This included the first half of the TOWN CLOCK PLAZA, a 300-car parking ramp, widening and resurfacing of streets, improvements in lighting and landscaping. The sale of land had been consistent with the dozen land sales totaling $543,989. During 1970 developers had invested an estimated $350,000 in the construction of the ABELN ABSTRACT AND TITLE COMPANY, AMES BUSINESS MACHINE COMPANY, the Dubuque Bus Terminal, the Optometry Center and the Molo Oil Company service station. Six new buildings were scheduled for construction in the spring of 1971: Adams Realty Corporation building purchased by FIRST NATIONAL BANK OF DUBUQUE, a building for Graham's Clothiers (later GRAHAM'S STYLE STORE, a Hartig drug store, a two-story addition to the Fischer Arcade, a Time Finance Company building, and a second building by Ames Office Supply. (38)

By 1971 private developers had spent more than $345,000. Sites rehabilitated included the Fischer Arcade, Nesler Centre, ARENZ SHOE STORE, and CLARK TRANSFER AND STORAGE COMPANY. The first of the major renovations occurred to the ROSHEK'S DEPARTMENT STORE. (39) One of the anchor businesses in the downtown area, Roshek's had moved to KENNEDY MALL leaving the building empty except for several professional offices on the sixth through ninth floors. (40) Edward SHEPPLEY purchased the building in 1971 with the intention of converting the department store into office space with the lower three floors for department store space. (41) After eight years and expenditures estimated at $7 million, the new DUBUQUE BUILDING was ready for occupancy.

Three nineteenth-century rowhouses near Cable Car Square were converted into COVENTRY LTD. (42)

Owners of an additional eighteen buildings not scheduled for demolition were advised that their properties must meet city standards. (43) Paint was to be applied to the exterior of "shabby buildings" particularly along the alley side which are exposed to view from the Iowa Street Parking Ramp. Only signs which were flush to the wall would be permitted in the fifteen-block area. (44)

Some of the businesses which had been located in the downtown area returned. These included RENIER'S, CAPRI COSMETOLOGY COLLEGE, ALLIED CAMERA, Graham's. GRAND TAP, and M. P. HOGAN INC.. (45) In an effort to draw customers back to the downtown, planners experimented with the American pedestrian mall. These were usually former streets now blocked from traffic and converted to wide sidewalks between stores. Approximately two hundred pedestrian malls were installed during this time period. (46) The previously mentioned Town Clock Plaza, Iowa's first open tree-lined pedestrian mall, was dedicated in 1971 by George Romney, then head of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

In the 1970s, the "Your Town Clock Committee" was organized to have the TOWN CLOCK moved from its current location at 825 Main Street to the new TOWN CLOCK PLAZA. The city council approved. The $70,000 cost for the relocation was raised through donations raised over a 14 month period. (47)

The Durrant Architecture firm of Dubuque designed a pre-cast four-column pedestal that was then placed in the plaza. The actual tower was brought to the site on Feb 12, 1971, and bolted to the pedestal. The faces of the clock were placed at the new location on Feb 16, 1971. Afterwards the cupola was placed at the new site, which completed the move. After the reassembly was complete, the clock stood about 108 feet above the street, which was about two feet taller than at its previous location. (48) The move helped increased the visibility of the Town Clock which became the centerpiece at special events held at Town Clock Plaza. (49)

It may have been the plan to demolish the Orpheum that spurred serious preservation activity in the downtown area. Helen MERCER guided the DUBUQUE COUNTY HISTORICAL SOCIETY in efforts to place significant buildings like the DUBUQUE COUNTY COURTHOUSE on the NATIONAL REGISTER OF HISTORIC PLACES. (50) Wayne Norman led efforts that resulted in the Orpheum being saved and converted into an important facet of the FIVE FLAGS CIVIC CENTER. He also convinced local investors into purchasing the RYAN HOUSE and developing CABLE CAR SQUARE, the area at the base of the FOURTH STREET ELEVATOR, into a model of San Francisco's famed Ghirardelli Square. He was also instrumental in converting a turn-of-the-century freight house near the ICE HARBOR into a riverboat museum. (51) It could also be suggested that in reaction to the demolition, the city council under C. Robert JUSTMANN in February, 1975 gave council the power to postpone building demolitions in seven older neighborhoods for up to ninety days. Justmann credited the ordinance with "being a vehicle to conserve the dwindling supply of inner-city dwelling units through renovation. (52)

In 1973 NASH, Russell and Ruth NASH joined Richard and Liz Robertson, and Earl and Sue Steininger to establish the Fourth Street Artist Gallery in a restored pre-Civil War brick building in Cable Car Square. The gallery which offered local artists a place to exhibit their works to potential customers sold more than $100,000 worth of weaving, pottery, paintings, and prints in six years. To remain active, seventy percent of the sales were returned to the artist with the rest kept for overhead. (53)

The Nashes were encouraged by their first effort and in 1976 purchased a 1910 QUEEN ANNE ARCHITECTURE residence at 422 Loras Boulevard. Part of the space was rented as an apartment with the rest provided as office for the DUBUQUE ARTS COUNCIL, Friendship Force, West 11th Street Neighborhood Association, and the Dubuque Fine Arts Society. (54)

When urban renewal in Dubuque was completed, 128 buildings had been demolished, 170 businesses moved out, and 122 parcels of land had been created. (55) In 1976 city officials forecast that the planned construction of the FIVE FLAGS CIVIC CENTER would encourage new development in the downtown area. In 1977 the Dubuque City Council established a Historical Preservation Commission which had the responsibility of evaluating older buildings it considered worthy of preservation. (56)

Without using the term "urban renewal," efforts to rehabilitate sections of the city have continued and grown in popularity. Often associated with AFFORDABLE HOUSING, this modern urban renewal has used tax exemptions to encourage property improvements. In November, 2019 the city council voted 6-0 to consolidate and expand the city's urban revitalization areas into one district covering the entire downtown. This meant that 5,700 properties would be eligible for an estimated $224,000 in tax exemptions to improves made on residential and commercial properties. Homeowners living in the district who increased the value of their homes by 10% or more would be exempt from paying for that increase on their city property tax bill for ten years. (57)

See: SUSTAINABLE DUBUQUE and related entries.



1. Interview of Wayne Norman, August 1980

2. Sommer, Lawrence J. The Heritage of Dubuque: An Architectural View, East Dubuque, IL: Tel Graphics, 1975, p. 14

3. Ibid., p. 14-28

4. Fyten, David. "Stepped Up Historic Preservation Effort Urged," Telegraph Herald, Mar. 3, 1974, p. 18

5. Savage, Dan. Skipping Toward Gomorrah, New York: Dutton, a member of the Penguin Group, September 2002, Online: http://books.google.com/books?id=jjrS4RtW_LAC&pg=PT33&lpg=PT33&dq=dubuque+urban+renewal&source=bl&ots=5srtfj9DUd&sig=8eCQ-E_bMX-cCzgpRvNLFh7uM6Q&hl=en&sa=X&ei=jaY4VIDBDpWeyATiqoC4Cg&ved=0CCgQ6AEwAjg8#v=onepage&q=dubuque%20urban%20renewal&f=false

6. "Urban Renewal," Encyclopedia of Chicago. Online: http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/1295.html

7. Day, Mike, "Revisiting Urban Renewal," Telegraph Herald, November 22, 2018, p. 2

8. Ibid.

9. "Council to Seek Expert," Telegraph-Herald, May 11, 1961, p. 1

10. Shively, Neil, "Council Must Okay Selection," Telegraph Herald, January 18, 1962, p. 1

11. Ibid., p. 4

12. Ibid.

13. Shively, Neil, "City to Send Urban Renewal Objectives to Federal Agency," Telegraph Herald, February 20, 1962, p. 1

14. "Dubuque Has 'License' for Urban Renewal," Telegraph Herald, May 27, 1962, p. 37

15. "City Obtains Federal Funds for Urban Renewal Studies," Telegraph Herald, September 9, 1962, p. 1

16. "To Finance Downtown Planning," Telegraph Herald, February 22, 1962, p. 1

17. "County, City OK Building," Telegraph-Herald, December 8, 1964, p. 1

18. Thompson, Dave. "Chamber Told to Keep Dubuque Style, Charm," "Telegraph Herald," August 20, 1965, p. 1

19. Ibid.

20. "Gent Wittenberg to Head Urban Renewal in Dubuque," Toledo Blade, August 30, 1965, p. 1. Online: http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1350&dat=19650830&id=bD0xAAAAIBAJ&sjid=ZgEEAAAAIBAJ&pg=2108,1333947

21. Thompson, Dave. "Council Bars Test Vote on Urban Renewal, 3-2," Telegraph Herald, May 3, 1966, p. 1

22. "Urban Renewal."

23. "Chronology," Telegraph Herald, December 31, 1967, p. 18

24. Ibid.

25. Ibid.

26. "Outline Next Steps in Urban Renewal," Telegraph Herald, June 18, 1967, p. 1

27. Bulkley, John. "Renewal Has Brought a Better Life for Some," Telegraph Herald, Dec. 9. 1969, p. 12.

28. Ibid.

29. Ibid.

30. Day, p. 2

31. Bulkley

32. Ibid.

33. Ibid., p. 13

34. Day, p. 2

35. Miller, Jim. "Council Hears Renewal Plans," Telegraph Herald, January 17, 1971, p. 18.

36. Day, p. 2

37. Miller

38. Ibid.

39. Nash, Ruth. "Dubuque: Building on a Proud Heritage," The Iowan, Summer 1979, p. 10

40. Meyer, Jeffrey L. "A Downtown Christmas Stable," Julien's Journal, December 2010, p. 65

41. Ibid., p. 66

42. Nash, p. 10

43. Miller, p. 18

44. Ibid.

45. Day, p. 2

46. Judge, Cole E. The Experiment of American Pedestrian Malls: Trends Analysis, Necessary Indicators for Success and Recommendations for Fresno’s Fulton Mall," Nov. 11, 2013, p. 2, Online: http://www.downtownfresno.org/_files/docs/americanpedmallexperiment.pdf

47. "Urban Renewal," Geocaching, http://www.geocaching.com/geocache/GC54QDA_town-clock?guid=06b67970-c538-4f60-b857-397569764c59

48. Ibid.

49. Ibid.

50. Nash, Ruth. "Dubuque: Building on a Proud Heritage," The Iowan, Summer 1979, p. 6

51. Ibid.

52. Fyten, David, "Ordinance to Delay Some Building Demolitions," Telegraph Herald, February 11, 1975, p. 20

53. Ibid.

54. Ibid.

55. Good, Stephen. "Officials Pin Hopes for New Development on 5 Flags," Telegraph Herald, December 12, 1976, ,p. 25

56. Nash

57. Barton, Thomas J., "Renewal Plan Branches into More Urban Areas," Telegraph Herald, November 20, 2019, p.. 1A