A Bird’s Eye View
A bird’s eye view of Iowa City, printed by Chicago Lithographing Co. in 1868, depicts the “civilizing” placemaking mission of white settlers. The view is expansive, precise-but-not-accurate, almost-but-not-quite a map. It is as much an object of aesthetic self-imagining as it is a record of spatial information. Orderly rows of streets line city blocks. Each street is labeled – Gilbert (John Gilbert, supposedly the first white man to set foot in Johnson County), Van Buren (Martin van Buren, president at the time when Iowa became a territory), Johnson (Colonel Richard Johnson, famous for killing the Indian warrior Tecumseh in 1813 and who also gave the county its name), and so on.
If you trace the labeled streets, you can find the approximate location of the first lot that was sold in 1839. John Trout won the first bid – $100 for a parcel near Clinton and Market. In 1881, the value of Iowa City land was valued at $1,598,113 (or about $45,796,278.18, accounting for inflation). It was said that “Iowa” meant “beautiful country,” an (untrue) effective real estate marketing tactic. Beauty, of course, means white clouds, blue sky, and green grass, but also factories, trains, and steamboats to make and transport products.
The Close House
C. D. Close came to Iowa City in 1854 and opened a linseed oil factory with his brothers. Before its closure in 1899, the factory consumed 75,000 bushels of flax seed a year (the building is now a restaurant). In 1874, Close commissioned an Italianate-style home to be built kitty-corner from his factory. Its location is 538 S. Gilbert. Zoning laws had not yet been developed, so factory owners often built their homes next to their factories. The well-to-do part of Iowa City was on the outskirts, by the railroad tracks. Connecting 538 S. Gilbert and Close’s factory is a now blocked-off tunnel (or pipes, depending on what you read) that runs under S. Gilbert. Steam from the factory helped heat the house, which also had multiple marble fireplaces. Pine, a nonnative, luxurious wood, lined the first level’s floors. It traveled down the Mississippi and was unloaded at what is now Muscatine. The fine mansion, according to the papers, would make the town proud (a four- or five-room, heated-by-one-stove home would make a factory worker proud).
538 S. Gilbert housed the Close family, fraternity brothers, orphans and foster children, Johnson County Social Services, and a furniture showroom. The frat added a fire escape, the county removed the façade’s decoration and painted the brick white. The cupola and widow’s walk were removed and replaced with a television antenna (they’re back now, recreated in the 1980s from a 1920s photograph). If you walk by the house, you can tell its perfectly green lawn was treated continuously with pesticides – it will take time for plants to be able to grow there again.
Public Space One bought the Close House in 2021. As carpets are torn out and ramps are built, new narratives are attaching themselves to the home (did you hear that 400 people crammed themselves inside for a punk show?).
Since the building’s purchase, the Center for Afrofuturist Studies and the LGBTQ Iowa Archives & Library have moved in. As I write this in the enclosed porch on the first floor, the Indigenous Peoples Art Gallery and Café is being set up on the second. Adaptive reuse does not only apply to the reuse of space, but the reshaping of meaning.