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Midwest Floods Wreak Havoc on Architectural Landmarks

July 1, 2008

By Blair Kamin

The floods that ravaged the Midwest in June did not discriminate between corn and soybean fields, aging riverfront downtowns and renowned architectural landmarks. Iowa was especially hard hit, with buildings by Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, Frank Gehry, Steven Holl, and Max Abramovitz taking on significant amounts of water. As the floodwaters receded, the overriding, still-unanswered question was whether the damage was structural or cosmetic.

University of Iowa has endured severe flood damage
University of Iowa has endured severe flood damage
Photos courtesy of University Relations, The University of Iowa
The University of Iowa has endured severe flood damage in recent weeks. The school's Arts Campus (top) includes buildings designed by Frank Gehry, Steven Holl, and Max Abramovitz (Hancher Auditorium, above). View more photos here.
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In Cedar Rapids, Iowa’s second largest city, the raging Cedar River poured into Sullivan’s exquisitely proportioned Peoples Savings Bank of 1911 (now owned by San Francisco-based Wells Fargo Bank). The two-story bank, which sits less than a block from the river and is clad in a ruddy tapestry brick, was painstakingly restored by Chicago architect Wilbert Hasbrouck in 1991. Water filled the building’s first floor and basement, according to bank officials. Preservationists held out hope that the water did not reach the bank’s upper level, which houses irreplaceable regionalist murals.

Upriver in the north-central Iowa town of Charles City, the Cedar River struck Wright’s Alvin Miller house of 1946, a low-slung, L-shaped home where terraces and an outdoor fireplace extend downward to the river’s banks. The house’s owners told the Chicago-based Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy that water reached up to the roofline.

The most widespread damage occurred at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, where the Iowa River bisects the campus, forming what is normally a picturesque river valley. The swollen river damaged 20 university buildings, wreaking havoc in the loosely arranged, riverfront cluster called the Arts Campus. There, several late 1960s and early 1970s Modernist structures by Abramovitz, including Hancher Auditorium and the university’s art museum, took on water. Most of the auditorium’s first-floor seats were submerged, university officials say.

Water covered much of the first floor in Holl’s Art and Art History Building (RECORD, January 2007, page 92), the reddish, guitar-shaped structure designed to soar over an old quarry pond, and Gehry’s Iowa Advanced Technology Laboratories of 1992, a fragmented collage sheathed in limestone and stainless steel. University officials expressed concern about damage to research equipment in the labs. In the art building, the flood was expected to leave behind foul-smelling air and contaminated materials in the first-floor rooms around the building’s Constructivist-inspired staircase. “Our building was built with the ground floor raised for a 100-year flood,” Holl says. “Unfortunately, this was a 500-year flood.”

To contribute to the University of Iowa’s flood relief effort, visit http://www.uiowa.edu/floodrecovery/.

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