Friday, May 29, 2009


As I mentioned in a comment to last week's post, Disappointed But Not Surprised, I wrote a guest opinion for the Iowa City Press Citizen.

Introducing myself to the developer after the meeting, and talking about my blog, is what crystalized my approach to what I wanted to say.

I made copies of my letter and the real estate brochure and hand delivered them to our five city council members (took about 25 minutes including visiting with three of them, there are some positives to a small town) on Tuesday evening. Then I then emailed it to the paper Tuesday night.

Wednesday morning I found three emails back from the paper. The first asked for a copy of the brochure that they could run with the piece, the second asked could I send a picture of myself and a one sentence biography, and the third said they would run it on Friday and would not have room for any image of the brochure. I had a hard time finding a decent picture of myself in a hurry, and to be honest, it wasn't the time element that made it difficult.

So here what I said:

I found a map the other day that the original owner of our house drew showing all the trees and plantings in her yard. Bess Fox built our house in 1928 in University Heights’ second addition. The map was drawn in 1956. On the map she listed 19 trees: 4 apple, 3 cherry, 3 peach, 3 plum, 2 pear, 1 pine, 1 elm, 1 redbud, and 1 magnolia. Today NONE of those trees are in our yard. What also fascinates me is that the 3 walnuts, each over 30 feet high that completely dominate our yard are not listed. There is also a very large oak tree between us and our neighbors, that visitors frequently comment must be over 150 years old, I smile, and being the polite type, don’t disagree. However I have a 1929 picture of our house and the neighbor’s that show no trees at all, not surprising since the land was a pasture before it was developed. Driving our shady woodland neighborhood today it’s only logical to assume it has always been this way.

I mention this because my town’s city council will face an extremely difficult decision on June 9th when they hear an application for the rezoning of the St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church parcel. The developer there has proposed a commercial center at the front of the site and a residential building toward the rear. In the three voluntary meetings he held prior to submission of his application, the developer presented ideas and asked for community feedback. When the official proposal was submitted to the U-H Planning and Zoning Commission the final project reflected input from the community that said it was too tall and too dense. The residential building was lowered from 9 stories in the middle with 7 story wings to 6 stories in the middle with a 3 story wing to the west and a 4 story wing to the east. The commercial building was moved back further from the street, also as a result of community input.

Not surprisingly even though these changes were made, there are many people still opposed to the project. Two frequent criticisms I heard, at both the voluntary meetings held by the developer and the two sessions of the formal Planning & Zoning Commission hearing, were that “University Heights is a town of single family residences” and “University Heights was deliberately created without any commercial district.” I think it would be fair to summarize those arguments as “The way it pretty much is now is the way it has always been.” I beg to differ.

Besides being a pretty fair cartographer, Bess was a documentarian and a saver. A prized artifact I have is an original advertising brochure for the sale of lots in University Heights Second Addition. This document dates to 1927. It touts, in red letters no less, University Heights as “The Coral Gables Sub-Division of Iowa City.” Koser Brothers, the developers of University Heights, predicted “A lot in University Heights is a safe investment because the $6,000,000 building program of the UNIVERSITY on the West Side will make a big demand for West Side property and will cause values to increase very rapidly.” Their next statement was, “In a few years we predict the West Side Campus of the University will be larger than the East Side, and this will develop a residence section on the West Side of the river as large as we now have on the East Side---a business district with hotels, stores, etc. Iowa City will grow and develop as the University develops… A future vision of Iowa City must be a vision of a New City on the West Side.” To be absolutely clear of their intention, at another portion of the brochure is the statement, “University Heights has ample building restriction sufficient to protect all parties. A business district has been planned.”

Maybe it’s unfair to say that University Heights was planned with a business district, since the advertising brochure predates municipal incorporation by at least 7 years. Perhaps the thinking changed during that time? In a Cedar Rapids Gazette article written shortly after the first municipal election, following incorporation in 1935, it notes as highly unusual that there are currently no businesses in town. But it should be mentioned that the first mayor of University Heights was Lee Koser, the real estate developer half of Koser Brothers, and presumed author of the quotes above.

With the stock market crash and subsequent depression, it seemed as though no businesses would ever locate within city limits, but the post World War II years brought commercial construction on the very east edge of town, and Iowa’s fairly restrictive alcohol sales laws brought commercial construction to the very west edge. For more about that I highly recommend David Belgum’s book “Memoirs of Iowa’s Only Socialist Mayor.”

So even though things seem to have always been the same, perhaps they weren’t. I have to think Bess found it highly amusing to live on Golfview Ave. My University-Heights real estate brochure extols the proximity of town to the “golf links” making it a country club like setting. Golfview Ave. was to be the most prestigious street in town. There was only one problem, the same year that Bess built her house, the University of Iowa, with no prior warning, announced that it was relocating the football field to the West Campus area occupied by Finkbine Golf Course, and moving the golfing even further west. And rest, as they say, is history.

I would urge University Heights City Council to approve the zoning change for the One University Place development.

To see my bio and picture (and read the snarky comments that will soon be posted, I'm sure) You'll need to go to the P-C's online article:

Approve One University Place

Edit at 10:00 AM: Due to requests, here is the complete photo that was edited down for my head shot:

Rowan took it a couple months ago. I'm sitting at the breakfast nook, maybe doing the crossword or suduko?

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Beans Are Up!

After a really big rain most of last night I visited the garden this evening to find that the beans are just poking through the ground. Many are still wearing their seed coats:

These are Kentucky Wonder Beans and will grow up my 8 foot tall fence vigorously. I saved these beans from last year's crop.

My heirloom peas, planted the first week of April are nearly 3 feet tall right now:

In my 20 years of growing them and saving seeds, I think I have influenced their height by saving those which grew especially tall.

I'm trying potatoes again after we ate our entire inaugural crop last year at Thanksgiving. Jean, who I work with, gave me seed potatoes from Seed Savers in Decorah (I gave her peas). Here are the German Browns:

Not nearly as tall but vigorous are the Peruvian Purples:

I have to be a polyglot to garden this year.

Other early success are my onions, I've been eating them for nearly 3 weeks:

And my red leaf lettuce, which I started to harvest on Saturday:

Right next to the lettuce above are this year's new experimental plants, collard greens.

I've also got tomatoes, peppers, basil, cucumbers, cabbage, cantelope, watermelon, Chinese cabbage, zucchini and cilantro planted. I still need to put in some acorn squash and pumpkins.

Meanwhile as I work on all this, Lisa continues to sculpt the yard on a much grander, perennial scale. The textures. color, and depth never cease to amaze me, as they did on my way back to the house tonight:

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Disappointed But Not Surprised

Wednesday night I went to the University Heights zoning comission hearing. After three more hours continued from two weeks ago, they voted 3-2 to defeat a motion to re-zone St. Andrew's church site to allow the propsed One University Place development. Mentioned previously here Controversy Rages, and here A Grocery Store.

Local media coverage is here Board Opposes Rezoning

If you're a REAL glutton for punishment you can read on the University Heights website the entire history of this development complete with citizen letters (including my own) sent to the P&Z Commissioners and City Council here Web Pages Concerning St. Andrew Church

The City Council Hearing will be on June 9th. Due to a petition of neighbors a supermajority of 4 out of 5 councilors will be needed for passage. Actually the supermajority would have been necessary due to the P&Z vote anyway.

Humorous Blog connection/irony: After the meeting I introduced myself to the developer and talked about about some of the historical artifacts I have including the original U-H development brochure here Coral Gables Subdivision of Iowa City, one of the other partners looks at me and says "I've seen that brochure it was on some guy's blog about his house!" He was quite surprised when I told him that was me. I really don't think there are more than 10 local people who know about the blog!

Monday, May 18, 2009

1956 Yard Map

In going through "stuff" I found a letter that Bess wrote to her nieces in 1956 that came back to her somehow. The letter includes a lengthy description of her vegetable garden and a hand drawn map, complete with numbers and a list of items in the yard:

Our yard layout, the little red dots are flagstone walks to garden, garage, and shed

1. house
2. garage
3. tool shed
4. pool
5. driveway
6. turn around place
7. garden – mostly vegetables
8. raspberries – currants – goosberries
9. Sweet cherry tree
10. peach trees
11. peach trees
12. green gage plum tree
13. northern spy apple
14. apple tree
15. cherry tree
16. pine tree
17. apple tree
18. cherry tree
19. pear tree
20. apple tree
21. sweet pear tree
22. plum tree
23. plum tree
24. elm tree
25. red bud
26. magnolia
27. red leaf peach
28. golden rain
29. strawberries (150 plants)
30. strawberry pyramid

And how much is left today?

1. house YES
2. garage YES
3. tool shed NO (our garden is here)
4. pool YES
5. driveway YES
6. turn around place YES
7. garden – mostly vegetables NO (Sold in early 1980's)
8. raspberries – currants – goosberries NO (our garden is here)
9. Sweet cherry tree NO (our garden is here)
10. peach tree NO (swingset)
11. peach tree NO
12. green gage plum tree NO (tree house)
13. northern spy apple NO
14. apple tree NO
15. cherry tree NO
16. pine tree NO
17. apple tree NO
18. cherry tree NO (limestone patio)
19. pear tree NO
20. apple tree NO
21. sweet pear tree NO (crabapple)
22. plum tree NO (maple tree)
23. plum tree Sort Of (We cut down the original in 2005 it was growing sideways out of the hill, a sprout from the roots has come back)
24. elm tree NO
25. red bud NO
26. magnolia NO
27. red leaf peach NO
28. golden rain NO
29. strawberries (150 plants)NO
30. strawberry pyramid NO

Items of note:

  • Most of the path stones are around, we've moved them some. The line to the garage is now sidewalk, I know the flagstones are underneath the cement.
  • I'm very curious about what the red letters are.
  • None of the three enormous walnut trees that dominate our yard today are marked. They lie roughly between 13 and 2, between 6 and 23, and at 28. I would trade at least two of them for half the fruit trees listed...
  • None of the lilac bushes along the southwestern edge of the yard are listed.
  • Bess lists the front dimension of the lot as 125 feet. In the letter she says she has all but finalized the purchase of a 25 foot wide strip of land north of the driveway that ran along the northwest side of the lot. That must have never been purchased because last night I stepped off 125 feet from the eastern corner of the lot and ended up all the way down across the neighbor's driveway. The house north of ours was the last one built in the neighborhood in 1968.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Carved in Stone

Lisa hit me with a moment of clarity on Sunday. She looked at the back corner where pond excavations continue. Last fall I finished digging out the 1933 cement pond that had been completely covered and hidden. This spring I have been digging back three feet around the pond so that I can control rainwater run off and divert it around the pond. I will use retaining wall blocks and try to build an integral bench into one side by reusing some of the cement blocks I recovered from the Front Street house that was torn down.

Anyway, as I've been digging I've hits lots of rocks in the dirt. I took a bunch of those rocks and washed them off. I told her my plan was to build a waterfall at the back of the pond and hide the retaining wall with the stones. I got a pump to place in the pond to take water up behind the rocks and recirculate it. She cocked her head and looked at me and said, "You want to build a grotto don't you?"

I hadn't really considered that, but I should have. Grottos have a mythical place in my memory. One of my grandfather's friends, Matty Hatz, spent years building grottos in his backyard and elsewhere. I vividly remember his waterfall when I was a child. In the town park in my grandparents small town is an enormous grotto statue that Matty built too. At my grandparents' church is a grotto that a local woman built after taking her ailing daughter to be miraculously cured in Lourdes, France.

In our neighborhood growing up was a sign in a house on Summit Street advertising the World's Smallest Church Grotto." Sadly I don't think it is still there.

But perhaps the most striking memory is looking at old photos of grandma's. Being farmers during the depression they hardly ever took time off, but if they did take a trip it was always to the same place, the West Bend Grotto. Officially known as the Grotto of the Redemption, it is pretty amazing. Started by Father Mathias Dobberstein (another "Matty") in 1912 he worked on it until his death in 1954. His assistant and also another priest continued work. The grotto today draws 100,000 visitors a year, not bad for small town Iowa. Lisa and I finally made it there in 1993 on RAGBRAI.

So on the small chance I run out of other projects here I can always keep expanding a grotto around the pond.

My brother, Jim, told me last year he wants to build a grotto in his backyard too.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Welcome Bungalow Tourists!

Stuccohouse in the Twin Cities has organized a "virtual" tour since the TC Bungalow Club tour was cancelled. She graciously asked it we'd be a part, and we are delighted to do so.

A little about us:

We are the second family to live in our home. We owned the house for a year before beginning to restore it, and had the incredible opportunity to know the daughter of the builder in the final year she lived here as our life tenant. She passed away in December of 1994 at age 93. She was 18 when she moved in with her widowed mother in September of 1928. We started work to make it our home in 2005. We have had the privilege of keeping much of the historical documents that came with the house, including daily journals of mother and daughter.

Our biggest project was to take the unfinished 2nd floor of the house and make 3 bedrooms, a bath, laundry, and sitting area. The day we started in earnest is probably my favorite post in our blog:
A Little off the Top, Please

Look around, poke into dark corners, and generally have a good time!

When you're ready to move along,here are two other blogs I recommend highly:

House In Progress Jeanne and Aaron are the founders of the site that collects us all together. Their home blog traces a story very similar to Foxcroft's in that they too had a house full of stuff, but their work far exceeds ours. We traded tips back and forth about how to deal with large amounts of said "stuff." I was able to invite them to speak at Iowa City's Friends of Historic Preservation's annual meeting in 2008.

That's a Cute Little Farmhouse Becky has the honor of being the oldest houseblog in Iowa. Her writing is clear and interesting. She gives a great view of the challenges and rewards of small town living.

There are so many other great blogs I read, I feel bad only selecting two. But here are two upcoming REAL house tours you may want to check out as well

2009 Friends of Historic Preservation House Tour

Muscatine House Tour I know the owners of the featured home, click on the "image" link it is unbelievable. 5,000 square feet overlooking the Mississippi River.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

49 Years Ago Today at Foxcroft

From Bess' diary for May 5th, 1960:

Usual lunch, puppy, and home jobs. Took onions over to Ray’s. Rain part of mid day – Heard Pitt beat Cubs + part of Mil-LA game. Ditto and I napped – Fran phoned about coffee for Mrs. Focht Sat. but I can’t go. Nice asparagus.
Amy Jo Ray is 6 today.

Friday, May 01, 2009

The Fish Letters #4

December 5, 1933

My Dear Miss Fox:

Yesterday afternoon we shipped your entire order of remedies, accessories and three pair of Zebras. The weather is quite favorable for shipping tropical fish at the present time and we sincerely hope that they reached you in good condition. We included an extra pair of Zebras on the order as a replacement for the one which you lost on the previous order.

The small transparent creatures which you discovered in your aquarium are possibly Fresh Water Shrimp. They are not harmful to the fish or aquarium. Ordinarily fish will destroy them.

Bettas are usually very fond of live food and it is possible that they may attack the snails for that purpose. If they continue to bother the snails it might be advisable to transfer the latter to a small bowl with a couple of plants and a leaf of lettuce, temporarily.
The Edison Heater should not be immersed below the point where the rubber connects to the tubing, although it is water tight it is not advisable. You could, however, put it about a half inch above the rubber lining. The heat will be well distributed as the heating elements are clear down at the bottom, therefore by immersing it a half inch or so more it will not change the temperature very much. We sincerely hope that you enjoy the aquarium and collection of plants and fish thoroughly and it will be our pleasure to have the opportunity to serve you again.

We are sending Mrs., Schroder, of Iowa City a copy of our catalogue which we are sure will be of interest to her.

Yours very truly,

J.T. Charleson (signature)