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Historic Iowa Theater Is Back - Better Than Ever

Release date: 
February 25, 2010
Release Number: 

DES MOINES, Iowa -- It opened in 1928 as the RKO Iowa Theater. Katherine Hepburn performed there in 1940. In 1980, the Iowa Theater became the home of Theater Cedar Rapids.

But in 2008, the Cedar River rose to 32 feet, 20 feet above flood stage, and tried to close the Iowa Theater Building for good. Like many parts of Cedar Rapids, however, the Iowa Theater Building is back…and better than ever.

The Iowa Theater will re-open Friday, Feb. 26, with the stage production of “The Producers”. The black-tie event is sold out.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) – through its public assistance program – obligated more than $4 million to the state of Iowa to reimburse the Theatre Cedar Rapids, Community Building Theatre Corp and the Cedar Rapids Barton, Inc. for replacements, restoration and repairs at the Iowa Theatre Building.

“The below grade level of the Iowa Theatre Building was completely submerged by flood waters,” explained Todd Dolphin, FEMA’s Public Assistance branch chief. “This caused damage to interior wall and floor finishes, doors, electrical and HVAC.”

Every effort was made to respect and save the history of the theater. In conjunction with Iowa Homeland Security and Emergency Management Division staff, FEMA’s Environmental and Historic Preservation Branch (EHP) worked with the theater and the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) to determine eligibility for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. This enabled the theater to receive a $1.6 million State of Iowa Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credit.

Original ornamental plaster details from the building’s construction in 1928 and located in the lobby and vestibule behind paneling were restored and repainted. A new marquee was installed that respects the proportions of the original which was removed in the 1980s.

There was also damage to the legendary Rhinestone Barton organ. The spectacular organ normally dominates the orchestra pit, and is the only one of its type still in operation today. Soaked by floodwaters, the once-glittering Barton console has been shipped to experts for repairs that are expected to take until the end of March 2011. The rhinestone-encrusted console is being rebuilt in Reno, Nevada by Crome Organ Company; new inner workings, keyboard and pedals will be installed. Humidity from the flooding damaged pipes, percussion components, traps and wind regulators in the chamber on the right side of the house. FEMA funds will be used for the Barton’s long-term restoration, while a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities covered the cost of moving the instrument out of the theater and into storage, before its recent move to Nevada.

The Theater now includes a wider, modern lobby that accommodates more patrons, displays photos from the theater’s history and shows updates on TV monitors. Both the seating in the theater and the restrooms have been brought up to current Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) standards.

To help reduce future costs should the Iowa Theater Building be impacted by a flood again, the renovation plan elevated the electrical and mechanical systems and moved offices previously located on the first floor up at least one level. Valuable assets such as costumes will be stored in a manner that will allow for easy removal during future flood events.

Despite being forced out of “their home” and the destruction the flood waters left behind in 2008, Theatre Cedar Rapids did not miss a beat. Schools and other venues were used as theaters to keep the shows going.

The Iowa Theater took center stage during the flooding of 2008. It was often used as a visual on television and newspapers to show the rise of water in downtown Cedar Rapids. The opening of the theater this Friday serves as a visual marker of the return of Cedar Rapids...

Last Updated: 
January 3, 2018 - 12:24