This Longfellow Historic District [†] is a good example of suburban development and a fine collection of early 20th century residential design.
In the early part of the 20th century Iowa City was experiencing both a growth in population, and an economic boost due to the "Golden Age of Agriculture." The State University of Iowa, housed in the Old Capitol and buildings along the east side of the Iowa River, was also experiencing a growth period. As the university expanded, housing was needed for students, faculty, and staff. While many of the faculty preferred to live near the campus, or along more prestigious streets such as College, new construction was taking place in neighborhoods at the edges of town. At the same time, new areas were being added to the city. This new construction slowly moved southeast, toward the area now known as the Longfellow Neighborhood.
Since Court was a street that linked the original part of Iowa City to the Muscatine Road, there was development along it at an early date. In the 1850s Nicholas Oakes operated a brickyard on the south side of Court, about a block east of Summit Street Oakes platted his property as Oakes 1st and 2nd Additions to Iowa City in 1871. Some years later Oakes and his two sons subdivided these additions. This was north of the present Longfellow School and west of what is now Oakland Avenue. East of Oakland and south of Court was the Rundell farm. It extended from Court south to the railroad tracks, and from Oakland east to Muscatine and Seventh avenues. In 1908 Lowell Swisher platted the Rundell Addition on this farm. The following year Coldren's Addition was added immediately south of Oakes 2nd, and in 1914 the Oakes brothers platted Oakes 3rd Addition. Some of this development may have been spurred by the platting of East Iowa City in 1898 by W.F. Main east of Muscatine Avenue. This 180 acre development had been planned as housing for Main's employees of the nearby Puritan (jewelry) Factory.
These new additions were basically suburbs of Iowa City, and many people rushed to build in the area. This "rush to suburbia" was a national phenomena that was fueled by several factors: changing modes of transportation; changing technology; and, the social reform movement ("evil" city vs. "good" suburb).
After 1910 much of the development in the southeastern part of Iowa City was driven by the Rundell Land and Improvement Company. The company purchased the franchise for the Iowa City Electric Railway Company and set out to develop the old Rundell farm. In late January and early February 1910 the company obtained financing to construct an electric trolley line to the Rundell Addition. The financing, however, was tied to the condition that the company sell 80 lots in the addition by April 1 st, 1910. With the endorsement of the Iowa City Commercial Club, the company began an advertising campaign designed to quickly sell the minimum number of lots.
The company's tactics were simple. Advertisements focused on the value of the lots and the safety of the purchase (if the 80 lots were not sold by April 1 st, the buyers would received their money back, plus 6%). To highlight the value of the lots being sold, the company compared purchase prices in the Rundell Addition with prices in other additions across Oakland Avenue from the Rundell properties. The Rundell lots measured 50' x 125' and sold for $400, while the Oakes Addition had 60' x 150' lots that sold for $1000 or more. An offer of $607 for each of the fourteen lots in the Old Ladies Home (Coldren's) Addition was refused because it was too low, and the lots of Swisher's Addition, between Seymour and Sheridan) sold for $600 each. (Iowa City Citizen, 2/9/10) The Rundell Company also offered something that other lots in the area did not have a direct link to downtown Iowa City via the new streetcar line. Although 40 lots sold quickly, the last of the necessary lots were not sold until the morning of April 1 st. With the lots sold, the work of building the trolley (streetcar) line began.
By November 17, 1910, the line was complete and the first trolley rolled out on the track. The operating hours of 7 AM to 7 PM were expanded to 6 AM to 11 PM when the second trolley car was put in service. The line ran from the comer of College and Clinton downtown, east on College five blocks to Johnson Street, then south one block to Burlington. It continued east on Burlington to Muscatine, then south on Muscatine to Rundell. It followed Rundell to Sheridan where the streetcar bam was located. The introduction of the streetcar not only led to the development of the Rundell Addition, but encouraged construction on streets near the line. It is interesting to note that originally the streetcar tracks were to run east on College all the way to Muscatine, but the residents along College thought it would be too noisy and petitioned to have the line moved.
At the turn of the century the area around the present Longfellow School was populated primarily by people employed in blue-collar or skilled-trades positions. In 1910 there were approximately forty households in the eastern part of the Longfellow neighborhood. Census figures and the city directories show twenty-eight blue-collar/tradesman households, and twelve headed by white-collar employees. The transformation of the Longfellow Neighborhood from a largely blue-collar area to a whitecollar/ professional suburb began with the sale of the lots by the Rundeil Land and Improvement Company. Sixty-one individuals purchased the required 80 lots. This list provides a picture of the occupation background of the buyers. Forty-three could be traced through city directories. Thirty-five of the purchasers were white-collar workers, professionals, and proprietors of local businesses, while the remaining were tradesmen (six carpenters, a plasterer, and a driver for a brewery). By 1920 the occupational make-up of the neighborhood had changed drastically. Of approximately sixty households in the area, forty-three were headed by white-collar workers and professionals.
The construction of houses in the Longfellow neighborhood during this period occurred primarily along Oakland and Grant streets (approximately 25 new dwellings between 1910 and 1920) and several along the 1000-1200 blocks of Court. By and large, the houses built along Court were slightly larger than those found on Oakland and Grant.
The new houses were built not just for a growing population, but also for people who may have been inhabitants of Iowa City for years, but had lived in apartments of rooming houses, or perhaps in downtown Iowa City. The importance assigned to a detached dwelling in a more rural setting can be seen in Iowa City newspaper advertisements. A Koser & Sidwell Realty ad read, "Why live in the crowded, dirty city, when you can enjoy all of its advantages and yet live where you have plenty of room, good fresh air, and beautiful scenery?" (It is hard to imagine Iowa City as a "crowded, dirty city" like New York or Chicago but the ad reflects the national shift to suburban life.) An ad for W.F. Mains' East Iowa City lots said"... (S)uburban homes of roominess and comfort amid trees and quiet gardens on sunny upland swept by summer breezes (provided) country blessings."
Modernity was also a key element in Iowa Citian's move to the suburbs. "Modem" meant convenience, a healthy environment, and access to vital municipal services. The Rundell Addition featured sidewalks leading to and through the area. The Oakes Addition along Oakland could boast of a paved street, hook-ups for gas, water and sewer, as well as sidewalks. (The city's sewer hook-up records provide approximate dates of construction throughout the neighborhood.)
The health benefits of the suburbs were also emphasized, and the safety and moralizing power of suburban life were not forgotten. The suburbs provided fresh air, room to exercise, and a safe place for children to play. The home also became an extension of the self, and the symbol of social respectability. One circular from Savings Realty Company said, "A good location (the suburbs) means increasing value...it means good neighbors for your family and good play fellows for your children...it means increased respect from your friends and pride and satisfaction in the whole family."
Residential construction in the area from Court south and from Oakland east, necessitated the construction of a new elementary school on Seymour just west of Oakland. Longfellow School was one of three new school buildings constructed in Iowa City during 1917-1919. (The other two were Sabin and Mann.) All were designed by architect G.L. Lockart Longfellow is a large two story plus basement building in the popular Classical Revival style. The location of Longfellow was not without controversy. Many people felt that the new school was simply too far out of the city. Obviously, they had not considered the possibility of growth in the east side neighborhood.
The completion of the Rundell streetcar line and construction of Longfellow School fostered residential development east of the school through the 1920s and '30s. Information gathered from city directories and census figures illustrate this growth. The move to the suburbs gained momentum as more families became proud owners of automobiles. Driveways and garages became a common part of the suburban landscape. Construction of houses along the south side of Seymour facing the school began shortly after the school was completed and continued through the 1920s and '30s, and Sheridan appears to have developed during the same period.
Rundell was somewhat slower in developing than Oakland and Grant to the west. Part of this was due to the location of Ralston Creek. The c.1900 and c.1917 plat maps both show it meandering through the blocks between Grant and Rundell. This curving path intruded on many lots along its banks. By 1933 the Sanborn map shows the creek running basically straight through these blocks in the area allocated for an alley. This straightening project was apparently complete by 1922 because several houses were constructed along the west side of Rundell on lots that would have been partially under water. The lots on the west side of Rundell appear to have been created by fill from the creek straightening project and set somewhat higher than the street. Although Ralston Creek appears to be a quiet stream, Iowa City residents can speak to its ferocity during and following major rainstorms. In 1928 there were only twenty-two houses located on Rundell, but the number jumped to 47 by 1932. This was a major period of construction and development on this particular street.
The residences constructed throughout the Longfellow neighborhood during this period of intense development (circa 1910-1940) are representative of small to medium size houses in the popular styles of the period. The narrow lots and narrow streets create an intimacy which adds to the sense of neighborhood. These were not unusual houses that were being constructed. Rather, these houses were the norm of the period. What makes them unusual is that these were clustered in the neighborhood around the school, and that these retain a high level of integrity both individually and as a neighborhood. The other two streets in the Rundell Addition (Dearborn and Seventh), and the area south of Sheridan have not retained this same level of integrity.
It is interesting that the two architects identified as having designed properties in the district (E.T. Davis for the residence at 1112 Court, and G.L. Lockart for Longfellow School) are not well known within their community or field. Neither is listed in Shank's book on Iowa architects, and so far, no other designs have been attributed to them except for Lockart's Sabin and Mann schools. In addition, only a handful of builders have been identified. F.X. Fryder, Lester (?) Palmer, Howard F. Moffitt and Ray Blakesly were responsible for some of the most notable houses in the district. It appears that these builders, and others responsible for construction in the neighborhood, relied on the popular catalogs and magazines of the period for ideas. A listing of the early 20th century styles represented in the Longfellow District reads like a list of all the popular styles of the period. Examples of Prairie, Four Square, Craftsman Bungalow, Colonial Revival, English Cottage, and "minimal traditional" are all found within these boundaries. The neighborhood developed during the heyday of the Bungalow and it is the most popular (and prevalent) house type. It is found in all of its forms: front gable, side gable, cross gable, and hipped. The building materials used include clapboard, shingles, stucco, brick, stone, and concrete block. The Bungalow itself, a small, comfortable and affordable dwelling, reflects the character of the entire neighborhood.
The Longfellow Historic District represents early 20th century suburban development in a small Iowa town. Today it retains the sense of neighborhood, both visually and psychologically, that was its selling point originally. Residents know each other's names, know which children belong to which families, and can call neighborhood pets by name. Many residents of the Longfellow District have lived there for decades, and they value the sense of time and place that continues to exist. They realize that the style, size, and placement of the houses, the tree-lined streets, and even the narrow concrete driveways add to this quality.
† Adapted From: Molly Myers Naumann, Consultant, Iowa City Historic Preservation Commission, Longfellow Historic District, nomination document, 2002, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C., accessed October, 2021.
Center Avenue • Court Street • Grant Court • Muscatine Avenue • Oakland Avenue • Rundell Street • Seymour Avenue • Sheridan Avenue