The Broadway-Phelps Park Historic District is largely composed of private residences. Public or quasi-public property bounds the district on both ends; at the east end lies the Courthouse square and two churches while Phelp's Park serves as a green buffer at the southwest end. As one travels westward from the Winnebago Street boundary on the east, the district's route is gradually and constantly ascending in elevation; as the district turns south, it follows the bluff line of the Upper Iowa River continuing to ascend through Phelps Park to the crest of this prominent Decorah hill. In addition, Broadway is elevated markedly above the paralleling streets thus adding to its prominence as an area "set apart."
This special geographic location had a major effect on the area early in its development causing a speedy populating of these blocks of original Decorah. Due to the elevation, Broadway was Immune to the annual floods of the Upper Iowa River and their tumultuous effect on the lower lying sections of town. Judging by the district's history of very prominent residents, past and present, the elevated location became linked with a distinguishing social status.
Although construction of the district's structures ranges over a period of 120 years, more than two thirds of the buildings were erected by 1910. Another flourish of construction and remodeling came during the Depression and New Deal decades; notably, this period saw the stuccoing of at least four homes and the jail. During the 1950's and 60's, several structures were razed and new buildings erected.
The district has maintained its residential usage throughout its growth and continues to subscribe to the picturesque ideals of its earliest residents. Early Decorah historians. Sparks and Alexander, in 1878 and 1882, had singled out this area as unique within the city limits because of its geographic qualities, its long list of prominent residents, and as the location of "numerous pleasant residences," churches, and the Courthouse. The proposed historic district continues to exemplify these 19th century characteristics.
The district encapsulates intact examples of virtually all of the major architectural movements found in the American Midwest from the 1850's to 1910, with scattered examples of later styles. Earliest among the styles present is the Octagon mode after the dictates of Orson Fowler seen in the Henry Heively House. This structure subscribes wholly to Fowler's Ideals by using poured grout for the walls; the sing addition with its veranda and balcony also fit his dictates. Henry Heively, its owner/builder, was of considerable local stature by virtue of his capacity as flour mill owner and operator. (His mill is now the agriculture history building in the Vesterheim complex of the Norwegian American Museum in Decorah). The Heively house is one of approximately eight octagonal houses remaining in Iowa.
A superb example of the Italian Villa style of this period is the Ellsworth-Porter House. Built in 1867 by D. B. Ellsworth, a successful local dry goods merchant, this house was a well-scaled rendering of a style recommended by the popular writer Andrew Jackson Downing. The polychromatic effect, asymmetrical facade, and relatively miniature scale give it a genuine picturesque quality so strived for by villa builders. Two houses reflect another style advocated by Downing and his colleague Alexander Jackson Davis, the Gothic, or "Pointed" Style. The Gothic "cottage" design was employed beautifully in the Grier-Green House built in 1862, with its Imposing central gable and elaborate vergeboard. Dr. Green, an early resident, was a Quaker who, it has been alleged, either planned or operated a room in the house's basement as a station on the underground railroad. If the Green house was the "cottage," then certainly the Henry Paine House at the end of the street was the "Castle." Built in 1967, the house's three stories combine with its elevation to create the imposing naturalism for which Gothic Villas were noted. Henry Paine was a prominent local entrepeneur involved in a paper mill, implement sales, carriage manufacture, and real estate (an addition to Decorah also bears his name.) Both these houses were rendered in locally manufactured brick which was later painted due to its soft texture.
Numerous houses in the district are modified or simplified versions of the Greek Revival movement. The Alonzo Braddlsh House at 301 W. Broadway built in 1860-63 is an example of this style. The low-pitched, hipped bell caste roof, the symmetry of the facade elements, and the stone lintels over the door and windows define this structure as Greek Revival. Mr. Braddlsh came from New York State in the 1850's to establish himself as a successful merchant.
Several residences in the district embrace Queen Anne Style features. A delightful example of Carpenter's Queen Anne is the E. P. Johnson House built in 1902. Like other district examples, this house features a turret, multiple roof patterns, classic detail, a wide variety of windows and leaded lights, and a sweeping Veranda. A house with similar qualities but built of brick was the Hartvig Engbretson House built in 1910. The house achieves a polychromatic effect with a variety of color and texture. Engebretson, a son of Norwegian immigrants, achieved local prosperity as an implement dealer following his service as a soldier in the Civil War.
The Second Empire Style's primary example in the district was razed in the early 1960's; the accompanying carriage house of the same style remains intact—the Weiser Carriage House, circa 1900. Although of a reduced scale, the structure's Second Empire features a low, mansard roof, round arches, and roof dormers leave no doubt of its designer's intent. Builder C. J. Weiser was Decorah's leading banker until the Depression years.
At least three district homes represent the most indigenous style of this region- Midwest Vernacular. The J. J. Hopperstad House built in 1880 reflects this style's qualities functional window placement, high gable roofs, a lack of gingerbread frills, and a practical porch. Hopperstad was a Norwegian Immigrant who worked as a bookkeeper for the Decorah Posten an Important Norwegian American Newspaper published in Decorah.
Of the more recent structures in the district, the Prairie Style influences of Frank Lloyd Wright are apparent in the Hjalmar Carlson Home built in 1960. Its architect, Charles Altfillisch, was an important local and state designer, with some of his ideas receiving national popularity. With its emphasis on the horizontal, its low pitched and flat roof patterns, and its combination of wood and brick construction mediums, the Carlson house suggests major principles of the Prairie Style. An International Style house is that of Roy Relf by architect Lars Seim in 1934. This basically organic structure done in the cubic mode is typified by the flat roofs and the manner in which the house conforms to its rocky, natural environment.
Besides providing one of the most esthetically pleasing neighborhoods in the city, the district serves to highlight certain aspects of Important local history. Within its blocks have resided important local bankers, attorneys, physicians, merchants of all sorts, local manufacturers and salesmen, judges, county officials, bookkeepers and clerks, ministers, the town's first mayor and even the local opera house operator. Moreover, the district has served as the location of two Important educational institutions. The Breckinridge Institute (where the Congregational Center stands) functioned as a boys preparatory school between 1874 and 1911. A second school was located in the C. J. Weiser house, which is now razed though the carriage house remains. Established in 1932, this school, the Decorah Women's College, provided the Impetus for co-education at Luther College in Decorah.
In addition, the district has been and continues to be the location of all the major Protestant church buildings. Each of these congregations served as community social and cultural organizers from their beginnings. Two churches. First Lutheran and Grace Episcopal also served as ethnic centers. The former was founded as the center for the Norwegian settlers, the Norwegian Evangelical Synod, with its central core of constituents being Luther College faculty. This church maintained use of Norwegian in its services until the 1950's. Grace Episcopal Church in a similar fashion, provided a center for the members of the local English colony. This group of settlers peaked in population between the late 1860's and 70's. ethnic segment of Decorah was noted for its large capital contributions to local business, their gay social life, and a level of scholarship and culture unequaled by most other settlers. The church stands as a solitary reminder of the English since most colonists had left the area by the mid 1880's.
Finally, the key governmental structures of the county—both Courthouses and Jail—were erected in the district. From the time of the county seat battle in the 1850's and 60's, these buildings have served to lend prestige to Decorah.
Grove Street • Main Street West • Park Drive • West Broadway • Winnebago Street