The renovated and expanded American Building at First Avenue and Second Street SE, shown from the north side, is a study in old and new. PHOTO DAVE DEWITTE
By Dave DeWitte
The newest office tower in downtown Cedar Rapids is also one of its oldest.
Publicly traded insurer UFG Insurance will be moving next month into the American Building, a unique project on one of the city’s most high–profile corners that answers the question of how to update and expand one of Cedar Rapids’ most prominent historic structures without diminishing its strong classical design.
The complicated and costly solution: Build a contemporary 10-story tower six inches away that comes close to mirroring the scale and proportions of the original, but provides just the right amount of contrast to make the original building’s design stand out.
It was not easy.
The 11-foot floor-to-ceiling measurements of the American Building didn’t allow enough overhead space for things like HVAC ducts and cable trays required in modern buildings. To make more room, the floors in the new building are made from post-tensioned concrete that is less than half as thick than conventional floors in steel-frame office towers.
The small site left little room for positioning cranes or staging materials. To make things faster, the project was the first high-rise in Cedar Rapids to use unitized curtain wall framing.
“As much as possible is built in a factory and lifted into sections onto the building,” said project architect Al Buck, of Solum Lang Architects. “It increases the quality, and nobody wants to be hanging on the side of a building for hours.”
One of the elements used to wed the contemporary and historic styles of the two buildings was the use of light gray Indiana limestone sections that buffer the sleek glass of the new tower from its terra cotta-sided neighbor. More than 4,500 pieces of hand-set stone of were used in a pattern that repeats every 15 feet, contrasting with the glass and helping link it with the original building.
Even though the 105-year-old American Building was in remarkable shape for its age, it still needed a renovation of its glazed terra cotta exterior. Pieces of the original cream-colored terra cotta required replacement, and were sent to Gladding McBean for the fabrication of identically matched pieces. Eugene Matthews, a Chicago-based contractor specializing in terra cotta restoration, came to Cedar Rapids to handle the actual restoration work.
Construction of a new building six inches from the original brought its own set of issues for contractor McComas Lacina. At an open house and ribbon cutting for the project on April 22, visitors barely noticed a six-inch metal expansion joint that is the only clear indication that one is leaving the old building and entering the new one.
UFG CEO Randy Ramlo joked at the ribbon-cutting that during the two-and-a-half year construction process, there were times when he said they should have just torn the American Building down and started fresh, “but now I’m so glad we didn’t.”
Mayor Brad Hart watched the construction from his office in City Hall across First Street. He said visitors have commented on the architecture of the contemporary structure, “how striking it is, and yet not excessive.” He thinks the building will be a strong addition to downtown Cedar Rapids, and the city’s efforts to get more people to both live and work there.
“Who doesn’t want to work for a publicly traded company in downtown Cedar Rapids, especially in this building?” he said after a tour.
The city provided tax increment financing, and is funding more than $100,000 to build a pocket park with landscaping, seating, a sculpture and iron gates next to the American Building.
The park will screen the entrance to a small UFG parking lot on the site, which will be eliminated when UFG develops the site in the next five to seven years. Mr. Ramlo said the park also serves the city’s needs, as it will help reduce water runoff, and buffer the parking area from passersby.
Mr. Ramlo said UFG has acquired other vacant buildings in the area, mainly from a “defensive” posture. The largest is the former site of the Legends bar that was operated for a short time by the late Roy Marble after his retirement from professional basketball. There are no immediate plans to redevelop them.
UFG refers to the combined buildings as the American Building, and will move about 350 employees into the 100,000-square foot, 500-seat facility initially. About 25 percent of the space will be left vacant for future growth.
The first floor of the American Building will house human resources. Above it will be accounting, enterprise analytics, investments, information technology, project management and a service center for personal lines. Executive offices and meeting space will populate most of the top floor.
The project is “without a doubt, 10-fold” the biggest construction project UFG has undertaken, Mr. Ramlo said.
With the expansion, UFG will own one and one-quarter blocks of downtown Cedar Rapids. It has about 700 of its 1,700 employees based in Cedar Rapids, but with many working remotely, about 600 work downtown on a typical day.
“We’ll have some room to breath, but also some room to grow,” said UFG Marketing Communications Manager Casey Prince. He said UFG is working with the city to connect the American Building, two other UFG buildings and its parking garage to its skywalk system.
Because of the unknown cost of the skywalk, an unfinished rooftop patio and a few other things, Mr. Prince said UFG won’t be offering a project cost estimate for the American Building. At the time the project was considered for city and state incentives, the estimated cost was $28 million.
UFG plans to install a time capsule in the building that company leaders will open in 25 years when UFG celebrates its centennial, Mr. Ramlo said. Historian Mark Stoffer Hunter of The History Center in Cedar Rapids is advising the company on the contents it should contain.
Mr. Stoffer Hunter has lamented the demolition of many historic buildings in downtown Cedar Rapids to make way for new developments, but he’s become one of the biggest fans of UFG’s approach to the American Building. The structure is a monument to the vitality of pre-depression banks in Cedar Rapids, and was the first 10-story building in the city. The glazed terra cotta exterior was unique in the downtown area.
“This is a fantastic blending of the old and the new,” Mr. Stoffer Hunter said. “It’s a great 21st century solution showing what can be done in downtown Cedar Rapids.”