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The Beauty is in the Details

Published: Wednesday, June 19, 2013 11:23 a.m. CST

Newton’s downtown is a district of visual contrasts.  Buildings with classical architectural lines and details stand in close proximity to box-like structures with clean lines and modern details.  We see façades of brick, stone, modern siding, terra cotta, and even artificial stucco.  

The appearance of downtown has changed drastically over the years.  Wooden buildings gave way to two- and three-story brick and stone buildings in the latter part of the 19th century.  A number of buildings currently in downtown were constructed in the Commercial Italianate architectural style prior to 1885.  Historic photographs show tall, decorative cornices projecting above the roofline of many structures and elongated upper-story windows sheltered under draped “hoods”.

Most of our buildings that retain a classical architectural style were constructed during the first third of the 20th century as the town’s population nearly doubled in size, and the washing machine industry that made Newton famous was born and prospered.  New construction replaced old at the northeast corner of the square (now the First Newton National Bank) and the east side of the square.  The building boom also extended into the blocks radiating off of the square. 

During the 1950s and ‘60s a number of our oldest buildings lost the remaining elements of their Italianate architectural look.  Old and decaying façades were refaced.  New, modern buildings replaced structures that were destroyed by fire.

Add to that our town’s 1957 centennial celebration, which looked back on the old and focused attention toward the future, and the owners of some of our oldest properties decided it was time for a change.  A number of buildings were refaced from top to bottom.  The upper stories of some adjoining buildings were unified in a common look, as we see on the northwest half of the square.

By 1965, the look and feel of downtown had been transformed.  Since then, ground-floor storefronts have continued to change as businesses come and go, but the upper stories of the buildings have, for the most part, retained their mid-20th century modern appearance. 

To be a National Register district, the buildings in a downtown are not required to retain the look of a singular historic era.  The majority of structures in our business district reflect the look of two distinct and significant periods in Newton’s history: the “golden age” of industry in our town from 1900-1930, and the modernization movement that accompanied the diversification and prosperity of the Maytag Company from 1946-1964.  Retaining the historic character created in these buildings during important periods in our town’s history is what will propel Newton’s downtown onto the Register.  A more detailed report of our town’s architectural heritage can be found in the “Intensive Level Architectural and Historical Survey and Evaluation of Downtown Newton, Iowa,” completed in 2012 by architectural historian Alexa McDowell as part of a grant received by the City of Newton.  The report is available at the Jasper County Historical Museum, and will soon be available at the Newton Public Library.

As we researched the downtown properties during last year’s grant project, Historic Preservation Commissioners grew to appreciate their character and appearance.  Now we want to share some of our enthusiasm about the downtown with you.  

And so we announce our “The Beauty is in the Details” contest.   Commissioner Kathy Jones has taken close-up photographs of interesting architectural details on ten buildings downtown.  The photos will appear in Friday’s Daily News.  We invite you to take a walk through the downtown district and try to identify each building shown in the photos.

This would be a great family activity.  Why not make an afternoon of it?  Have lunch or dinner downtown, get a frozen yogurt or beverage from one of the merchants, and do a little window-shopping while you look at the buildings.  A map of the downtown historic district will be provided on the contest page.  Identify each building, and return the contest form to Erin Chambers at the Public Works Building by May 28.  Prizes will be awarded. 

Even if you don’t get a prize, we think you will still be a winner.  You will have viewed our downtown in a slightly different way and hopefully developed an awareness of, and appreciation for, some of our architectural treasures.

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