Locals have always known Newton’s downtown was a special place, and now the rest of America will too as it was designated Monday to the National Register of Historic Places.
Garnering this designation was the result of the five years of work and more than 2,000 hours of research from the Newton Historic Preservation Committee, a group created by the city council in 2007 to preserve and interpret the history of the city.
“This will put us on the same footing as Grinnell has … and other places. Fred (Chabot) and I have been to Decorah, Greenfield — this is a pretty exciting time for us,” said Larry Hurto, local historian and vice-chairman of the committee.
The directional boundaries for Newton’s historic Downtown Business District are as far east as East Fourth Street and as far west as West Third Street. The northern boundary is just north of North Second Avenue and the southern boundary is the alley south of First Avenue.
Jasper County is also home to other locations on the register including the Jasper County Courthouse, Fred Maytag Park and the Wagman Mill in Lynnville.
How it came to be
“In 2009, we started work on Newton’s preservation plan. The highest priority item in that preservation plan was to try to get downtown Newton as a historic preservation district,” said Fred Chabot, chairman of the historic preservation committee.
Within the proposed district there are 87 properties. Chabot said they began by researching the history of those buildings for the required site inventory forms with the help of a historical architect, Alexa McDowell, of Boone.
“We did an individual study of each of these 87 properties,” Hurto said. “Of those 87 properties, 15 to 20 of them were not eligible for an historic significance. They had been severely altered from their original architectural form.”
The committee’s research showed the best way to move forward was to pitch downtown’s mid-century architectural aesthetic, which was influenced by the success of the Maytag Company and the city’s preparation for its centennial in 1957.
“(McDowell) was able to put together a good case to show that the washing machine industry influenced a lot of who we are,” Hurto said.
“Something I found was fascinating, is changes to the buildings downtown often happens with booms in the washing machine industry. There was money coming into the community so they can (update),” said Andrew Bassman, Newton Main Street director.
The benefits of the designation
“Property owners become eligible for federal grants and tax credits — both federal and state — for the restoration or preservation of the property to keep them in that mid-century modern architectural motif,” Chabot said.
“Unfortunately, property owners can’t use grant money or can’t spend money for restoring a building back to 1890, or 1900 turn of the century architecture and get tax credit for that. They have to maintain the mid-century modern architecture that our application is based on.”
The committee members said downtown property owners may still do whatever they wish to their property, but if they would like to benefit from the historical designation there are certain guidelines.
“For that reason, we’re talking to some owners about consistency when it comes time to replace their awnings. At least get some kind of a uniform look,” Hurto said.
Bassman said besides the financial incentives, there is a greater possibility here for downtown.
“The real important thing is that it gives us an opportunity to create a character for the district. So people know when they come to the district, it’s a unique place to shop and a unique experience,” Bassman said. “It’s not going to happen overnight. As you can see, downtown now is a very eclectic mix of changes over the years. Hopefully, this will move it in a more coordinated direction.”
Bassman said his office is available to help any business owner interested in obtaining or learning more about the financial incentives for being on the historic preservation list.
How it impacts Main Street
In February, Newton was selected to take part in the Main Street Iowa program. Main Street was created in the late 1980s as a way to help downtowns across Iowa develop socially and economically.
The downtown historic preservation district lies entirely within the Main Street boundary, however, the Main Street district is larger.
“It definitely helps what I do a lot,” Bassman said about the designation.
There are several committees under the Main Street umbrella. This designation helps the economic restructuring committee with its promotion of the downtown area. For the design committee, this gives it a set of standards to use when working with property owners on potential renovations, Bassman said.
The next steps
Chabot said that next steps for the committee is to find funding so it can make all of their research readily available to citizens.
One idea is to put QR Codes in the window of every eligible building that would allow people with tablets or smartphones to be able to read the history of the building and look at historical photos of those buildings on their devices.
While Bassman is excited about the potential economic benefits of bringing people downtown to shop, Hurto is hoping to attract fellow history buffs and former residents.
“Our side of it is not to just bring tourism, but heritage tourists. People who are interested in local history.,” Hurto said. “We talked about even having some kind of event with alumni weekend, when people who use to live here come back and we could have some sort of a celebration.”
Property owners can buy individual plaques to show that their building has been placed on the register of historic places, Hurto said.
“It’s a badge of honor. It’s a badge of distinction that can be placed on the building,” Hurto said.
Contact Senior Staff Writer Ty Rushing at (641) 792-3121 Ext. 6532 or email@example.com