A company specializing in breathing new life into old buildings is making its mark on a storied campus in Eastern Iowa. Hobart Historic Restoration of Cedar Rapids has been working with the city of Vinton to restore buildings and develop land on the 36-acre campus of the former, which has had a presence in the […]
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A company specializing in breathing new life into old buildings is making its mark on a storied campus in Eastern Iowa.
Hobart Historic Restoration of Cedar Rapids has been working with the city of Vinton to restore buildings and develop land on the 36-acre campus of the former, which has had a presence in the Benton County community since opening as the Iowa School for the Blind in 1852.
The first piece of the project, the Old Hospital Pub, is nearing completion with a tentative opening date planned for the end of July. While it had been rumored to be many things – including a brewery, a wine bar, or even an upscale restaurant – B.J. Hobart, who runs Hobart Historic Restoration with her husband, Jim, sets the record straight.
“We’re a barbecue place,” she said. “We’ll also be serving Iowa craft beers, designer cocktails and a lot of other favorites.”
In addition to seating for about 60 inside the old IBSSS health center building, there will be outdoor dining available on the deck along the west side of the building, featuring a firepit and two big-screen televisions. There will also be two large televisions inside.
With the pending opening of the pub, Ms. Hobart’s attention is also on the campus barn. The structure that once housed horses and milk cows is about to have a whole new purpose. Plans are to create a two-level event center in the barn that Ms. Hobart says will accommodate everything from “Boy Scout gatherings to wedding receptions.”
She added that plans call for a catering kitchen as well as event space on both levels with hydraulic elevators to transport people between the floors.
“The upstairs will be just wide open. We’ll have exposed beams, party lights, that kind of thing, just kind of a fun place,” Ms. Hobart said. “The catering kitchen will be down there so that if people want to have some sort of a celebration, everybody wants to bring in potluck, there’s places to warm up, cook, refrigerate, but it’s not going to be a commercial kitchen.”
The company is applying for grants to restore the barn through – among other places – the Iowa Barn Foundation.
Anyone driving past the campus along U.S. Highway 218 will immediately notice a lot of digging and earth moving on the vast greenspace on the west side. Part of that development includes the city of Vinton’s new public safety building, which will house both the police and fire departments and North Benton Ambulance Service.
Further north, Ms. Hobart said the plans are for commercial development, while residential lots are being sold along G Avenue around to 13th Street.
There will also be an on-campus recreation center that will utilize the existing gymnasium and swimming pool.
“It’s going to be a nice little neighborhood,” she said. “I would love it to feel like its own little village where there’s just all kinds of people and activity and recreation space, green space and to make the rec center serve the greater community.”
Clearing the way
Work on the project began in earnest last fall after the city of Vinton bought the 11-building, 36-acre campus for $1 from the Iowa Board of Regents, which oversees the Iowa Educational Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired.
Although the regents closed the Vinton school in 2011 when the number of residential students fell to just five, the state continued to pour funds into the campus and its buildings for maintenance and upkeep.
A $20 million investment of state and local funds as well as private capital are being used to renovate the campus that has been underutilized for years.
The area is being cleared of overgrown vegetation as well as old appliances in the buildings, many of which have been unused for 20 years or more.
“We have tried to recycle the scrap, you try and find out if any of these things work, you want to repurpose as much as possible,” Ms. Hobart said, adding, “let’s just say we’ve had to make lots and lots of trips to the dump.”
Founded in 2013, Hobart Historic Restoration has taken on many projects such as the Mott Lofts in Cedar Rapids and Brazelton Lofts in Mount Pleasant. But Ms. Hobart said the scope of the Vinton Braille School project is widespread in a couple of different ways.
“In terms of the magnitude of the size of the campus, it’s a big project,” she said. “But these buildings are in fantastic shape, beautifully built with quality craftsmanship. That’s the fun part of it too, because we’ve gone into a single large building that is in rough shape, missing a lot of the roof, missing a whole side of a building. These [campus buildings] are in great shape, but there are more of them. It is on another level because we are at the front end with the city on this project.”
She hopes that a restoration project like the Braille School can pave the way to save old state and/or municipal properties from abandonment and decay.
“There’s a lot of state-owned buildings like this,” she said. “Look at the juvenile center in Toledo; there’s a lot of these buildings that are sitting there. The Braille School absolutely had to be done just from the historic level, just from what it means to the state of Iowa and to Vinton. It’s exciting that this project was the first of these types of collaborative efforts to get them off the state rolls and get them into historic restoration hands so that they can serve the community again, and they can make money for that community.”