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New front for Legion will take building back in time

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Renovation work is well underway at the American Legion Wasmer Post 241 in Le Mars. The early 1900s building is getting a face lift. The renovated front will feature large windows replacing painted wood siding and restored Miracle Block, which has been part of the building since it was built. The building was constructed originally as a plumbing shop.
A century-old building under restoration will pay tribute to both history and local veterans.

That's according to local planners who are restoring the front of Le Mars' American Legion Wasmer Post 241 to its original look.

"The condition of the building isn't reflective of our military heritage," said Scott Bixenman, on the board of trustees for the American Legion post.

"We wanted to have it more properly reflect our background as a paternal military organization and to spruce up the downtown," Bixenman said. "We looked into old photos of the building from the turn of the century and did our best to choose a design that was historically accurate."

Bixenman, Steve Jester and Charles Peters make up the American Legion post's trustee board, which manages the trust to ensure there is a perpetual home for the Legion post.

The trustees, who are in charge of maintaining the building, also have helped oversee the grant process and decisions about how the restored American Legion building should look.

The renovated building will feature large windows and the original cement block, which will be restored and re-painted.

"It will make for a more inviting atmosphere for everyone who uses the building," Bixenman said.

Work began earlier this month and will likely continue through the winter, according to local contractor Randy Niehus, of Niehus Construction.

A Miracle Block building

Along with a significance to veterans, the building on Plymouth Street Southwest also is an icon of Le Mars history.

"This is the last standing business building made out of Miracle Block, which was made in Le Mars," said Mary Reynolds, of the Le Mars Main Street Program.

Reynolds helped write the Main Street Iowa grant proposal, which brought in $30,000 to help with the project.

Miracle Block was a cast concrete block with staggered air spaces formed inside of each block.

The 1907 city directory calls it "M.A. Moore's 'Miracle Double Air-Space Block,'" noting it was used to construct the modern-day American Legion building.

"The double space makes a building or foundation impervious to water," according to a 1904 Miracle Block advertisement in the Le Mars Semi Weekly Sentinel. "(One) can plaster right on the walls with no danger of dampness or frost."

The advertisement also said the blocks were "practically fire-proof" and "present a beautiful appearance."

"Cement is the coming building material," the ad stated. "It has been used in Mexico for 100 years and the oldest buildings are as good as ever."

Reynolds explained there are some residences in Le Mars that also still have Miracle Block construction, but this is the only business building left.

The Miracle Block portions of the American Legion building's facade will remain intact and be restored, Niehus said.

A bright future

The face of the building has changed since it was built more than 100 years ago.

Turn-of-the-century photos show that the building originally featured large windows, both on the first and second floors, instead of wood siding covering much of the building's facade as it appeared before recent renovations began.

The large-window style of facade will return with renovation work, Niehus said.

Specialty windows will be ordered -- large plate glass windows for the ground floor and multiple-pane windows for the two 8-by-9-foot second floor openings, he said.

The Miracle Block portions of the building's front will likely be painted a deep red to match the bricks of the addition to the west.

New brick under the new windows and trim around the windows will likely be painted white to accent the dark red, Niehus said.

Inside the building, renovations will be limited to the front 10 or 12 feet, since the grant specifically applies to the building's front, Niehus explained.

After the work is complete, the front portion of the building will feature the original higher ceiling height.

The sheetrocked ceiling will likely taper down to the rest of the building's current height, Niehus said.

In addition to the front renovations, an American Flag mural is part of the update project.

The red, white and blue banner, appearing to wave in the wind, now graces the east side of the second story of the building, painted by Le Mars artist Randy Becker.

110 years ago

The modern-day American Legion building was constructed in the early 1900s for the Symms Plumbing Co., which offered steam and hot water heating as well as sanitary plumbing.

"The building was especially planned and erected to meet the requirements of the Company's business," a 1907 article about the business stated in the book "Le Mars Iowa, The County Seat of Plymouth County."

"The entire basement, with a ground floor space of 30 by 60 feet is used for shop and storeroom purposes," the article stated. "The ground-floor is devoted to the display of an elegant line of bathroom and kitchen plumbing accessories, with office and estimating room in the rear."

Also in that 1907 article, a man named T. H. Symms was noted as manager of the Le Mars office for the past 13 years.

In a 1907 advertisement, Symms Plumbing Co. offered specialty plumbing work on farms where a windmill was used.

The 1913 Sanborn map shows an undertaker joining the plumbing shop in occupying the building, according to research from Kerry Davis, of Preservation Solutions.

Davis assisted in the research and application for nominating a downtown Le Mars district to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The American Legion building is part of that nomination, which is awaiting national approval.

The American Legion moved into the building in the late 1940s, according to Davis.

During that period the Legion, along with many businesses downtown, installed a new storefront, which featured glass block instead of display windows, Davis explained.

An addition was built to the west of the building in 1962 for the Legion hall.

Reynolds said the current renovations originally were going to focus on restoring the building back to the clear block of the 1940s.

However, planners were unsure whether that glass block would still exist behind the wood siding on the building. They decided to write the grant for renovations that would bring back the original plate-glass window look.

"Ironically, when they removed the siding this month, the glass block wall was intact," Reynolds said. "But the renovations now will take it back to its original front."

Money to restore

The $30,000 grant for this project comes from Iowa's Main Street Program through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

It is a Challenge Grant, which assists local improvement projects such as repair of front and rear fašades of downtown buildings, interior rehabilitations; restoration of historic downtown landmarks; accessibility improvements in historic properties and renovation of upper floor living spaces, according to a Main Street Iowa news release.

"We applied through the process the Main Street Iowa program offers and the applications were evaluated by the Main Street staff, and we received our grant a year ago," Reynolds explained. "This is a way to restore and retain this building."

Le Mars planners had looked at multiple projects for Main Street district in Le Mars and decided the Legion project would be the most viable to receive Challenge Grant dollars because of its significance, Reynolds said.

The Miracle Block aspect of the building was key to its historical importance, she said.

"This grant and this project will provide restoration to that block, and it will improve a building that honors our veterans," Reynolds said.

Reynolds said U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin works to get this type of grant available for the Main Street program in Iowa.

The Challenge Grant was a $30,000 award, matched locally with another $30,000, according to Bixenman.

Of the match, $15,000 is coming from city of Le Mars' facade grant program, which was allocated by the Le Mars City Council to the Main Street program.

Another $15,000 is coming from private dollars through the American Legion, Reynolds said.

Once the project is complete, organizers will host a rededication of the building, she said.

"It's a great community effort," Reynolds said.

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