1st Place, Wild Card
Restoring lives seems like a tall order for the renovation of a former parish complex, but Steeple Square in Dubuque, Iowa, accomplishes this lofty goal.
In 1867, St. Mary’s Church opened its doors in downtown Dubuque to serve a congregation of German-speaking immigrants. More than a place of worship, St. Mary’s Parish Complex provided social services and bound the community together for more than 100 years. In the early 1980s, the farm crisis and factory closures took a heavy toll on Dubuque, which had the highest unemployment rate in the U.S. by 1983. The working-class neighborhood surrounding the parish suffered steep economic decline.
“The parish had long been the neighborhood center for activity, arts and culture,” says John Gronen, president of Gronen, the developer that spearheaded the rehabilitation of Steeple Square. “The parish was able to hang on during the economic upheaval, but then the demographic changed. Longtime residents left the area and many in the older population passed away.”
Eventually, the buildings fell into disrepair. When the 150-year-old complex finally closed in 2010, the void it left in the community was palpable.
Interested developers believed the only financially viable option was to tear down the historic structures and build on the land. But the parish campus buildings were integral to the city’s rich history and architectural heritage, and the church’s 211-foot steeple was a cherished city landmark. Determined to find another way, the Archdiocese of Dubuque rallied a diverse group of individuals to chart a new future for St. Mary’s. In 2013, the group formed the board of a non-profit organization called Steeple Square.
LEAP OF FAITH
Two of the five buildings on the complex previously had been sold, and one of the biggest unknowns was what to do with the three buildings that remained under the non-profit’s care. The solution arrived through open-minded thinking and community-driven discussions. To address the neighborhood’s needs, the board decided to partner with other organizations rather than duplicate public services. It donated the former school building for affordable housing and joined forces with a non-profit to provide childcare that serves low-income families. The church itself was to become an event center to serve the larger community.
Steeple Square’s new mission of “restoring lives, neighborhood empowerment and community vibrancy” was ambitious, and it would require funding.
“Even though it was a volunteer effort, we were very intentional in terms of how we planned and budgeted the work,” Gronen says. “Other communities often ask, ‘How did you do it?’ The answer is simple: one chunk at a time.”
In 2015, the three buildings—the Gothic Revival former church, Romanesque Revival former school and the Second Empire former rectory—had been listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The historic designation provided essential tax-credit funding. In all, the project’s funding included 40 percent from state and federal historic tax credits, 20 percent through grants and national foundations, and a significant 40 percent from local businesses and community members.
Investments in the community didn’t wait for the project’s completion, however. The board took advantage of the project itself to provide educational opportunities.
“We partnered with Northeast Iowa Community College and Four Mounds Foundation to train young people in construction skills, including carpentry and masonry,” says Duane Hagerty, a member of the Steeple Square board of directors and president and CEO of Heritage Works Dubuque, which preserves, promotes and protects historic architecture in the Dubuque area. “The restoration work gave us the chance to provide onsite vocational training for underserved populations, and the trainees received stipends and childcare while they were working.”
As one of the tallest church steeples in the region, the tower was visible across the city and a revered symbol of the neighborhood. The steeple’s restoration began with a structural assessment, which required removing a century of pigeon and bat excrement to access the materials below. The exterior renovation’s work had to be performed from the top to rebuild the cross, and metal scaffolding was erected that supported 5,000 wood planks to create platforms for workers.
In the 1960s, the tower had been painted black with white trim. Historic photos revealed that the steeple’s original sheathing was galvanized zinc with pressed metal decorative details. Given the enormous effort to build the scaffolding, the board wanted to restore the steeple in a way that would last for 100 years without the need for ongoing maintenance. Team members went to the State Historic Preservation Office and National Park Service with a new plan.
“We showed them the tower’s monochrome appearance in the historic photos,” Hagerty says. “We asserted copper could replicate that look and the ornate metal details while providing longevity. The preservation office agreed, but we had to replicate every detail to a T.”
New mahogany replaced aging wood components below the cone, and copper was used for the sheathing.
The team also restored three massive bells (weighing more than 1,000 pounds each) and a clock that were installed in the bell tower in the late 1800s.
On the roof, outlines of lost dentils on the cornice and eave showed the team where these former details needed to be created and reinstated.
RAYS OF LIGHT
During church renovations in the early 1900s, congregation members went to Germany to procure 40 stained-glass windows adorned with elaborate biblical scenes. The windows were shipped from Munich between 1913 and 1916.
“By 1914, World War I was underway, so it was significant that the windows came here during such a tumultuous time,” says Judy Wolf, president, Steeple Square board of directors. “And they just made it; the U.S. entered the war the year after the last ones arrived.”
The windows had collected a century’s worth of dust and grime, and their restoration gave Steeple Square another opportunity to further its mission.
“The community took a big interest in the stained glass. Faculty from the Art Institute of Chicago restored the two large windows with their students,” Hagerty recalls. “We capitalized on their knowledge to create our own workshops and recruited local artisans, carpenters and a stained-glass restoration expert from Illinois to teach these skills.”
Each window was carefully removed from its frame with meticulous documentation tracking its original location. The windows were soaked, cleaned, repaired and polished. Wooden window frames were repaired and cleaned.
During this process, an unexpected discovery was made: Original grease-pencil markings on the glass indicated how the windows should fit together. To preserve this unique find, the team varnished the markings to protect them through future cleanings.
From 2016 to 2020, approximately 30 local residents, students and those transitioning from incarceration received training. In addition to furthering these individuals’ employment opportunities, the window restoration helped create the next generation of artisans.
Today, Steeple Square is a vibrant campus that serves as a regional destination and a place of service to its community.
The church’s event center has welcomed more than 70,000 people for weddings and community gatherings, and all the funds generated from events are used to support housing, childcare and training within the complex.
The lower level of the former church is a secondary, smaller event center and contains an education and vocational training center.
The former school provides eight units of permanent affordable housing for women who have faced domestic abuse and homelessness. The former rectory now serves a crucial role as the childcare center and preschool, supporting 70 percent low-income families.
During the past six years, Steeple Square has supplied a much-needed lifeline of $15 million into multiple low-income census tracts. It has brought vitality back to a vacated campus in downtown, provides living-wage jobs and revitalized an underserved neighborhood.
“The project reinstated a sense of hope in the neighborhood,” Wolf says. “With the campus at its core, residents see their neighborhood as a safer, more community-oriented place. The investments didn’t only impact this area though. The project serves as an inspiration to other neighborhoods everywhere.”
METAMORPHOSIS AWARD WINNER and DEVELOPER: Gronen
ARCHITECT: Jeffrey Morton Architects, (563) 585-0043
HISTORIC PRESERVATION: The Durable Restoration Co.
ARCHITECTURAL SHEET METAL: Geisler Brothers Co.
ELECTRICAL: Paulson Electric
CONCRETE: Manders Quality Concrete, (563) 583-9919
MAKER: Rob Droessler
SHEET METAL: Chicago Metal Supply
MILLWORK: Stackis and Morrison, (563) 583-9305
TILE: Virginia Tile