Press Citizen: Historic Ashton House to Be Renovated

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Press Citizen May 6, 2012
by Josh O'Leary

Joye McKusick, standing outside the concrete and stone house that her late father spent years building, said Ned Ashton would approve of his family home’s new purpose.

“It would mean the world to him,” said McKusick, 82, on Friday on the lawn along the Iowa River.

The Ashton House, a one-of-a-kind, 65-year-old home at 820 Park Road, won’t meet the same wrecking ball that has cleared dozens of other properties bought out by the city since floodwater devastated the Parkview Terrace neighborhood in 2008.

Instead, the city will preserve the home because of its status on the National Register of Historic Places, with plans calling for it to be renovated as a special events facility. The house could be available for public rentals for occasions such as weddings, family reunions and small conferences as soon as this fall, city officials say.

Ashton House also will serve as key component in the city’s larger efforts this year to transform the razed residential lots along the river into public parkland, essentially expanding City Park westward around the remaining homes and city streets in the Normandy Drive area.

While the buyout and demolition process has been ongoing in the years since the flood, the city has taken a slow approach to repurposing the land. Officials have met periodically with residents to discuss ideas, saying that they wanted to give the neighborhood time to recover before moving forward.

Mike Moran, Iowa City Parks and Recreation director, said plans are being finalized this month for what is being called the Normandy Drive Restoration Project, with work expected to begin July 1. The Parks and Recreation Commission will examine final plans in a meeting next week, and a neighborhood meeting is in the works for the end of the month.

Plans include extending the bike trail along Rocky Shore Drive to Normandy Drive, where a series of new trails will branch through the Parkview Terrace neighborhood and link up with Lower City Park. The Normandy Drive roadway also will be extended into City Park, which currently has just one entrance and exit, to provide secondary access during high-traffic times in the park and when the Park Road Bridge replacement project gets under way in the coming years.

Moran said the Normandy Drive Restoration Project, which will include planting native prairie grasses and other low-maintenance vegetation, will be done in two phases, with each carrying about a $410,000 price tag. The extension of Normandy Drive will cost an additional $260,000, while the cost to turn Ashton House into a public events facility won’t be known until the conclusion of a study that is currently under way.

Mary Murphy, a Park Place resident who has lived in Parkview Terrace with her family since 2001, has watched her neighborhood shrink through buyouts and demolitions since the flood. While ideas like community gardens have been discussed, the city’s plan to turn the empty lots into trails and parkland has been received well by the remaining residents, she said.

“From my perspective, it’s a terrific opportunity for Iowa City to expand City Park, and this has the opportunity to be a real centerpiece for the community,” said Murphy, 49. “I’m really excited about the project.”

With the buyout process drawing to a close later this year, the city has purchased 87 total properties in Parkview Terrace and along Taft Speedway using federal and state-issued grants. Seven more acquisitions are expected to be finalized this summer, meaning that of the 140 property owners who have been eligible for buyouts, 94 will have accepted. To date, the city has acquired just more than $21 million in property.

The city eventually could begin using the capital improvements budget to purchase properties in the floodplain, but community development planner David Purdy said the council decided not to set aside money for that purpose this year.

“Whether they allocate funds in the future will depend on all the other projects and how they prioritize future buyouts on that lengthy list,” Purdy said in an email.

Among the buyouts was the Ashton House, for which the city paid $642,000.

Ned Ashton, who was an engineering professor at the University of Iowa and all-American swimmer for the Hawkeyes, began work on his house in 1946, using the same techniques that earned him renown as a bridge designer. He completed the house 1954, though his family moved in several years earlier while it was still a work in progress.

Built largely with his own hands — along with help from wife Gladys, his three daughters and his engineering students — Ashton crafted a massive concrete structure lined with dolomite hand-picked from a quarry in Stone City. The house’s historic documentation describes it as a ranch-style home built atop a wide, bridge-like concrete base set into a bank and designed to float, so to speak, in the sandy soil along the river.

Upstairs, all but one room has a view of the river, and the living room is anchored by a marble fireplace dating to 1854 that Ashton salvaged and transported from his grandfather’s home in Clinton.

The ground level, which served as an engineering workshop for Ashton and his team of draftsmen, was designed to allow floodwater to pass through its opened windows and doors — a feature that proved beneficial in 2008 when nearly seven feet of water flowed through the house.

“Ned was years ahead of himself,” said Moran, who jokes that the house is the safest place to be in Iowa City during a tornado. “The guy was a brilliant person.”

Ashton, called the most distinguished bridge builder engineer in Iowa’s history by colleagues, worked on major projects across the country, including a 140-foot radio telescope in West Virginia and outlet towers for the Hoover dam. His more local projects included designing the City Park swimming pool, the Kent Park dam, bridges for the CRANDIC railroad and major spans across the Mississippi River.

Moran said the city intends to change as little as possible to maintain the unique character of the Ashton home, which is shaped like three sides of a hexagon and features a curving stairway off the back porch overlooking the river. To comply with regulations for a public building, a three-season porch likely will be rebuilt as a front entryway, and a ramp will be added for wheelchair access, among other renovations, Moran said. A parking lot also will be added nearby to accommodate a couple dozen vehicles, and the entrance to the property likely will be moved from Park Road to Normandy Drive.

“Our goal is to keep it as natural as we can,” Moran said. “We don’t really want to go in and start putting holes in things.”

And that’s just fine with McKusick, the oldest of Ashton’s three daughters. The house was under construction while she was in college, and her wedding reception in 1952 was the first major gathering her mother hosted there. Both of her sisters held their weddings at the house, and McKusick and her second husband, Marshall, were married in the living room.

The fact that the house will soon be be hosting weddings once again means a lot to the family, she said.

“They’re delighted,” said McKusick, who moved into the home following her father’s death in the mid-1980s. She and husband Marshall remained there until 2006, when they decided the upkeep had become too much and sold it to another couple.

The McKusicks didn’t move far, though, and now live just down the road on Normandy Drive, where they’re one of seven property owners on the river side who opted to stay put.

“We’re river rats as you can see, because we’re still here,” McKusick said.

It was Marshall McKusick, the former state archaeologist for Iowa, who put together an application that was accepted by the National Register of Historic Places in 2001. Had the house not been on the registry, it may well have been leveled with the other buyouts.

As sturdy as Ned built it, though, that wrecking ball surely would have had its work cut out.

Reach Josh O’Leary at 887-5415 or joleary@press-citizen.com.