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Iowans: William Wagner, Preservation Pioneer

Perry


 

“Buildings Have Soul”

Preservation Pioneer
William Wagner

By Carol Bodensteiner
Photos courtesy Dallas
County Conservation Board

The Dallas Center Scale House was a small building — just two rooms built next to the railroad tracks in the 1880s and used to weigh grain wagons. After decades of service, the building had outlived its usefulness. Technology had passed it by, and the owners of the grain elevator made plans to tear the building down. 

But William “Bill” Wagner could not bear to lose even this simple building. “If it’s good architecture, if it’s pleasing, it should not be destroyed,” insisted Wagner, an architect who dedicated his life and career to historic preservation.

Following the path he’d pursued throughout his career, he rescued the Scale House, moved it to his rural home, and turned it into his own studio. “I believe buildings have soul,” said Wagner, so he worked to save them.

“Bill believed buildings were more than the materials they were made of,” explains Jack Porter, a preservation consultant with the Iowa State Historical Society and a friend of Wagner’s. “He believed a building embodies the spirit of the people who created the building materials and those who built the structure, as well as those who visited, lived, and worked there.”

“Bill was one of the first progenitors of architectural preservation,” says John Wetherell, retired architect and Wagner’s former partner at Wetherell, Harrison and Wagner. “He could look at a building and imagine what it had been, how it had changed.”

Seeing how a building changed was important to Wagner; he was interested in not only the architecture of buildings but also the stories behind the buildings. In the course of his career, Wagner, named a fellow of the American Institute of Architects, sketched over 360 of Iowa’s historical buildings in 70 Iowa counties. 

For 30 years Wagner’s drawings illustrated calendars for Home Federal Savings. For each of the buildings he sketched, Wagner also wrote a story capturing the structure’s history.

When everyone else seemed intent on tearing down old buildings to make way for new, Wagner dedicated himself to preserving old buildings, often bucking the bureaucracy to make it happen.

In 1956 he received his first state-sponsored restoration job — the West Branch blacksmith shop where Herbert Hoover’s father worked. He fought steadily to save important architecture in Iowa, sometimes unsuccessfully but always relentlessly.

His skill and resolve are alive today in many Iowa landmarks, including Des Moines’ Terrace Hill mansion, West Branch’s Herbert Hoover National Historic Site, the Dallas County Courthouse, Charles City’s Carrie Chapman Catt’s Girlhood Home, and town squares in Adel, Winterset, Pella, and Marshalltown.

Before Wagner passed away in 2001, he talked with his longtime neighbors and friends, Richard and Shirley Kiefer, about what would become of his life’s work, including a substantial library, hundreds of pen-and-ink architectural drawings, the autographs of 40 U.S. presidents, the Scale House, and much more. 

“Bill thought about donating his things to a university or the Historical Society, but he was afraid everything would wind up in a box,” recalls Richard. 

“I told him, ‘As long as Dick and I are alive, we’ll keep you out of a box,’” says Shirley, who serves as a member of the Dallas County Conservation Board. 

The Kiefers, joined by many others, have delivered on that promise. With the approval of his family, a large portion of Wagner’s collection now resides in the recently opened Wagner Gallery at the Forest Park Museum in Perry. Even the Scale House-turned-studio has been moved to the museum complex.

The Wagner Gallery is a tribute to Wagner’s architectural work and also to his philosophy of reusing materials. Wagner reused many of his architectural drawings as wallpaper in his Scale House studio, so he’d likely approve of the new museum’s many repurposed items.

Gallery bookcases are from the old Carnegie Library in Perry; a walnut coffee table, designed by Wagner himself, includes a marble top repurposed from a slab saved during the renovation of the Polk County Courthouse; the coffee table, rug, desk, clock, and a host of other furnishings were donated.

Saving old buildings was a novel idea in the 1950s, but preservation of Iowa’s historic architecture has caught on. According to the State Historical Society of Iowa, more than 2,100 nominations to the National Register of Historic Places have been listed in Iowa. These nominations represent more than 11,000 individual historic resources, from buildings to bridges, landscapes to historic communities.

The soul of Iowa architecture lives on.

Soul Searching

The Wagner Gallery 
14581 K Avenue, Perry
Monday–Friday 8 a.m.–4:30 p.m.
515-465-3577  
conservation.co.dallas.ia.us

For more information on the process of listing on the National Register for Historic Places, visit iowahistory.org 

 

 

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