Ground Zero: Iowa Avenue

Today I toured around Iowa City to see the tornado damage. Most of the city was completely unaffected, the weather was beautiful, the sun shining, and the trees just beginning to turn green. But the areas in the center of town were a bleak contrast, blasted by winds and torn to shreds.

I decided to visit my childhood home in the historic Woodlawn district. Iowa City was a planned community, the original State Capitol, and was designed around a broad boulevard, Iowa Avenue, that would stretch between the Capitol Building and the Governor’s Mansion. This plan was copied after Washington DC, where the US Capitol and the White House are at opposite ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. The Iowa Capitol was moved to Des Moines before the Governor’s Mansion was built, so Woodlawn was sold and many of the city’s oldest homes were built there, many of them are nearly 150 years old.

This photograph shows the view down Iowa Avenue, you can just see the golden dome of the Old Capitol building in the center, and just to its left are the gothic spires of the old State Hospital. This is the view the entire city was built around.


This photograph was taken from the very spot where I would set off each morning to deliver newspapers on my paper route down Iowa Avenue. Each morning I would look down the tree-lined boulevard and look for the rising sun glinting off the dome, it would only be visible during the winter, and for a few weeks in the spring, before the tall trees spread their leaves and obscured the view. But the view never ever looked like this.

Nearly all the trees have been stripped from the boulevard. In their place, electric poles have been hastily erected to restore power to the damaged buildings. Almost all the old homes have blue tarps covering the massive holes in their roofs. Cranes were lifting piles of debris into huge dump trucks, I had to wait a while for them to pass before I could take an unobstructed photograph. Students were moving out of their damaged homes, their cars stuffed full of clothing and books. Just off camera to the left, a Red Cross truck was dispensing food and water to the local residents and emergency workers.

I walked up Woodlawn to see my old home, it was undamaged, but it was heartbreaking to see the 200 year old oak trees smashed to bits. I could not take any pictures, almost every direction was blocked by piles of debris stacked 6 feet tall. The 40 foot tall pine tree that stood outside my bedroom window was snapped off and only the bottom 10 feet remained. Almost every tree was smashed to bits, leaving only jagged stumps barely higher than the piles of debris.

I drove around the city but I could not approach the most damaged areas, the streets were blocked off. Highway Patrolmen were directing traffic down Burlington, the traffic lights were torn down. The most astonishing sight was Green Square Park, I saw an uprooted oak tree that was 6 feet in diameter, it pulled up a huge ball of soil 10 feet across.

The entire landscape of the center of Iowa City has been changed by the loss of the trees in the oldest section of town. I feel more acutely the loss of the natural landscape, than the loss of the houses. A house, even a historic 150 year old house, can be rebuilt quickly, but a 200 year old oak tree takes exactly 200 years to replace, if it even manages to survive that long. Many of these trees were here before any houses were built, the city grew around the trees. That circumstance will never happen again.

2 thoughts on “Ground Zero: Iowa Avenue”

  1. When I was five, about 50 years ago, someone threw out a box of old postcards
    There are some about 100 yr old now. One is Green square resting pavilion with a church in the background.
    Just wondering if you or anyone would be interesed in seeing it. I think there are some more of Iowa.

  2. Sure, people are always interested in seeing historic old pictures. You should scan them and put them on the internet, if you don’t have a website of your own, you could use or some photo sharing service like that.

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