Newton Puts a New Shine on its Historic Town Square
You don’t have to look hard to see the shine returning to Newton’s town square.
The county courthouse has been rehabilitated. Shops are being spruced up. The Hotel Maytag is undergoing a major preservation project. Newton is experiencing a renaissance of historic proportions, literally.
It all started in 2007 when Whirlpool acquired the Maytag Corporation — the heart and soul of the community — and closed the local factory. At the time, city leaders knew they had to rejuvenate Newton through quality-of-life efforts and adaptive-use of historic properties.
“Starting in about 2008, we really saw (historic) preservation coming to the forefront as an economic development strategy for the city,” said Erin Chambers, Newton’s community development director.
That year, Newton created a preservation program and joined the state’s Certified Local Government program.
During the next five years, the Newton Historic Preservation Commission spent more than 2,000 hours researching the community’s history. Its work paid off in 2014 when Newton was accepted into the Main Street Iowa program and its downtown district was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
With those two steps completed, the city developed a downtown streetscape plan and a historic design guidelines program. Those moves, in turn, led to the creation of a dollar-for-dollar matching grant program for properties located within the historic district, Chambers said.
“(The program encourages) property owners to rehab their buildings, to have their new signage and new awnings consistent with a historic district,” she said. “There have been a number of properties that have taken advantage of the program, some in very small ways … some in very significant ways … redoing full facades, new windows, new storefronts and new doors.”
But the larger story behind downtown Newton’s architectural history and its current transformation can be traced to its founding in 1846 and the mid-20th century success of the Maytag Corporation.
From the 1840s to the 1930s, the city boasted an eclectic mix of Victorian, Italianate, Gothic and Neoclassicism architecture.
“Most of the downtown had an Italianate look to it, but we also had neoclassical like the courthouse,” said Rita Reinheimer of the Newton Historic Preservation Commission. “We had a little Gothic in one of our churches and a couple of our buildings.”
Some of the Italianate architecture from the 1880s can still be seen in the Joy Dental Building, the Ramer Block and The Scharf Building. Visitors can also see the 1911 Jasper County Courthouse’s Beaux-Arts interpretation of classical ideals, and the 1920 First Newton National Bank use of classical elements that express strength and stability.
Meanwhile, the 1926 Hotel Maytag stands as Newton’s most significant 20th century building with architectural detailing influenced by Chicago architect Louis Sullivan. The hotel, which is undergoing an extensive rehabilitation, was built by Fred L. Maytag, founder of the Maytag Company.
But everything changed when the Maytag Corporation rolled out its first automatic washing machine to wild success in 1949.
“(By) the 1950s and 1960s, the community was booming and there was a lot of money,” Chambers said. “Newton wanted to be a showcase community … a community on the move, a modern community … and so you saw a lot changes in our downtown buildings.”
The success of Maytag’s washing machine was manifested in the commercial area through the re-facade projects of 1951–1964, which transformed the town square from its 19th century Victorian character to the mid-century modem make-over that dominates the area today, according to the Newton historic district’s National Register nomination form.
Local news accounts say 18 businesses installed new storefronts during 1951–1952, including the Iowa Southern Utilities Co., Nollen Drug, Switzer Furniture, Jack and Jill, Bond Clothing Store and the Capitol Theater, according to the nomination.
The modernization of downtown storefronts continued until 1964 and that’s how things remained until the Maytag Corporation left town.
“We’ve lost a lot of historic artifacts throughout our community,” Chambers said. “Our Carnegie library has been torn down (and) our old schools have been torn down. (But) if you take a look at our town square, we are the only community in the state where mid-century modern is the primary historic context, which is really unique.”
Visitors to Newton can see the preservation and transformation of Newton’s town square during the 2019 Preserve Iowa Summit in June.
— Jeff Morgan, Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs