Bent River Brewery

Preservation at its Best 2017, Community Effort: Bent River Brewery (Burlington)

The former JC Penney building is an L-shaped 2 ½ story building of approximately 18,000 square feet located at 500 Jefferson St. in the heart of downtown Burlington. It had sat empty since the summer of 1977 when a retail mall was constructed in adjacent West Burlington.  

No person or group had come forward with a reuse of the building during the past 35 plus years as it continued to decay in a state that had deterred developers/investors from undertaking this project. This was a time when downtown Burlington was slowly dying, and conversation concerning the building usually was about tearing it down to build a parking lot.  

Bent River Brewery, Preservation at Its Best 2017 (Large Commercial)

During the summer of 2013, a small local development group started talking about buying it and converting it into a restaurant brewpub. It seemed like a good idea, as it sits in the middle of the downtown, and there were hopes that it would work as anchor for other downtown businesses.  

In the fall of 2013, work started on cleaning out the building and removing walls and fixtures left since it was vacated more than 35 years earlier. The building was in sorry shape, with ceilings that had leaked all of the way to the ground level, badly damaging the floor under the back mezzanine. The exterior southeast corner was bowed out and had a bad crack running down through the front column. The storefront windows were intact, but most of the 2nd floor windows were boarded up or missing altogether.  

Fortunately, the original blue prints were still available, along with newspaper articles that told of the construction and opening of the new JC Penney building in September 1928. The building has a hard brick facade with upper floor window openings complementary to the streetscape. It was built in 1928 after a fire destroyed the former JC Penney building. The newspaper noted that the style and plan of the building was a plan that J C Penney was using in other cities at that time. The building owners desired to retain as much of the original integrity of the building as possible, with the original blueprints as a guide. 

Construction work began in the spring of 2014. New windows were installed on the second floor, walls were plastered, new plumbing, electrical, HVAC, sprinkler system, and all of the original hardwood floors were repaired and refinished. Bathrooms were installed on all three levels, as well as a complete kitchen under the back mezzanine. The floor was lowered by 18 inches under the north mezzanine. The roof had leaked so badly that it rotted out that floor, working to our advantage since we needed more headspace for the kitchen to be installed in that area. The original JC Penney building had been added on to the west side in 1958. Unfortunately, that was the area with the most water damage, as it destroyed the floors to the point of needing to be removed. It now houses the coolers and brew room for the restaurant/brewpub.  

It was a real joy watching the transformation of a longtime eyesore into an impressive show of 1920s architecture. Though the exterior was simply a department store, the interior brought a lot of “wows” when people walked in the door. The original tin ceiling is refinished in an eye-catching gold color. Previously hidden oak railings revealed on the staircases were refinished, and new rails were painstakingly rebuilt around the back mezzanine. The front mezzanine had new panels built to match the original design. Two original store directory signs were refurbished and rehung, and the parquet flooring inside the display windows was repaired and refinished. The bathrooms on the first floor are finished in black and white tile to match the time period. The most impressive piece on the first floor is the Art Deco back bar, which complements the building’s architectural design; it was salvaged for reuse from a building being demolished a few blocks away.  

The cost of the total project from beginning to opening was $1.3 million. It was funded with investors, bank funding, a Main Street Challenge Grant of $75,000, and state and federal historic tax credits.   

The project was completed and opened to the public in October 2016. What was once a derelict building in an empty block of the central business district is now a busy restaurant that contributes to the nightlife of downtown. Jefferson St., which had been empty in the evening, is now busy with people enjoying Burlington’s first brewpub.  

Preservation Iowa’s two most visible programs are Iowa’s Most Endangered and Preservation at Its Best. These two programs work well together because being listed as Most Endangered often times leads to awareness, a preservation effort, and a high-quality, award winning project.

The full list of Preservation Iowa’s 2017 Preservation at its Best award winners include: