Steven’s Block Restoring Project Transforms a Community Cornerstone

If the walls could talk, what stories would be told?

Looking down the long blue hallway filled with numerous doors, it easy to envision young and old passing by in conversation. Are they there for an appointment with Dr. Klein or the upcoming basketball tournament? Others are dressed in their Sunday best, excited for a night at the Opera.

Down below, the winding stairs lead to patrons visiting First National Bank or people shopping for a new outfit from Chozen’s Clothing Store. Maybe you’re entering from Hill Ave., for a trim at the barber or need a treat from Doudna Drug Store.

Stevens Block Restoration Project is unearthing over 130 years of history from the Iowa Great Lakes area. Located on the corner of Lakes Street and Hill Ave., this brick downtown anchor is being restored to its former glory and will have five 1,600-1,800 square feet leasing options available this summer. The second floor will be renovated over time.

“We want to offer more affordable lease space and bring more businesses to the area,” said project manager Maria Mellmann. “We’ve been looking for several years for the right property, and this one was always at the top of the list. It went up for auction last year and has been pending several times; we were very excited to sign papers on January 13.”

Mellmann said the Stevens Block Restoration Project has huge amounts of potential. The first thing crews did was to quickly have Harvey’s 5 Star Roofing replace the roof, as they weren’t sure it would survive another spring thaw.

“When we looked at it last fall, there had been a recent rain and water was pooling on the main floor,” she shared.

Within two weeks of purchase, crews had gutted the 1892 building of old flooring, materials and added dividing walls and sheetrock. The ballroom has been gutted and will be prepared for future use. During this process, the entire building will also gain a sprinkler system.

“There is talk of new laws that any gathering place will need to have a sprinkler system in the future, so we are going to go ahead and get that done now. It’s an investment we believe in, and easier to do now in the reno stage,” owner Kevin Kuhlman said.

The overall integrity of the building is completely intact, from a full basement to a newly replaced roof. During demo, they have found hidden treasures and rooms found in random places. All the second-floor windows will be replaced to their full size, as well as adding additional insulation.

“If you look on the outside of the building, you can see where there used to be full-size windows and they were replaced with smaller ones,” Mellmann explained. “Just replacing the windows will bring a lot of change and even more sunlight into the building.”

On the exterior, the crown molding will be restored and there has been talk of adding awnings like back in the day. The five retail spaces on the main floor will face the south, with unit four and five completed in the next several months.

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“In Unit 5, there didn’t need as much work. We’ve patched up the walls, and flooring was ordered immediately for all the units on the main floor, which will be put in place as soon as it arrives in March/April. Our goal is to have those units open by summer, which would also include the basement space underneath each one,” Mellmann said.

The back entryway behind each unit is being opened further, to allow each one to have a back door entrance and a place for delivery.

After the basement was cleaned up, the beauty and high quality of the building was revealed through large wooden floor joints and brick and rock work. In the early 1900s, the building housed the town’s $15,000 power supply that was eventually donated back to the city. The old cast iron pipes can still be seen, as well as large brick beams.

“You can just see the expense and quality of work put into the building; people don’t build like this anymore,” Mellmann said. “This building is a treasure we are excited to bring back to life.”

They are working with an architect to evaluate what would be the best decision on future plans for renovating the upstairs. Mellmann said they’ve also been working closely with the city, following regulations and national historical registry requirements.

The large bank safe door from First Bank and Trust will be a focal point in unit one. “It’s too heavy to be moved – it will be something creative for that unit,” Kuhlman added. “Our crews are just loving finding all of the cool stuff throughout the building – lots of ‘treasures’ from the past.”

In a year, the Iowa Great Lakes will be excited to see how this beautiful corner piece of the community has been restored, and once again, connecting people together in commerce and conversation.

“We are looking for any information on the history of the building and space, besides restoring the building for the community, we want to share its past for the future,” Mellmann said.

History of Stevens Block
The corner of Lake Street and Hill Avenue was a desirable location in the late 1800s - a place where the community gathered and came together. The main street was close to East Okoboji’s steamship landing and the rail station was to the west.

In the 1880s, the site of Stevens Block occupied businesses were beginning to show their age. The ramshackle wooden structures had been built prior to the 1870s and were needing an upgrade. Nearby was the Beacon Block, which was named after the Spirit Lake Beacon newspaper offices, and at the time, one of the oldest buildings downtown was the 1858 Marcus Snyder building.

It is thought one of the early steamship operators, Frank Hopkins, made known the beauty and uniqueness of the Iowa Great Lakes area to his cousins Benjamin F. Stevens and Stephen Stevens, both originally from St. Louis, MO.

Described as “a St. Louis millionaire,” B.F. Steven and his also well-off brother Stephen visited the community, and it didn’t take them long to begin investing in property. B.F. Stevens was a substantial stockholder and one-time president of Liggett & Myers Tobacco company, which in 1885, was the largest producer of plug chewing tobacco in the United States.

Via the Spirit Lake Beacon, B. F. Stevens purchased in-town property in 1885 and built a substantial cottage. He followed by buying the Kingman farm in 1891 alongside Big Spirit, intending to create the most advanced dairy farm in America. There was a large, tall cooling tower built at the Kingman home, extending high above the oak trees. A popular observation point at Big Spirit, until it became unsafe and was torn down in 1948.

Steve Stevens spent more time at the Lakes than his brother and was also financially well-connected. The brothers spared no expense in bringing in horses, ponies, and livestock to the area, as distance and the best genetics were no object. Steve also served as a Spirit Lake councilman but resigned in 1895.

In early 1893, the Steven brothers began to look at the community as more than just a lake home. Steve began negotiating with property owners along Lake Street and Hill Ave, as the rumor of a substantial two-story elaborate brick building at the street’s corner became news by March. The newspaper talked about dedicated spaces for a barbershop, First National Bank, and meeting spaces for the Masonic Lodge and Knights of Pythias and an elaborate 400-seat opera house on the second floor.

The Stevens spared no expense on the building and used the best materials available at the time. Construction took over a year, with tenants moving in throughout 1894. The first show took place in the opera house in April, and sold-out performances were common. The opera house became the community’s location for high school gatherings, lectures, and even basketball tournaments in the early 1900s.

The brothers also brought neighboring property to the north and installed a steam and power plant for the building, as well as other Spirit Lake businesses and residences.

B.F. Stevens’ tobacco business operations took him to Virginia in the late 1890s and the final investment to the Iowa Great Lakes area was for a refrigeration plant for butter and other perishables. Locating it on the block of the present Methodist Church and Spirit Lake City Hall, the space was donated back to the city in 1900. Steve Stevens managed the investments for several years before health issues arose and he spent more time at hot springs in the South and West.

Both Stevens men were Civil War veterans, having enlisted in the 15th Iowa Infantry. B.F. Stevens passed in 1916, at age 75 in Martinsville, VA and is buried there, while Steve died in 1923 in California.

The Stevens Block was passed onto local merchant H.A. Miller at one point, but on a subsero day at the end of 1927, a large fire in the rear of Doudna Drug Store severely damaged the building, gutting the opera house, meeting spaces, the drug store, and Peterson hardware store and post office. Thankfully, the building was saved but it lost much of its original character during the updating and repair.

Over the decades, the large brick building has had numerous tenants and owners. First Bank and Trust owned the building for quite some time through 2006, while Camp Foster Bedell YMCA used it as an additional exercise facility through 2020.

If the walls could talk – what would we hear?