When the Davenport City Council approved a $1.8 million loan last month to help rehabilitate the dilapidated Forrest Block, 8th Ward Alderman Mike Matson was among three who voted no.
“I understand some people think this is a significant building in Davenport,” he said during the discussion about lending to the developer, Restoration St. Louis. “I don’t get that. I don’t see the significance in saving this building.”
His statement was enough to send historic preservationists over the edge of a cliff.
To them, the old, long-empty brick building on the northeast corner of 4th and Brady streets is an obvious gem with great historic significance as well as future potential, and they’ve been fighting to save it for more than 20 years.
“Here we go again, having to sweat the Forrest Block!” Karen Anderson, the executive director of the Scott County Historic Preservation Society, said before the council’s vote on the loan. “It never ends.”
Although the council approved the loan, others may be puzzled by the building, too, beginning with why it is called the Forrest Block when, really, it is only one building.
Anderson said the reason for the block moniker is that the building was designed as a kind of retail mall, or many stores in one building, which was a revolutionary concept for its time.
It is called Forrest because it was financed by an entrepreneur named John Forrest.
The building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1983 and is significant for two main reasons, Anderson said.
First is its age, having been built in 1875, only 10 years after the end of the Civil War, coupled with its Italianate architectural style, characterized by a massive, wrap-around metal cornice on the top and ornate cast-iron headers on all of the windows.
“It is perhaps the city’s oldest and most splendid example of Victorian commercial architecture,” Quad-City Times reporter John Willard wrote in 1999.
Prominent Davenport architect Frederick G. Clausen is credited as the structure’s architect.
The second main reason for the Forrest Block’s significance is its location, as an anchor on a busy corner, and because it is part of a row of historic buildings — all listed on the National Register of Historic Places — to the north of it.
Preservationists are especially protective of areas that are “intact,” with numerous historic structures, because that gives a better sense of the past and the fabric of the community than a single building by itself.
“No other downtown block in Davenport has as much history and architectural integrity compressed into a few hundred feet as the 400 block of Brady Street,” Anderson said.
Added Fritz Miller, a member of the Davenport Historic Preservation Commission: “Once one goes, they all go, one right after another. It’s like cancer.”
As you look north up Brady Street, you’ll see:
--The 1923 Democrat newspaper building, currently Amazon Vinegar & Pickling Works Drygoods, a nationwide wholesale Victorian mail-order catalog company.
-- Hibernian Hall, built in the 1800s as the home of Davenport’s Irish immigrant fraternal organization, the Ancient Order of the Hibernians. It is owned by Ron Bellomy and home to River Bend Antiques, Trash Can Annie’s vintage clothing store, Ragged Poppy Records and the Davenport School of Yoga.
-- An 1800s brick home where Bellomy lives. Behind it is a former livery stable and blacksmith shop that houses some River Bend operations.
-- An 1800s brick building that was a buggy works, also part of the River Bend operation.
Anderson delights to think that people entering the businesses are stepping onto the same worn stone entry steps, turning the same century-old doorknobs and walking onto the same wooden floors that greeted people more than 136 years ago.
The block ends abruptly with the railroad track embankment, but even that is significant because it “champions Davenport’s outstanding railroading history as the arching route of the first railroad bridge to cross the Mississippi River,” she said.