West Davenport is home to the Riverview Terrace Historic District and this showy mansion on Clay Street that was built by J.M.D Burrows, one of the area's earliest and best-known residents. The district occupies a bluff with sweeping views of the Mississippi River Valley. (QUAD-CITY TIMES)

Cruise down Davenport’s East River Drive and gaze up at the Mississippi Avenue bluff studded with elegant mansions. This neighborhood was built as the 19th century turned into the 20th for prominent businessmen and their families, with the Prospect Park overlook and its unparalleled views of the Mississippi River as the focus.

Keep driving, turning left on Mound Street, and you’ll find yourself in the Village of East Davenport, a former frontier town of small shops and homes that sprang to life with the logging industry. Millions of logs rafted down the river from northern forests were milled here to shelter a booming nation.

Proceed east on 11th Street and you’ll find yourself in McClellan Heights, a hilly neighborhood filled with homes representing just about every architectural style of the early 20th century. But in the 1860s, this was the site of the Union Army’s Camp McClellan, the training ground for nearly half the soldiers in Iowa.

In minutes, a person passing through Davenport can encounter more historic and architecturally remarkable buildings/districts than in any other city in Iowa.

That claim is based on the fact that Davenport has 250 buildings/districts listed on the National Register of Historic Places, a number that far surpasses its next-closest rival, Des Moines, with 138, says Berry Bennett of the State Historic Preservation Office.

To spread the word about Davenport’s rich past and historic neighborhoods, the city has published a fold-out brochure/map that lists all 16 nationally registered historic districts, including photos, a description of the neighborhoods and the architectural styles found in them.

“Discovering Davenport: A Guide to Davenport’s Historic Districts” is meant as a walking tour guide. It is available for free at several locations, including City Hall, the library, the parks and recreation office and Union Station.

Surprising inclusions

Some districts listed in the brochure may surprise you.

A five-block swath of East 14th Street between Pershing and Arlington avenues is listed, for example, as well as a several-blocks square known as the Crescent Warehouse Historic District, one of the most recent to be included on the National Register.

The latter is the area surrounding 4th and Iowa streets that is filled with commercial and warehouse buildings associated with the city’s business development between 1900 and 1950. Several of those buildings have been converted into loft apartments.

Another area that might not immediately come to mind is the Columbia Avenue Historic District, north and west of Vander Veer Botanical Park, which contains brick apartment buildings constructed between 1930 and 1937. Columbia is one of the city’s smallest districts and the only one containing primarily apartment buildings.

“We’re so rich with wonderful buildings here, and I think sometimes we drive by and take them for granted,” says Mary Ann Tyler, a member of the city’s Historic Preservation Commission, which asked that the brochure be made.

“So much history is in these buildings, history of the people who lived here, who came from Germany and all over,” she adds.

The National Register is a listing maintained by the National Park Service of the U.S. Department of the Interior.

To get registered, a property or district must be nominated and meet an established set of criteria such as age (at least 50 years old), architectural style or an association with an important historic person or event. The written nominations are then reviewed at the state and federal levels.

Why list on the register?

Most of the historic districts in the Davenport brochure were nominated by city staff in the early 1980s, with the consent of at least 50 percent of the property owners.

One reason to make a nomination is simply as a point of pride. A city can point to its historic character as a selling point, Bennett says. That is also a reason why individual property owners list their homes.

Second, listing helps keep neighborhoods intact, says Laura Berkley, a city planner. The areas are identified as historic, and if a request for demolition within a district comes in, for example, it will be reviewed at a public hearing before being granted. “Listing helps protect buildings from being torn down unnecessarily,” she adds.

Older neighborhoods are “important chapters in the story of who we are as a nation and people,” Richard Moe, the president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, has said.

A second reason for listing is that historic properties are often eligible for public money to help rehabilitate them.

While the Davenport brochure lists 16 districts throughout the city, at least seven more are eligible, including intact subdivisions in the Birchwood/Hazelwood/Elmwood area of west Davenport, Arlington Court, Glen Armil and Hyland/Elm, Berkley said. The reason those have not been nominated is that money to prepare their nominations has not been budgeted, she said.

Alma Gaul can be contacted at (563) 383-2324 or agaul@qctimes.com.