12 award-winning new and restored places to live, work, shop, and play in Iowa by DAN WEEKS
Main Street Makeover
Manning Downtown Revitalization Manning manningia.com
It’s one thing to preserve a single building, another to restore almost an entire main street. But Manning, a town of 1,500 people about 90 miles west northwest of Des Moines on Highway 141, did it.
Ironically, this is the second time in recent memory that Manning has appealed to history with a Main Street redo. In a nod to its German heritage, a town ordinance in force between 1977 and 2008 actually required all storefronts downtown to remodel with Bavarian-themed facades. Faux chalet-style, half-timbered gables; awnings dripping with rough-hewn cedar shakes; and plywood-cutout balcony railings were everywhere.
But in recent years, the town decided to let its authentic, 1660 German Hausbarn (germanhausbarn.com), imported and reconstructed there in 1996, speak to the town’s ethnic heritage. That freed Manning to expose the genuine architectural history of its Main Street, where the vast majority of the handsome brick, stone, and glass-fronted buildings date from 1885 to 1965.
The town is an excellent candidate for such a project. Set on a hilltop with views of the Nishnabotna River and the railroad, it’s a picture-perfect site for a prairie town — and one that’s changed little over the years. It’s also far enough from urban centers to host a fully functioning, self-contained town with a strong sense of identity and pride.
For several blocks along Main Street, there are no vacant lots. While a few Bavarian fronts proved too troublesome to reverse, you can squint and imagine yourself back in time — perhaps as far back as 1915, when the street was paved with bricks that are still there.
You can stroll along the wide, vintage-streetlamp-accented sidewalks and take a self-guided architectural tour: Each building that's participating in the restoration has a descriptive article and historical photographs displayed in its window.
There’s the “modernistic,” 1939, Art Deco, black-and-white glass facade of the former department store and pharmacy near the south end of the district.
Across the street is Deb’s Corner Cafe, boasting food with “hometown feel, homecook appeal” and host to numerous coffee klatches. The 1891 building was about to topple before its original bricks were removed by hand, stacked in the street, then replaced after the structure behind it was rebuilt.
Each of the 30 contributing buildings has such a story
— and often an interesting retail business inside. That makes Manning a worthy day trip destination and a model for other Iowa towns whose architectural history has gone undercover.