Feb. 19—The pandemic that shut so many public doors to visitors opened a window of opportunity for Iowa PBS film crews to step inside some of Cedar Rapids' historic sites.
They still had to take personal safety precautions, but in the end, are ready to take viewers through "Historic Buildings of Iowa: Cedar Rapids."
The hourlong documentary, shot mostly in July, will premiere at 6:30 p.m. March 2 on-air and online for prime viewing during the Iowa PBS Festival fundraiser. Online watchers that night can chat with each other live and ask questions of in-studio guests.
Among the showcased sites are the Paramount Theatre, Veterans Memorial Building, Cedar Rapids Museum of Art and its Grant Wood Studio, Brucemore mansion, the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library, and the Louis Sullivan bank, most recently home to Popoli Restaurant, which closed Dec. 20.
With the airing of the Cedar Rapids episode, "Historic Buildings of Iowa" can be deemed a series, since this is just the second installment mining the state's rich structural history. The first special focused on Des Moines, and debuted last March during the 2020 Festival fundraiser.
The cameras will next focus on Iowa City, which will air either later this year or in 2020, said Andrew Batt, senior producer and director at Iowa PBS, headquartered in Johnston, near Des Moines.
"It was a concept that we worked on in a collaboration with Iowa PBS and our foundation, to explore some of the buildings that still remain in our state that have rich stories," Batt said. "We centered this around the concept that these are experiences in Iowa."
In addition, PBS planned to offer bus trips for its members to the various sites, but the pandemic paused that idea for now.
Batt and other PBS producers knew the first episode wouldn't be the last.
He said they recognized "there are some great opportunities in some of these other cities in Iowa to feature, and it's a combination of what these buildings are today and their stories, because the stories are what is very interesting."
Cedar Rapids View
Iowa's second largest city was the logical stop for the second episode, he noted.
"It has history," he said. "Iowa PBS is a statewide network, so we cover stories across the state. And any time we've ever been in Cedar Rapids, whether it be to produce the state volleyball championships or do stories or other programs like 'Iowa Outdoors,' I always came across buildings, structures and stories from Cedar Rapids that were interesting. When we decided to look into the possibility of picturing them in a larger documentary, it was pretty easy, to be honest.
"Here are some fantastic stories. Cedar Rapids buildings like the Brucemore mansion; the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, along with its Grant Wood Studio. The Veterans Memorial Building, which anyone sees driving right through Cedar Rapids on the interstate, but we don't know the story of what that golden flame is or why that city hall was put there in the middle of the river. The Paramount Theatre and the Czech Museum — structures that have either heritage and history or beauty and were ravaged by floodwaters.
"All of these stories tell a story about Iowa that's bigger — tell a story about Cedar Rapids and that community — and they're still standing. They're still things you can see today and in our digitalized experience."
He and his colleagues visited some of the sites in December 2019, so viewers will see Brucemore decorated for Christmas. And since most of the footage was shot over a few days this past July, they'll also see Brucemore's estate as it looked before the Aug. 10 derecho forever altered the landscape.
"I know the trees don't look the same as they did when we filmed in July," Batt said. "So we captured what turned out to be a little bit of a time capsule before the storm went through."
All of the site directors and staff with whom they spoke were eager to welcome the production crews inside, and each segment features comments from the director or an expert on the building's back story.
"We spent extensive time filming," Batt said, "and we had to do our filming during the pandemic safely in Cedar Rapids where we sent our teams in.
"One advantage of many of these structures is, due to the pandemic, you didn't have a lot of tour groups — or any tour groups in many cases — coming through these structures. So we worked with many of them to get in and to film safely for our crew."
While it would have been nice to film some people milling about, the largely empty rooms is "what 2020 gave us this past year — at least during part of the filming process," he said, "and it allowed us to really showcase these buildings. A lot of them stand really well on their own, even without a big event in place."
Drone technology also allowed them to show the bird's-eye views people just can't get from the ground. "That really showcases a lot of that beauty," said Batt, who in addition to serving as executive producer, also was one of the drone operators.
A Johnston resident, he has been with Iowa PBS for 17 years, and wore several other hats during production last year in Cedar Rapids and the postproduction work this winter back home.
"It's an all-hands-on-deck approach," he said. He helped coordinate the project; helped edit the features, along with other producers, editors and videographers; and "did a little bit of all of it," from writing and editing to shooting and flying a drone.
As with all of his projects, he walks away learning something new.
"In this job, you have to relearned the lesson that there are so many stories to tell and there's so much you don't know about the back story, even in this case, of buildings in Iowa's second-largest city. You can go and do stories in any town in Iowa for years, but realize that there are more stories to be told and there's something to always learn. That's reflected in the producer, and it's reflected in what our viewers will discover, too."
Creating and airing the Cedar Rapids segment during the pandemic also allows viewers a glimpse outside their homes while safely staying inside their homes — as well as piquing their interest in possible sites to see.
"It's a celebration of Iowa and the stories and the places, and it's a great fit for a time period which a lot of Iowans would like to get out and explore their own community or explore their own state," Batt said.
"You think about your vacation, and a lot of people want to get out of the state and go travel somewhere else. There's so many places within the state, and so many Iowans are limited in exploring their own backyards.
"This kind of program is good anyway, any time I get to share a story about Iowa. But one thing we found in this 'Historic Buildings of Iowa' series is that people may know what those names of the buildings are. They may even know where they're located and they may have lived in that town their whole lives, but have they ever gone in and toured it? Do they know the back story?
"So if that's the case within a city like Cedar Rapids, that they may not have been to all these places in the story, it definifetly is a story to share across our entire state," he said.
"And all of these trace back to the history of Iowa. It's a Cedar Rapids story, but they're all Iowa stories."
—What: Iowa PBS presents: "Historic Buildings of Iowa: Cedar Rapids"
—Premiere: Hourlong documentary, 6:30 p.m. March 2, on-air and online at m.facebook.com/iowapbs as part of Festival 2021
—Other airings: 1:30 p.m. March 7 and 2:30 p.m. March 13 at on Iowa PBS .1; 8:30 p.m. March 13 at on Iowa PBS WORLD .3
—Online features: March 2 Facebook premiere audiences can chat with each other live and ask questions of in-studio guests; following the premiere, the program will be available free on demand for a limited time on iowapbs.org, youtube.com/IowaPBS and the PBS Video App
—Iowa PBS Festival 2021: Annual pledge drive today and Sunday (2/20-21) and Feb. 27 to March 14; details at iowapbs.org/festival
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