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Walking on Water is a Walk into History
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Walking on Water is a Walk into History

I’m guessing that many of us who live in and around Decorah don’t look around-- or up all that much as we walk down Water Street. We usually have a destination in mind and stroll along lost in thought, or we chat with the people with whom we walk. But I'm suggesting we begin to look around,  and ultimately, that we begin to look up. 

After all, one can actually see a lot of history in the buildings downtown. 

It's true. What we see today are not the original structures of the street. Most of those initial buildings were wooden structures and succumbed to deterioration or fire. For decades since, city code has prohibited wooden structures from being erected downtown, since they're fire and public safety hazards. But if you look at the signage exhibits throughout downtown titled “A Walk into the Past,” you’ll see what Water did look like in the early days-- thanks to Ed Epperly, Elizabeth Lorentzen, and others. Their careful work depicts what is no longer visible today. 

Still, there is plenty of history to take in from the remaining buildings. Walking along the 300 block of West Water, you can see marquees on the tops of several buildings giving a nod to their history. At 311 West Water (home of

At 311 West Water (home of Decorah Furniture) the marquee reads "1890, K. I. Haugen Building". Next door, the Zahasky Professional Building, (309 West Water) reads, "

Next door, the Zahasky Professional Building, (309 West Water) reads, "Rosenthal, 1897". Across the street, right beside the

Across the street, right beside the Oneota Food Co-op, where the Co-op Kitchen,  the marquee announces: "Tillinghast 1937". And at 300 West Water-- home of

And at 300 West Water-- home of Blue Heron Knittery, the building still says "Central Block 1901". 

These are sights to be enjoyed! The buildings are examples of the careful architecture of the era when they were built and we are fortunate to enjoy them. There are stories about who built the buildings and what their original purposes were that are too lengthy to write here. And the whole street has numerous buildings of this vintage.  The reason I focus on the 300 block of the Water Street is that I live there. I was also involved as a volunteer in the project to place a major part of the downtown business district on the National Register of Historic Places.  (I did some legwork for the 300 block of the street). It’s my neighborhood, and I enjoyed getting to know the buildings and owners through the process.

There are interesting details in many buildings in the downtown. For example, several buildings share a common stairway to the second floor. One can wonder how that was originally arranged, as the buildings went up. Who paid for the space in between? Where does ownership begin and end? There is at least one building in the downtown area that has no actual side walls! Just a roof above two other buildings that were already built there.  That seems farfetched. But I know it's true, because my wife and I considered buying that very building. It’s remarkable. And check closely between the Haugen Building and the Rosenthal Building, which have only one staircase leading to the second floor. More questions come to mind. Where does one building end and the other begin? 

But the historic project is much larger than the 300 block. It starts at Vesterheim on the east and goes to the old train depot on the west and includes parts of side streets leading into Water Street from the south. Sponsored by the Decorah Historic Preservation Commission and the City of Decorah, it includes about 130 buildings all of which were examined individually by volunteer researchers. Individual reports were made, and an application has been produced by a hired consultant which should result in placement on the National Register of Historic Places, creating a historic district. This distinction would be similar to the one given to Decorah's Broadway–Phelps Park Historic District. 

I have visited other cities where this status has been given to a downtown. In these places, many of the buildings in a historic district have a plaque giving information about the builder, when the structures were built, and the original purpose of the building. Getting Decorah's own downtown buildings on the National Register will be a boon to owners who can then obtain tax credits for keeping the building functional. It will benefit the knowledge and further a sense of history for tourists who visit Decorah. And for the locals? It may serve as a reminder for many of us-- to begin looking up when we walk on Water.

Contribute to the conversation! Tell us your story about Water Street living.
  1. Imagine Northeast Iowa Support
    Imagine Northeast Iowa Support
    Another wonderful, eye-opening post. Thanks, Lee!

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