Inside Tama Building renovation before big fire in Burlington, Iowa

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The shock of seeing the Tama Building in Burlington, Iowa, being consumed by massive flames has worn off, and now I just feel a sadness that I suspect won’t go away.

From 1903 to 1981, there was a Sutter Drug Store somewhere in that building, first at 311 N. Third, then 307-309 N. Third, then in the prime corner spot at Jefferson and Third from 1930 to 1981.

Tama Building
The Joseph R. Sutter Drug Store opened in 1903 at 311 N. Third St. in the Tama Building. My great-grandfather is at the far right.

I’d been watching with great interest the renovations of the Tama Building the last few years. And I was fortunate enough to get inside to see what was happening, first in April 2017 and then most recently this past May. I’m sure a good amount of progress had been made since May, given that some local businesses were close to relocating into storefronts.

In May, some of the apartments had kitchen cabinets installed, when I did a tour one Sunday afternoon with my childhood friends Bruce and Dave Baker, and Dave’s wife, Maureen. Bruce was able to get us into the building as he knows Doug Wells, the Des Moines architect and developer of the $12.5 million renovation of the Tama Building and the Chittenden and Eastman Commercial Building. Those buildings made up what was being called the Tama Complex.

If you haven’t seen the work, here are some photos that Bruce, Maureen and I took that day.

Tama Building
Facing the corner of Third and Jefferson inside the Tama Building in the former drug store space.

I was most interested in the renovation of the corner at Third and Jefferson, where the Sutter store was located for 51 years.

Tama Building
Looking down into the basement below the drug store space.

Bruce, Dave and I had some animated conversations about the store. Their family owned Witte Drug for years, and my great-grandfather, Joseph R. Sutter, got his start at Witte’s and learned about pharmacy working there.

Tama Building
Bruce (in green) and Dave Baker and I in the drug store space near the Jefferson Street windows. The soda fountain was against the wall on the right.

After the drug store closed in 1981, the space was home to various restaurants and bars. I always felt happy seeing the space occupied, until the fire of 2010 gutted the interior.

Tama Building
Despite all the different occupants over the years, the tin ceiling in the Sutter Drug Store space has remained intact.


We also climbed several flights of stairs to check out other parts of the building.

Tama Building
Looking down between the Tama and Chittenden and Eastman buildings. Tama is the building to the right.
View from Tama Building
Looking out an upper story window at the Tama Building, you can see the Schramm’s building with the awning. The upper stories are now condos.

We talked that day about how the Tama Building got its name and that the new owners wanted to get the Tama Indian sign back from Des Moines County.

Tama Building
The word Tama was on the doorway on the Third Street side of the building.

After we finished walking around and said our goodbyes, I drove by the Des Moines County Courthouse to see if Chief Tama was still on the front lawn. He is.

Chief Tama of Tama Building fame
The image of Chief Tama, which used to grace the Tama Building many years ago, now sits in front of the Des Moines County Courthouse.

To read how Chief Tama came to reside in front of the courthouse, click here.  I’m thankful that it hadn’t been moved back to the Tama Building yet, because it likely would have been destroyed in the fire.

If you want to read about and see photos of the devastating 1915 fire that started in the basement of Sutter-Ludman in the Tama Building, click here.  A 1939 fire wasn’t nearly as bad; click here for my blog on that.

I’m hopeful that someday there will be another iconic and beautiful structure at the corner of Jefferson and Third, to replace the amazing building that had stood there since 1897.

I’m committed to sharing the latest news about the Tama Building to keep readers up to date. If you don’t want to miss a post, you can receive posts quickly via email. Please scroll to the bottom of this web page and fill in your email address and submit it. I will not share your email address with others.


Want to buy the Sutter’s sign?

This sign hung on the Third Street side of the Tama Building. 

On my recent trips to Burlington,  Iowa, it’s been so great to see the steady progress being made on renovating the Tama Building, where my great-grandfather founded his first store at 311 N. Third St., before moving it in 1929 to the prime spot at the corner of Jefferson and Third.

Now you might be able to own a piece of that history. Steve Frevert, executive director of Downtown Partners, Inc., has obtained the Sutter’s sign that hung on the Jefferson side of the street. The sign was covered by other signs for years after the store closed in 1981, but in recent years it was visible again.

With the new owners of what’s called the Historic Tama Complex making great progress on the building, it was time for the Sutter signs (one on Jefferson, the other facing Third) to come down. In an email, Steve told me, “The sign they removed was on eleven porcelain enamel panels on the Jefferson St. side. Much of it has brown paint on it, but I think we can figure out a way to strip it off. I took the panels to Preservation Station, and hopefully sometime this summer we can get them stripped.”

This photo shows Sutter Drug Store in 1976. (Photo courtesy of Downtown Burlington Partners.)

When I asked what might happen with the sign after the stripping, Steve wrote, “I imagine we will sell it, either in the shop or online.”

So there you have it! I do hope the sign gets a good home in Burlington. As the Tama building renovations began, I did think about the future of the signs, but where the heck would I put them?

I understand the sign on the Third Street side of the building went to someone named Sutter in Wisconsin, who contacted the building’s owners about it after seeing it while visiting Burlington. As far as I know, this person is not related to my family but I would love to find out his/her plans for it.