Architect plans to rebuild on Tama Building fire site in Burlington, Iowa

Tama Building
The front of the Tama Building on Jefferson Street after the 2018 fire.

There’s good news for those of us wanting to see the Tama Building rise from the ashes after the devastating fire that occurred on Aug. 4, 2018.

The Hawk Eye reported that Eric Tysland, community development and parks director for the city of Burlington, said that Tama Building owner, architect Doug Wells of Des Moines, wants to rebuild on the site.

This wonderful nugget of news is the last sentence in this story from The Hawk Eye.

While the fire is still under investigation, the property was schedule to be released back to Wells by the end of the day of Sept. 14. The Hawk Eye reported that structural engineers will now be able to evaluate the building, and that in turn will impact the decision to move back fences to open up parts of Jefferson and Third streets.

Tama building fire 2018
The front view of the Chittenden and Eastman Building, part of the Historic Tama Complex, remains blocked off on Jefferson Street.

Having those streets blocked has had a negative impact on downtown business owners, taking up vital parking spots, and I imagine just scaring people from coming downtown. Of course, we don’t want there to be any danger to citizens in case part of the damaged structure would fall into the street.

The Historic Tama complex (consisting of the Tama Building and the Chittenden and Eastman Building) was on the verge of opening both for retail and apartments this fall, and it was going to be such a huge boon to the downtown. Now it’s been a terrible setback to downtown development. According to The Hawk Eye, insurance company Grinnell Mutual is offering a $10,000 reward for information that could help solve the mystery of what started the fire.

I hope and pray that the front structure of the Tama Building, with all its architectural significance, can be saved. If not, I hope Wells will design another building that is reminiscent of the current structure.

Related posts: Tama Building fire update with photos 

Tama Building owner Doug Wells thanks Burlington fire fighters, police

Inside Tama Building renovation before big fire


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Tama Building owner Doug Wells thanks Burlington fire fighters, police

Tama Building
The Tama Building and Sutter Drug Store in the 1940s.

Des Moines architect Doug Wells, owner of Historic Tama LLC, has been pretty quiet about the devastating fire at the Tama Building that began on Aug. 4. The complex was just weeks away of opening in some fashion, with retail on the first floor and apartments above it. Wells was quoted in The Hawk Eye, saying “After working on the project so much and the length of time it has taken, the hundreds of dedicated construction workers who spent thousands of hours here, it’s just shocking to me. I’m devastated.” My heart goes out to him because with my family’s history of Sutter Drug so tied up in the Tama Building, it’s been a tough time for many of us.

Wells issued this press release on Aug. 10:

Our heartfelt thank-you to the City of Burlington Fire Department and
Police Department for their courageous efforts battling and extinguishing
the fire at the Tama Building on August 4-5, 2018. We hope the firemen,
who were injured, are making a full and rapid recovery. Shocked and
devastated to see this happen so close to the finish line, we were ready for
occupancy of this fully-restored historical building in September and
October 2018.

We are most appreciative of the ongoing efforts by numerous entities:
City of Burlington, Downtown Partners Inc, State of Iowa – Iowa Economic
Development Authority, and Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs – State
Historic Preservation Office.

We thank the many Burlington residents who had committed to
downtown residential living in the Tama. We thank Donna & Eric Renteria
and Mark Renteria (Olive Wine and the proposed Snake Alley Market) and
Greg Flietner (Big River Popcorn) for their ongoing loyalty to the project
and plans to move into the commercial spaces with their vibrant
community-based businesses.

With momentum, the design/construction team was anticipating
fulfillment of this project within weeks. Caleb Giesel, our determined
Burlington on-site manager, has been loyal, tenacious, and relentless to
get the job done.

Right now, we are pouring over several viable options with a focus on
rebuilding the Tama and C & E Buildings, which are such important
elements of the Burlington historical fabric and downtown revitalization.

It’s great to see Wells making this statement and thanking and acknowledging all the people involved in the Tama Building project and fire fighting.  Having spent my career in journalism, I know that the more he and other officials involved in the investigation can share information with the public, the better off everyone will be. Now is the time for openness, for giving periodic updates about the investigations into how the fire started, what options are being explored for the future for that complex, etc.

Given that the fire is a major setback for downtown redevelopment and is having a negative impact on existing businesses,  Wells and Burlington city officials need to pledge to keep the public updated as often as possible.

To read more about the fire investigation and its impact on downtown, click here to read the latest story from The Hawk Eye.


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.

Inside Tama Building renovation before big fire in Burlington, Iowa

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.

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.


It’s our Tama and we want him back!

This sculpture of Chief Tama sits in front of the Des Moines County Courthouse: Credit: John Lovretta/The Hawk Eye
This sculpture of Chief Tama sits in front of the Des Moines County Courthouse: Credit: John Lovretta/The Hawk Eye

Whenever I’m in Burlington, I like to drive by the Tama Building and check on its progress. To use an old phrase, “I’m pleased as punch!” that after years of demise, the building is being renovated into apartments.

Kudos to Keokuk attorney and developer Kevin Kuckelman and architect Doug Wells for taking on the project.  In January, according to The Hawk Eye, Kuckelman attended the Des Moines County Supervisors meeting and asked for the return of the sculpture of Chief Taimah, the building’s namesake. Taimah (sometimes spelled Tiamah) was the Meskwaki chief for which the building was named. The haut-relief sculpture currently is placed in front of the Des Moines County Courthouse.

As I noted in my book, “Sutter’s Sodas Satisfy,” the building at the corner of Jefferson and Third streets was completed in 1897, and the Burlington Hawk-Eye called it the only modern store and office building in the city at the time, which had a population of 23,000. There were more than 50 tenants, including doctors, insurance agents, artists and musicians in the building, per the 1900-01 city directory.

According to Kathleen Sloan’s report in The Hawk Eye on Jan. 27, 2016, the bust of Chief Taimah, made of terra cotta, is embedded in a half-circle of limestone, which completed an arched doorway to the main entrance to the Tama Building. That entrance was on Third Street.

Sloan reported that Kuckelman told the supervisors, jokingly: “It came off of our building and we want it back…There was some talk of just stealing it in the night.”

Kuckelman and Wells are proposing that molds be taken and the image eventually replaced with a fiberglass replica that would be weather-proof and more exacting to the original. The board was amenable and had asked for a memorandum of understanding to be drawn up by Kuckelman and Wells.

I called County Auditor Carol Copeland for an update. She told me that the supervisors have agreed verbally to return Chief Tama but are waiting until the building is ready for it. She also said that supervisors will ask that the memorandum of understanding state that if the Tama Building ever be torn down, then the sculpture would be returned to the county. That makes sense to me — we don’t want the chief locked up and forgotten again!

In the 1970s, the sculpture was found inside the county’s secondary roads building on Front Street. That building had to be demolished to make way for a U.S. 34 exit ramp. Then county auditor Myranell Dockendorff had the monument made. Carol doesn’t know how the sculpture ended up in the county building, and she wondered why the city of Burlington didn’t take it. I guess that will remain a mystery.

It was fun to talk to Carol, who remembers me from when I was a reporter for The Hawk Eye in the early ’80s. She’s worked in the auditor’s office for 50 years, and has been the auditor for 16. Her boss, Myranell, was very patient with this rookie reporter, explaining to me how county government worked as I struggled sometimes to make sense of confusing goings-on at the Board of Supervisors meetings. (I was just out of college and what did I know?)

Carol told me she used to eat at Sutter’s lunch counter almost every day, and she loved the tuna salad. So many people have told me they ordered the tuna; I think it was the sweet relish that we put in it that made it so popular.

I wish I had a photo of the Tama Building when the sculpture presided over its entrance. Perhaps the Des Moines County Historical Society does?  I will check. Stay tuned.




Tama Building looms large in downtown Burlington, Iowa

The Tama Building and Sutter Drug Store in the 1940s.
The Tama Building and Sutter Drug Store in the 1940s.

This photo of the Tama Building practically takes my breath away.

You can really see what an imposing building it was in the 1940s. Here are a few things that I love about the photo:

  • Notice how the law offices on the second and third floors had their names in the window: “Conrad and Conrad Law Offices” and “Wilson and Jackson Law Offices.” I certainly remember Max Conrad as an imposing figure when I was growing up. And as a teen, I babysat for his grandchildren a few times.
  • The “Sutter’s Sodas Satisfy” slogan was prominent on the Jefferson Street storefront, as was “The Rexall Store.” Having a great soda fountain, and being affiliated with Rexall, were two big keys to my family’s success, I’m convinced, based on my research.
  • The photo shows the hustle and bustle of Jefferson Street at Third, as people hurry along, crossing the street. The good ol’ days when downtown was so vibrant!
  • My great-grandfather made good use of the Third Street side of the building to advertise Ideal Ice Cream, Kodak film and finishing, truss fitting, and more.

This photo doesn’t appear in my book, but I will be sharing it and some other photos that didn’t get published (along with some that did) when I speak at the Des Moines County Historical Society’s Heritage Center on Tuesday, July 28, at 7 p.m.

I’m looking forward to sharing memories and hearing from those in the audience. Hope you’ll join us. Please call the Heritage Center at 319-752-7449 to reserve a seat. The program is free, but in case it fills up, please call and get a seat reserved. I’ll also be selling my book, “Sutter’s Sodas Satisfy: A Memoir of 90 Years of Sutter Drug Co.” for $17 cash or check. You can also purchase the book in advance at Burlington By The Book.