When tragedy decimated a cherished landmark in Jefferson, Iowa, a group of local women joined together to restore the building and revitalize their treasured community.
Home to a historic main street, vibrant art scene and welcoming community, Jefferson, located an hour northwest of Des Moines, is a beloved day-trip destination. Since 1876, various businesses have located in the Centennial Block building. However, in February 2019, the building’s water pipes burst, causing immeasurable damage to the renowned building and a beloved tearoom, leaving a void for the community at large.
When many residents were waiting for someone to save the community staple, a group of local women decided, “Why not us?” That simple question sparked the energy – and namesake – behind the investment group formed initially by 30 women, each with a $5,000 contribution, ready to take on the challenge.
The group viewed the building’s restoration not as a path toward monetary gain, but as an investment that further boosts Jefferson’s appeal by offering an elevated dining experience for visitors and residents alike.
Restoring a Building and a Community
After the restaurant opened its doors, the community responded with resounding support. Media coverage beckoned visitors to witness the history and livelihood of The Centennial, contributing to a spike in out-of-town visitors to Jefferson’s downtown square.
“Many of the businesses around our square are also women-owned and [The Centennial] really made a difference for them,” said board member Peg Raney. “Their sales went up; they’ve noticed more foot traffic.”
A Celebrated Past
The Centennial restaurant was not the Block building’s first experience with the influence of female-driven leadership. The building once housed Jefferson’s first female doctor, a women’s clothing store and Angie’s Tea Garden.
Even the façade of the building is touched by women – each window is adorned with 61 Victorian-style window hoods that offer unique expressions of femininity and add to the building’s charm.
“When we saw those women’s faces on the hoods, we knew they spoke the history of the building,” said Raney. “We knew we had to keep them.”
Why Not Us consulted with preservationists to safeguard the 61 original faces and vintage decor of the building. They also composed additional an adornment in the dining room, increasing the total to 71 Victorian women – one to symbolize each current investor.
An Inspiring Future
While Why Not Us had their hands full with enrichment plans for Jefferson, many others were inspired by their efforts, including a group of four women who plan to open CHiRP Coffee in spring 2023. Sara Ostrander, The Centennial’s chef, also envisions the possibility of using the space for community outreach programs such as cooking classes and cake decorating workshops.
When reflecting on the difference Why Not Us has made in the community, Raney emphasized that a person doesn’t need to be an expert to make an impact. All that’s required is a vision and a willingness to work with others.
“It’s a great nod to women being able to work together and get something accomplished,” said Raney.