Black’s Gaslight Village – Iowa City, Iowa

gaslight.jpg    Black’s Gaslight Village – Iowa City, Iowa.

Not more than 75 tenants live in this writers workshop center of talent, but the stories are endless!

This group of houses was built in the 1940′s and has been used for housing by the hippie community of the 70′s. It was the Greenwich Village of Iowa. The talented and artistic of every year since the 40′s that have attended the Writer’s Workshop at the University of Iowa has graced this area with their impressions and it still goes forward today.

The site is on the National Register of Historic Places.

This most unusual sprawling complex is made up of large old homes and 1940’s and 50’s random evolutionary architecture. The place is small but the real treat is seeing the inside of the most unusual apartments. Home made rooms of found materials. One has a waterfall in it and a full size tree! Another has a wall made of tombstones, another has bowling balls in the middle of it. Whatever the "artists" interpretation of the space they wanted to live has been incorporated into the spaces.

Location: 414 Brown St. , Iowa City, Iowa

Tours: Available by contacting: jdeethATmchsi.com

Comments

  1. John Deeth says:

    I no longer live at Gaslight Village, the owner is Richard Wayne but I don’t have contact info handy

  2. Curt Morey says:

    I spent a lot of time at Black’s Gaslight from 1976 – 1980. I was a member of the Undergraduate Fiction Writer’s Workshop and had friends in the writing community who lived there, including good friend Scott Anderson, relative of Garrison Keillor. My brother lived with Scott and Wes Kooistra there for a few crazy years.

    This was a really funky place and I’d love to visit again. Maybe sometime on my way back from my home in Racine, WI to my parent’s home in Leon, Iowa I’ll drop by.

    I also heard that my old fraternity, Kappa Sigma, had been shut down, which doesn’t surprise me. We had a very enterprising group of guys who operated “under the radar”, most of the time!

  3. Steve Vargas says:

    Henry Black bought 422 Brown St, the large white home in 1943. In 1946 the city asked Henry to rent out some rooms to returning soldiers from WW2. Because he had a large home and there was a shortage of housing. Henry Black went one step further and added onto his home, now some 53 rooms and then built another complex in the backyard made of used materials and student labor. Henry then got into legal trouble with the city over zoning laws for too many apartments on one lot and other details. Henry won all his legal cases. In 1960 he bought the brick home at 414 Brown, next door and it now has about 14 units. Henry again built a large complex in the backyard with a permit for a picnic shelter he built a 25 unit rooming house. The city tried to close down the place before he rented the rooms. A judge ruled that Henry had just a few days to get the house fully rented or it would be closed down. Basically, shit or get off the pot. The judge never dreamed that Henry would fill up an unfinished building in a few days. But Henry put in ad in the paper, sleeping rooms $15 per month utilities included. Call ASAP. He rented the 25 rooms in just 2 days. Without doors or windows being yet installed. Students put sheets over their doors and window. Henry installed them after he collected rents and was able to afford to finish the house. That was approximately 1963? Or very nearly. The same house is fully occupied to this day. Gaslight Village has always been fully rented (except summers of course) and remains a delightful place to live and visit. It has amazing homespun architecture. Its folk art you can live in. You have to see the inside to really appreciate it. And the tenants over all these years has consistently been the coolest group of artists, writers, theater students, PHD candidates and other brilliant people to live with and make friends with, it great. It has a gothic element to its aura. An ancient patina for character, and a rich history of interesting intelligent students spanning back to 1946 and also a fascinating history of its eccentric builder Henry Black. Who himself worked toward his PHD at Iowa, while building his dream and raising a family. He previously was a High School English teacher and later a salesman for Webster’s Dictionary Company. Born in 1902 Died 1978. His wife ran gaslight and continued the tradition of artist commune until she retired in 1987 and moved out of state and remarried. As of Jan 2011 she is still alive and well at 85. The current owner of Gaslight Village has undergone a massive, expensive restoration of the 4 buildings consisting of some 68 or so apartments. I lived there in the 1970′s and visited recently, I was impressed at how nice the place looks. I would love to live here again. It is a great way to live your college years and experience the friendships you can make there and meet cool people. It complements the Iowa City college life. It is also located in Iowa City’s best neighborhood, the historic north side with all the mansions and brick streets. The property in on the National Registry of Historic Places. It’s close to the U of I too. If you’re going to live in Iowa City, this is the best bet for low cost and safety. Convenience and history, and making friends. I think I just talked myself into moving back to Iowa. Howard McMillian wrote a novel based on Henry Black in 1969 “The many mansions of Sam Peeples” More recently a screenplay had been written, a love story that takes place at Gaslight Village. The screen play was bought by a movie production company in New Orleans but shortly after their entire production facility was destroyed in Hurricane Katrina and the project died. Interestingly, Gaslight Village could probably make more money by becoming a museum and give tours of all the interesting apartments to paying tourists. Like the house on the rock in wisconsin. Henry Black had enough antiques items to fill every room at Gaslight.

  4. Thank you for sharing this information, what an interesting man!

  5. Henry Milton Black’s second son, Quentin, and I were constant companions during junior and senior high school years, having met via our parents social relationship when we were four or five years old. We were close friends until Quentin’s premature death late summer 1963 and had shared digs for a period while at the University of Iowa.

    To my recollection, the first tenants were writers Curt Harnack and his wife, Hortense Calisher, possibly living at first in the walk-up attic of 422 Brown Street, later in the first building Henry converted, a small, two-story barn he called the Chalet. There could have been an earlier resident of the attic; I’m not certain.

    Mainly Henry’s older boys, Quentin and older brother Gary, were employed (“enslaved” would be more accurate) to develop the bizarre complex of semi-habitable outbuildings at 422 (before 414 next door was purchased). They were left with work assignments each week when Henry hit the road in eastern Iowa on behalf of Merriam-Webster, peddling dictionaries. In order to expedite Quentin’s and Gary’s emancipation for adolescent pursuits such as baseball and films, I often helped with the work, especially with the Chalet. I was very close to the family in those years, visiting 422 almost daily. Between Quentin’s mother, Laura, and I, Quentin’s father was always referred to (privately) as “Simon” (as in Simon Legree, the infamous slave dealer). She would answer my phone calls for Quentin and advise immediately if “Simon” had returned from a sales run. The brothers and I attached the highest value to Henry’s trips on the road in his Lincoln.

    So far as I could see, Henry and my father, Newt, were the only social friends the pair had, outside their respective families, and apart from chats at my father’s Standard Oil Service Station when Henry filled his tank or replaced tires, get-togethers were always full-family and limited to a) watching the Memorial Day parade from the front steps of 422, b) watching the 4th of July fireworks at City Park across the street from our house and c) one early Sunday breakfast cookout at Lake MacBride State Park outside of town each summer. In June 1954 Laura died of cancer at home where Henry had been been having her nursed. My father, who by then was also operating the Iowa City Ambulance Service, drove the ambulance himself that trip. Henry subsequently remarried, from which union issued a second family.

    Henry passed on to me, and I still use, his personal copy of the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary (signed, of course) and also his portable Royal Typewriter which sat on his library desk at 422 (I no longer use that). Henry had coaxed Quentin and me to take typing in summer school while in junior high, which of course I’ve never regretted. So, you see, he wasn’t all bad.

    I know a lot about the Black family and Gaslight Village (originally “Black’s Disneyland”) from 1948 to 1963 and don’t object to being contacted on the subject. In fact, in the interest of filling in a more complete record of the family and events, I would welcome information from others who have had contacts in the past. Henry, as will be gathered, was a one-off and so was Quentin. I’ve only scratched the surface above. I live in England now and my contact is orcclub@compuserve.com.

    Ken Weller
    April, 2011

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