Memoir ‘House of Moffitt’ explores an earlier era of Iowa City
There is more to these houses than distinctive design
Alison Gowans, The Gazette
March 7, 2015 | 10:40 pm
The Moffitt houses of Iowa City — each one built with scrap metal, parts salvaged from burned buildings and demolition sites, limestone from the river and rails from the discontinued streetcar system — are eye-catching. The bungalows, with their stone exteriors, low pitched roofs and cobblestone chimneys, look like something from a fairy tale.
But there is more to these houses than distinctive design.
Howard Moffitt and his business partner Ray Blakesley built more than 100 homes in Iowa City between the 1920s and 1940s. Each was rented to young families at reasonable rates.
Richard DeGowin grew up in two Moffitt houses, the first at 1218 Yewell St. and the second at 1203 Friendly Ave. His recently released memoir, “House of Moffitt: The First 20 Years — A Memoir,” published by the North Liberty-based Ice Cube Press, describes life in a neighborhood full of Moffitt houses in Iowa City from 1935 to 1955.
“I had some things I wanted to say about growing up in Iowa City and the opportunities that were available here,” DeGowin says. “There were a lot of young people struggling to make a living, and it turned out they did very well. I was just amazed when I thought about it and looked back at what sort of opportunities my neighbors had.”
Some of those opportunities included the affordable housing Moffitt provided.
“A lot of contractors in town were building houses for sale, not for rent, so this was unique,” DeGowin says. “We had a furnished, three-bedroom house with an attached garage for $32.50 a month. That was typical of everybody on Yewell Street.”
This isn’t the first book for DeGowin, 80, an emeritus professor of internal medicine at the University of Iowa, though it is his first non-medical text.
DeGowin co-wrote “DeGowin’s Diagnostic Examination” with his father, Elmer DeGowin, for whom the UI’s DeGowin Blood Center is named. The guide, now in its 10th edition, has been in print for 50 years and is used by medical schools around the world.
“This time I wanted to write something that wasn’t technical,” Richard DeGowin says. “I wanted to write up some of the things I’ve talked to my son about. He grew up in a different era than I did in Iowa City.”
The book focuses on DeGowin’s life during the Great Depression, World War II and the beginning of the Cold War era. He presents an idealized picture of the time, which he acknowledges in the preface, writing, “My memory is imperfect, and my comments reflect a point of view derived from a fondness of reading American history. Although many of the opinions that I have expressed are probably not politically correct, they are not intended to offend.”
DeGowin describes everything from Depression-era meals to elementary school lessons to his neighbors on Yewell Street, most of whom also lived in Moffitt houses.
Those neighbors included Paul Engle, who went on to become director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and several others who would become prominent doctors and academics at the UI and around the country. The neighborhood was one of open doors and kids playing together outside, he says.
“It was not unusual to find a neighbor standing in our living room, having entered without knocking, announcing herself to my mother with, “Yoo-Hoo, Laura,” he writes. “Some residents of other neighborhoods started calling our street ‘Yoo-Hoo Yewell Street.’ ”
He also talks about the houses themselves, many built with recycled materials. Salvaged wood, brick, stones and nails made up the bones of Moffitt’s houses. Some incorporated more startling recycled elements — DeGowin describes one house whose walls were lined with discarded oak toilet seat lids.
Before Moffitt moved to Texas, he sold the homes he had built to his renters in the 1940s. The DeGowin family also benefited from that, purchasing and moving into their Friendly Avenue home.
“I hope the reader will think a lot about opportunity in America and entrepreneurism and secondary education and affordable housing,” DeGowin says.
l What: Book signing with Richard DeGowin, hosted by the Wild Rose Bookstore
l When: 11:30 a.m. Wednesday
l Where: University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, Fountain Lobby, 200 Hawkins Dr., Iowa City