After delays, University of Iowa building new Nonfiction Writing Program home

The University of Iowa started construction in March on a new Nonfiction Writing Program building on the southeast corner of North Clinton and Church streets, across from the president’s residence. (Provided by the University of Iowa)

IOWA CITY — More than 14 years after the University of Iowa initiated plans to build a new home for its internationally acclaimed Nonfiction Writing Program — a window of time that saw three UI presidents, a flood and a pandemic — the campus in March began work on the $1.6 million project.

The two-story, 3,500-square-foot Nonfiction Writing Program building will sit across the street from the UI president’s residence at the corner of North Clinton and Church streets.

It will be entirely donor-funded.

It will centralize the program’s courses, faculty and students currently dispersed through the English Philosophy Building into one cohesive structure equipped with offices, workspaces, classrooms, a library, lounge and outdoor patio.

But the project will not entail renovating the Sanxay-Gilmore House — believed to be Iowa City’s oldest remaining home at nearly 180 years — as UI officials planned two years ago when the city conditionally gave the university a $1 million sliver of land in exchange for the promise UI would use it to relocate the historic structure and restore it for use as its new non-fiction Writing Program home.

The Sanxay-Gilmore House sits across the street from the gifted 0.2-acre parcel in the 100 block of Market Street. But moving it and renovating it proved too risky and costly, denying the UI-Iowa City memorandum of understanding to transfer the property, according to UI spokeswoman Tricia Brown.

UI had budgeted $1.6 million for the full project — including nearly $1.2 in construction costs — and the lowest construction bid came in at $1.9 million, pushing the total project budget to $2.5 million.

“Because the project bids were too high and the university decided not to move the house, both parties agreed to terminate” the memorandum of understanding, Brown said. “The property remains city property. It was never transferred to the university.”

The university does still own the lot hosting the Sanxay-Gilmore House, which was built using limestone thought to be left over from construction of the Old Capitol and once was owned by Eugene Gilmore, UI’s 12th president from 1934 to 1940.

Preservation Iowa, a statewide historical preservation alliance, has listed the house among its most endangered properties.

“Contractors expressed significant risk with moving the outdated brick structure,” Brown said about why UI chose not to relocate it. “With this information, the UI began looking at other options on university land to build a new facility for the (non-fiction Writing) program.”

As for the fate of the Sanxay-Gilmore House, she said, it will be “decided at a future time when the university eventually moves forward with plans to build on that site.”

Project delayed

As for the new Nonfiction Writing Program home — planned adjacent the Dey House, which houses UI’s world-renowned Iowa Writers’ Workshop — the university hopes to have it completed by the end of this year. By moving its nonfiction program into new digs, the university further positions itself as an elite writing campus.

John D’Agata, a former director of the program who helped instigate the effort for a new non-fiction building, said he hopes this project will kick-start a trend to elevate all Iowa’s writing programs to the level of its famed Writers’ Workshop — founded in 1936 and touted as the first creative-writing degree in the country.

“We really are the ‘Writing University,’” D’Agata said in a statement. “We have one of the nation’s best writing programs in translation. The extraordinary playwriting program that spawned Tennessee Williams. An enormous, vibrant undergraduate creative writing major in English. And one of the only Spanish Creative Writing programs in the country. All of these programs deserve recognition, and buildings, too.

“My dream is for a writing corridor stretching down Clinton Street.”

Even before D’Agata directed the Nonfiction Writing Program from 2013 to 2020, he was involved in the pursuit of a new nonfiction writing space in 2008. The project was set to get underway that summer until the historic flood wiped out much of campus, throwing the university into emergency and recovery mode for years.

In 2016, when the last flood-affected building cemented plans for recovery in the new UI Stanley Museum of Art, D’Agata told the UI Office of Strategic Communication he decided to revisit the idea of ​​a Nonfiction Writing Program building.

To the question of funding, he said, a few donors had offered to make contributions over the years — although “never large enough on their own.”

But then D’Agata in 2018 debuted a hit Broadway play starring Daniel Radcliffe based on his book, “The Lifespan of a Fact,” creating an opportunity to partner with the UI Center for Advancement to lure more donors.

“The play’s based on a book that’s about the art of writing nonfiction, so I like to think of the NWP’s new building as one that’s literarily being built by the genre,” he said. “Its very foundation is nonfiction.”

‘Writers’ neighborhood’

The new nonfiction home will feature a memorial garden for the program’s founder, Carl Klaus.

In looking for potential sites, UI Senior Vice President for Finance and Operations Rod Lehnertz leaned into the notion of a writing corridor.

“The area often referred to as the ‘writers’ neighborhood’ seemed very fitting,” he said in a statement.

The UI Nonfiction Writing Program launched in 1976 in the Department of English offering a three-year graduate degree involving courses on essay, literary journalism, memoir and travelogues. Students often receive fellowships, assistantships, research grants, and occasionally travel abroad.

Like the UI Writers’ Workshop, the nonfiction program is exclusive in that it only admits about 4 percent of applicants.

“We have an embarrassingly great track record when it comes to helping our students secure excellent jobs within a few years after graduation, and the books that our alumni eventually publish quickly become watersheds in the genre,” D’Agata said in a statement. “This past year alone we’ve had three alumni on the bestseller list, one on Oprah’s ‘Favorite Things’ list, and three who have sold the film rights to their books.”

Vanessa Miller covers higher education for The Gazette.

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