In the 1970s, downtown Iowa City was on the downturn without much hope of improvement.
Developer Wilfreda Hieronymus helped change that, leading a charge to revitalize the downtown by building Old Capitol Town Center, Plaza Centre One and the Capitol House Apartments for low-income seniors.
“I was raised with the idea that you had to do some good in this world, and here was some good that had to be done,” Hieronymus said in a 1983 book about the city’s renewal efforts. “I think what we have accomplished will be an excellent heritage for our children and grandchildren.”
Hieronymus came to Iowa City in 1945 with her husband, Al, who ran the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills at the University of Iowa for 40 years. Intending to stay until he earned his doctorate degree, she spent most of the next 30 years concentrating on raising their children and buying and renovating smaller commercial properties in Iowa City, according to a 2001 Press-Citizen article.
By 1973, however, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development was threatening to close the urban renewal program in downtown Iowa City. Hieronymus stepped forward, leading the Old Capitol Business Center Co. to pool its resources and build the $18 million Old Capitol mall, which opened in 1981. The opening came after a flurry of lawsuits challenging the environmental impact statements from the city and the city’s role in the development.
Outside of development deals downtown, Hieronymus also served on the board of the Red Cross, helped lead fundraising for the building of Scanlon Gymnasium, and made regular contributions to cancer research and Hospice care, a result of her and Al’s battles with cancer. She also was the first female president of the Iowa City Area Chamber of Commerce.
Hieronymus died Jan. 2, 2005, at the age of 86.
— Rob Daniel