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Father of Albia Restoration Story

“Robert Bates – Father of Albia Restoration Story”

Originally Published by Albia Newspapers

Father of Restoration — Robert T. Bates

Editor’s note: Robert T. Bates died in March of 1995. Although it has taken many devoted people in this community to begin and con­tinue “Operation Facelift,” the restoration of the Albia square, it was Bates’ vision which created the idea in the first place and his energy and enthusiasm which kept it alive through good times and bad.

Dozens of people have con­tributed sizable gifts to the projects that have created the historic square, like the antique lighting, Christmas lighting and new bandstand, but Bates was always there during his life to make sure the funding was complete and the projects were done right.

Bates established a $2 million trust to continue the work of the restoration around the square.

The following feature was writ­ten by Janet Jenkins in 1989.

Restoration of the square — now almost taken for granted — was a startling concept when Robert Bates first addressed a public meeting in 1967. A state agency had proposed that Albia “modernize” its square, using materials like corrugated aluminum to cover up its old-fash­ioned facades. Bates counterpro­posed that the square be taken back in time to its 19th century design and architectural fea­tures.

Bates and Ottumwa architect Stephen Stolz prepared suggested designs for individual buildings around the square, coordinating each into a unified business district scheme. Building owners liked the idea, and the rest is now history.

An Albia native, Bates came from a long line of lawyers and bankers. His father, David W. Bates, served as Iowa’s superinten­dent of banking during the Depres­sion and helped establish the Fed­eral Deposit Insurance Corp. (FDIC). Robert Bates was chairman of the board of First Iowa State Bank until his death.

Bates attended prep school in Mercerburg, Penn., and gradu­ated from Dartmouth College, Hanover, N.H., both located in small towns. He graduated from Drake’s law school and practiced with a prestigious law firm in Des Moines until he entered the U.S. Navy in 1942.

Released from the Navy after the war, Bates worked in the antiques department in Bullocks, a well-known Los Angeles department store. He later started a Hollywood interior design firm that catered to a glittering list of film stars and ex­ecutives: Rosaline Russell, Joan Crawford, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Jane Wyman and Ronald Reagan, Jimmy and Gloria Stewart and Bill and Ardis Holden, among others.

Recovering from a broken mar­riage, Bates returned to Albia in 1956. Expecting his visit to be brief, he moved into his mother’s second floor apartment, facing on the Albia square. His brief visit stretched into a lifetime, and he lived in the apartment until his death at the age of 85.

It was his view of the square from the apartment that inspired his dream for Albia’s future.

Bates became known in Iowa for his interior design and his executive knowledge of the Victorian era. He was an original appointee by Gov. Robert Ray to the Terrace Hill Commission, which oversees the Victorian mansion housing Iowa governors. As chairman of the fur­nishings committee, Bates located and purchased for the commission all furniture and accessories for Ter­race Hill, except for those pieces on loan from the Art Center and the State Historical Building. His trav­els searching for Victoriana took him from Colorado to New York’s Finger Lakes and Maine. He was also a board member of the Terrace Hill Society, and was honored at the society’s gala fund-raiser in June of 1989.

In Albia, Bates was an enthusi­astic patron of community projects as far flung as the high school rodeo and the local arts council. He attended student art and music pro­grams, and supervised the interior renovation of many Monroe County churches. His apartment and the bank’s garden courtyard are the venues of community recep­tions and parties.

Although a Democrat, he was as likely to be entertaining Republican Gov. Terry Branstad or Congress­man Jim Leach, as his own party’s candidates.

After a metropolitan reporter in­terviewed the octogenarian, she asked another Albian, “Why would a man like that live in a town like this?” When the same question was posed to Bates himself, he said, “Well, an important reason is the people who live here, of course. They’re special and it feels like family.”

Then he added, “There is room for creativity here, the opportunity to contribute to, to improve and to affect one’s environment. As op­posed to larger places, where every­thing is already cut and dried.”

How has Albia’s restoration changed the community? Bates ex­plained:

“After WWII, no one in Albia seemed to notice that the commu­nity was standing still. I myself thought the Methodists would al­ways worship in the same church, or the Catholics in old St. Mary’s for instance. Shuffling up the entire square was a radical idea in its time,” he said.

“After the restoration was com­pleted, Bates continued, “The project seemed to be a catalyst, rather than a cause, of additional change. Peo­ple in Albia seemed to gain self-confidence. Individuals and groups realized that by working together, they could effect change.”

He attributed Albia’s regenera­tion of self-confidence to the con­struction of half a dozen new church buildings, new city hall and fire sta­tion, housing projects, activity cen­ter and group homes for the men­tally handicapped, $200,000 sports complex and major street paving.

“The restoration itself hasn’t made the difference, but Albia’s new self-confidence from working on the project changed the town,” Bates concluded.

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