Academics Reach Downtown

Jeremy Shapiro

Dick Knapp ’76 purposely chose to attend Grinnell for a drastic change from the urban environment of New York City where he grew up.

“The open spaces and rural layout of Grinnell was my salvation, but I still needed to put my feet on streets, and Grinnell’s compact business district was all I needed in those halcyon days half a century ago,” Knapp says.

During his student days, Knapp would bank at the Merchants’ National Bank building, enjoy the genuine soda fountain counter at Cunningham Drug, study at the Romanesque-style Stewart Library, and join classmates at 4 a.m., after finishing their papers, for fresh donuts from the Danish Maid bakery.

Over the past 15 years, Knapp has acquired, renovated, and re-tenanted eight downtown properties that have helped meld Grinnell College with downtown Grinnell. His latest contribution will help lead to the first academic building downtown.

Knapp has made a lead gift commitment to support a film and media center near the northwest corner of Broad Street and Fifth Avenue. The Knapp Film and Media Center will be housed in a 100-year-old former auto garage that was most recently used by St. Mary’s Catholic Church. OPN Architects was chosen for the building’s design work.

“It has ideal dimensions — a 10,000-square-foot rectilinear box with a soaring barrel roof on top,” Knapp says. “The current concept is placing the building’s entrance to the north side, next to a proposed outdoor pavilion for public functions on additional land the College owns.”

So how do media film and media studies fit into Knapp’s portfolio of interests? That answer in part dates to his student days.

“Weekend movies at Alumni Recitation Hall’s auditorium were the cultural heart of the Grinnell experience for my generation,” Knapp says. “Bless Georgia Dentel [former director of performing arts programs at Grinnell College] for her impeccable taste, ranging from Invasion of the Body Snatchers to Battle of Algiers.”

Additionally, Knapp’s two children grew up during the golden age of television. Film, media, and literature shaped their career choices. Both happily live in Los Angeles now; one is a screenwriter who got a master’s at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, and the other is on his way to earning a master’s in writing.

Grinnell College faculty recently approved a new concentration in film and media studies.

“The importance of this building to Grinnell College’s new film and media studies concentration and its students cannot be overstated,” says Nicky Tavares, assistant professor of film and media studies. “The College envisions an interdisciplinary film and media studies program in the fine arts rounded out by the wider liberal arts experience and aims to set itself apart from peer institutions with an emphasis on film and media production, grounded in theory. Creating spaces that support all five phases of moving image production — development, preproduction, production, postproduction, and distribution — is critical to the success of the program.”

Knapp was a history major at Grinnell and has described himself as a “late bloomer in terms of settling into an adult-like career groove.” Real estate became that career as Knapp developed and renovated large apartment communities in metro Washington, D.C., neighborhoods.

“Real estate is multidisciplinary, well-suited to Grinnell liberal arts generalists comfortable with both science and the humanities, humility and conviction, and most of all reading and writing,” he says.

An interest in affordable housing led to Knapp leaving private practice four years ago and founding Indelible Housing, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit engaged in the acquisition, renovation, and preservation of distressed, project-based Section 8 housing occupied by low-income families and the elderly or disabled. Among Indelible Housing’s current projects are renovations to the Center Street Apartments in Grinnell.

While in town for his 30th reunion in 2006, Knapp contracted to purchase the vacant Cunningham’s Drug Store and then he renovated it, refurbishing its iconic, backlit pylon sign and leasing it to the College for its first downtown bookstore.

“I was struck at the time by the contrast between a struggling downtown and thriving College,” Knapp says. “The campus was completing the Joe Rosenfield Center’s elaborate dining facilities, grill, and lounges, as well as an athletic complex with an underground connection to a natatorium. Meanwhile, the adjacent downtown business district — seemingly walled off from the campus — was suffering from numerous storefront vacancies, the result of retail consolidation, declining agricultural income, young people flocking to Des Moines and Iowa City, and the lack of downtown housing.”

Knapp has played a significant role in the College’s development of a “zone of confluence” — a name coined in 2013 to evoke the stronger bridge between the campus and downtown that has increased the social and economic vitality of downtown while encouraging pedestrian traffic in both directions. The Knapp Film and Media Center will extend this bridge and could anchor an emerging arts district on Broad Street.

“Dick Knapp’s financial partnership is helping to strengthen the vital bond between campus and downtown; the presence of the film and media studies program in this space will foster discovery and connection both,” says Jaci A. Thiede, vice president of development and alumni relations. “It is so exciting to think about the many ways this new facility will enhance opportunities and experiences for both the College and town.”

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