Dexter’s 1916 Community Building AKA the “Roundhouse”

It isn’t round! Google Dexter, Iowa. Zoom in on the main street. Switch to satellite and to the NW of the downtown is the very pleasing elliptical-shaped domed roof of Dexter’s 1916 Community Building.

It was built to replace a temporary tabernacle, which had been used for revival meetings, Lyceums, high school plays, and social gatherings. Dexter was in its “heyday” in the early 1900s, so the churches and town fathers began plans for a permanent building.

They hired Matthew Leander King as the architect. Born in Panora, King studied engineering at Iowa State College (now ISU) and developed very strong hollow-core tile, which became widely used in building silos. There are no supports inside. The domed roof is supported by those innovative tiles with steel girths in the outside walls.

A stage was built on the north end, with dressing rooms and locker rooms and coal bins underneath. As you can imagine, Dexter became popular for holding basketball tournaments. And band concerts, Chautauquas, political gatherings, special church services, and box socials.

For the end of the year celebrations during the 1950s, our music teacher, Ruth Sellers, would have spring production which included the entire Dexter School. Students would line the bleachers on the east side of the auditorium, with the audience seated on chairs on the floor, with part of the floor cleared for dancers (including square dancers) and the annual May Pole Dance.

More recently, the historical building has welcomed films, plays (see photo), bus groups (including the Red Hat Ladies). I even joined a book club there this summer to talk about Leora’s Letters, since the Wilson children grew up in Dexter during the Great Depression.

This group, Music/Theatre Artists, the anchor for Adventureland entertainment, also provided music after the park season ended for a production at the “Roundhouse” around 1980. (They eventually toured from New York City to Chicago to Colorado to Las Vegas and did a 5-week USO Caribbean Tour.) John Busbee, founder of Des Moines’ Culture Buzz, is second from left in the back. Kimberly Busbee is on the left in front.

I wonder whether the founders would be surprised to learn that wrestling matches have been held there. Pro wrestling!

The 1916 Dexter Community Building is listed with the National Register of Historic Places in Iowa.

Sources: Buildings of Iowa by Gebhard and Mansheim.

Dexter Centennial history, 1968, pages 49 and 50.

I didn’t realize until the centennial of the building that my great grandfather, O.S. Neal, had been on the committee, as a representative of the Presbyterian Church.

Eighth grade graduation was held there in 1958. As President of the School Board, Dr. Chapler handed out our diplomas. He came to Iowa in 1933, just in time to patch up Buck Barrow, brother of Clyde (Bonnie and Clyde infamy). He and Doctor Osborn delivered hundreds of us in the area and administered our first polio shots.


The grandson of architect Maj. King is the actor Nick Nolte.

I hesitate to call the Dexter Community Building “the Roundhouse” because a roundhouse is a railroad term. Since Dexter is on the Rock Island Railroad, people take it for granted that their roundhouse is for housing and repairing locomotives.

Most of the community events–concerts, basketball games and tournaments, dances, political talks, and graduations–mentioned in Dexter in Leora’s Dexter Stories: The Scarcity Years of the Great Depression–were held in this handsome building.



  1. I went to visit my dad in Asheville this Sunday, and took him my copy of Leora’s Dexter Stories to read; since he really enjoyed Leora’s Letters. Turns out he had already bought a copy and read it, and his copy is now making its rounds at the Ardenwoods Retirement Community. I understand there is quite a long line of residents waiting to read your book. Might even generate some sales. 😉

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