Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Dual Gables dilemma

The south front of the Dual Gables House as seen from Auburn Avenue. Twin front doors lead off the front porch into two spacious rooms, one with a tiny fireplace.

Since we’re talking about historic preservation --- sort of --- how about wading into the Dual Gables House situation? Although more folks in Chariton probably obsess on a regular basis about the hulk of the old Charitone Hotel busy deteriorating on the northeast corner the square, Dual Gables is an immediate problem (it’s for sale) --- and it doesn’t seem like it should be that big of a problem at all.

Despite the fact it could stand a fresh coat of paint and there are a few difficulties in the basement , this little house in the northeast part of town is a preservation success story --- success achieved despite the prevailing oh-just-tear-it-down attitude toward historic or architecturally significant buildings not only in Chariton but also in much of Iowa.

And everyone involved with Dual Gables for at least the last 30 years has had the building’s best interests at heart even though (a) verbal unpleasantness and bad feelings have erupted now and then and (b) it’s now on the market. So it’s an odd, and sad, situation.

Dual Gables from the northeast. One of the round windows in the north wall opens into the bathroom; the other, into the back bedroom.

Dual Gables was built in 1889 at 705 Auburn Ave. by O.E. And Alice Payne perhaps just for themselves because it is very small. Innovative then and now, it is in the shape of a “Y” with the branches facing Auburn and the stem extending back to the north. The two angled rooms at the front are large, light and pleasant, flanking a small porch. The leg of the “Y” behind them is divided lengthwise with two very small bedrooms to the east and a kitchen and bath to the west. The flooring, interior and exterior woodwork and other architectural details are intact --- including a tiny strongly vertical fireplace with coal grate in the southwest room. In its way, it is perfect.

A number of people occupied the house over the years without altering it beyond restorability. A friend of mine, now 90, boarded there when she was a single working girl. Other friends who now own the landmark J.T. Crozier home learned while researching it that the Crozier family had rented Dual Gables as their temporary home after their first home was destroyed in a fire and while their new brick house was being built in 1917.

In 1978, Karen Messamer, then teaching in the Chariton schools, rescued the by- then deteriorated building and began a years-long one-woman restoration effort, investing both her own and grant funds (it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1979).

Evenually, Messamer no longer wished to carry on and tried to give the building away to a responsible group willing to take it on. The Lucas County Historical Society declined. But the Lucas County Arts Council --- the only citizen group in the county with a consistent positive record in the field of historic preservation --- agreed to accept it.

Arts Council volunteers completed the restoration and also acquired a derelict house just east of it, demolished that and created in place of an eyesore a pleasant nicely-landscaped corner at Auburn Avenue’s intersection with Highway 14 that was and remains an asset to the city.

The Arts Council has dedicated the landscaped grounds of Duel Gables as a small park in honor of the late Dorotha Many.

In large part because it was the only group willing to get involved with historic buildings, the Arts Council at about the same time took on ownership and restoration of the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Freight House, a few blocks west of Dual Gables. This was and is the best historic building in Chariton related to its rich railroading history other than the old Rock Island Depot in the east part of town. That depot, although in good shape, is Union Pacific property and the company, despite local concern, seems to have no interest in its long-term preservation. The general feeling is that one day when no one is watching, Union Pacific will demolish it. Even if Union Pacific changed its corporate mind, however, it is unlikely anyone in Chariton would be willing to take it on.

Restoring the Freight House was a huge task involving countless volunteer hours and considerable expense. Although greeted with rave reviews from preservationists when restoration was complete, and it continues to receive these accolades, the Arts Council was left with what for a small all-volunteer organization is monumental debt.

Not long thereafter, old age and death caught up with Dorotha Fluke Many, instrumental in these preservation efforts. A remarkable woman of great vision and greater determination, she has been missed.

Internal debate, at times unpleasant, began within the Arts Council about its mission and that caused some, including at least one talented artist, to depart in disgust. A friend of mine, a talented fund-raiser and one of the council’s biggest cheerleaders and hardest workers, departed finally in disgust, too.

These disputes damaged the council, but it has stabilized and its member-volunteers have worked very hard to maintain and operate the Freight House as an events venue, to maintain and operate Dual Gables as a bed and breakfast and to deal with indebtedness.

That effort is beginning to wear people down, however. So the decision was made to sell Dual Gables (owned free and clear), use the proceeds to downsize the Freight House debt and focus council effort on that building as well as other arts projects.

The council has taken it on the chin from a number of directions over the years. Some criticize it for over-investing in real estate and under-investing in arts other than architecture. However, if the Arts Council had not acted it is likely that Chariton would not now have either Dual Gables or the Freight House, both major community assets. The Arts Council is not especially good at asking for help. On the other hand, no one has offered to extend a helping hand although many are aware of the situation.

Dual Gables has been on the market for some time now and hasn’t sold --- and the asking price is not unreasonable. The principal problem is size --- it would take a great deal of discipline to live within the current walls. There are no closets, for example --- and no place to build any. It might work as a retail or office location, but economic times are hard right now and many other retail/office locations are available.

The other difficulty is that sale to a private party, no matter how well-intentioned that person is, could easily lead to loss of or severe damage to the building. Additions to make it more livable would threaten its integrity as a work of architectural art. Private owners are transitory, too, so the consistent dedication and care a building of this sort needs cannot be assured. After all that work, it would be a tragedy to lose it entirely.

Truth be told, Dual Gables, after 30 years of extraordinary effort and attention, belongs in friendly stable hands, most likely those of the Arts Council. It would be ideal as a small gallery, for example, to showcase local talent and as a place to begin a permanent collection of works by local artists --- and there are quite a number of those.

That’s an easy thing to say. The challenge is figuring out how to do it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the kind words Frank but we both know that many solutions have been brought to the forefront and have been dismessed in one form or another. So until the situation worsens to the point of no return, which is soon, there is not an easy answer but you give a very good commentary.