Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Remarkably well preserved for 110

As it turns out, two of the best preserved buildings on Chariton's square celebrated their 110th birthdays last year, but we neglected to throw a party. Who knew that they dated from the same year?

Of the two "blocks" (generally, a building that contained two or more storefronts was referred to as a block), Ensley-Crocker on the west side is the most distinctive. It's stone facade and exuberant Richardson Romanesque design mirror the courthouse, built just a few years earlier.

Vacant since TrueValue Hardware moved to its new building just west of the square, this grand old building apparently has been sold recently and it will be interesting to see what develops.

The Blake block, for many years the home of Ben Franklin, is just as deserving of praise, but substantially more restrained.

Thanks to Darlene's newspaper index, I was able to track down an article in The Chariton Herald of May 9, 1901, published before construction had begun and headlined "New Business Houses."

The Ensley-Crocker block was a joint project of George W. Ensley, who had arrived in Chariton on the morning of Aug. 1, 1871, with his father-in-law Benjamin Goodrich, after traveling from Van Buren County aboard a wagon loaded with tinner's tools "and a lot of ambition," and Frank R. Crocker, then cashier of First National Bank and even more ambitious. Crocker's ambition would over-reach itself just a few years after 1901 when his financial misadventures destroyed the bank and he took his own life.

Here's how the Herald described the men's new building: "On the west side of the square two of the handsomest buildings in the city will go up, work to commence on them within six weeks. They are to be owned by G.W. Ensley and F.R. Crocker, and will consist of a double block just south of the alley on the west side. The frame buildings now occupying the ground will be torn down. The new buildings are to be two stories high, unless the K.P. (Knights of Pythias) Lodge decides to rent a proposed third story, in which case the building will be three stories high. A handsome brown stone front will add to the appearance of the structures, and the interior will be fitted up in modern style. The rooms will be 20 x 90 feet each. Mr. Ensley will occupy his building with his own stock of hardware and will also use most of the second story. He will rent the front rooms up stairs for office purposes. Mr. Crocker's lower room will be occupied by Dr. B.E. Dougherty with his drug store."

No mention of the architect who designed the building, but I keep wondering if it might not have been William Foster, of Des Moines, who with his then-partner, Henry F. Liebbe, had designed the courhouse upon which the Ensley-Crocker design was based. Foster & Liebbe dissolved their partnership during 1898, but each continued to work independently or with other partners and Foster had a long history of work in Chariton.

The Ensley half of the building seems always to have been a hardware store. George W. Ensley, also a plumbing and heating contractor who worked widely across Iowa, remained in business until 1926, when he retired and the business passed to his son, George B. Ensley, who continued to operate here until the 1950s. Although some of the links are missing, it then became Coast to Coast Hardware and finally, True Value.

The Crocker half of the block has had a more varied history and some of those links are missing. It eventually became a grocery store, operating as The Supply Store when Hy-Vee was organized and after that, for a time, was one of two Hy-Vee stores located on the square. When Hy-Vee built its first "supermarket" on North Main, this west-side building became the Regal Stamp Store (Regal was the brand of trading stamp distributed by Hy-Vee to all its customers). I seem to remember accompanying my mother into this store then when she traded her books of stamps in for something or another. Finally, it was incorporated into the hardware store to the south, an arrangement that continued until True Value moved out.

The photo here incorporates the Stanton building, immediately south of the Ensley-Crocker block, which also was linked to hardware operation at some point although it housed, and still does, an independent business. Although the Stanton building seems to be a piece with Ensley-Crocker, it really isn't. The Stanton family seems to have added that complementary stone facade to a pre-existing brick building not long after Ensley-Crocker was completed.

Although structural links between the west-side Ensley-Crocker block and the north-side Blake block aren't especially evident now, the Black building once had a ground floor facade of stone similar to that used for its west-side cousin. Here's what the Herald article had to say about the Blake block:

"A double store building will be built by the G.W. Blake estate on the north side of the square. The block will have a brown stone front adorned with stone pillars on the first story, with a brick front on the second story. The two store rooms will be the same size as the west side block, 20 x 90 feet each. The building will be a very handsome one, and will be located on Mr. Blake's lots, on the east half of the north side, where the old frame building has recently been torn away. The second story will be occupied with office rooms. Brewer & Paton, the one-price clothiers, have already arranged for a lease on one of the store rooms and will move their clothing stock into it as soon as the building is completed. The other store room is not yet rented."

George W. Blake, a pioneer Chariton merchant, had died during 1900 and his estate obviously considered a new building on the square a solid investment, as had the Daniel Eikenberry estate some years earlier when it built what most commonly is known as the Crozier building on the southeast corner of the square.

The occupancy history of the Blake block is substantially more varied than that of Ensley-Crocker. As designed, two store fronts were separated by a stairway that ascended to second-floor offices. All of that was swept away, along with many details of the original facade, when Ben Franklin expanded to occupy the entire first floor.

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