Monday, October 29, 2012

Building Detective: Jay J. Smyth Block

Note: This is a double post from within the previously posted building sequence of the "Chariton's Square Deal" blog.

The two west business blocks (consisting of four storefronts) on the north side of Chariton's square are identical for good reason --- they were built by brothers Jay J. Smyth and William H. Smyth in the aftermath of a Dec. 30, 1905, fire that destroyed five northside brick buildings --- everything from the intersection of North Main Street and Braden Avenue east to the Mallory Block, then standing on the site of the current U.S. Bank building. The most likely architect for these two blocks is Oran Alonzo Hougland, then the only architect practicing in Chariton and at the height of his statewide popularity.

Prior to the fire, W.H. Smyth had owned a single-front building on the corner lot, one of the most historic lots in Chariton. That building had been built only 10 years earlier after another fire destroyed frame structures in the same locations of those that fell in 1905. Smyth was operating a dry goods store here at the time of the 1905 fire with The Chariton Leader office and printing plant and the offices of E.H. Storie, a justice of the peace, upstairs.

The two current Smyth blocks fill a single lot with 82-foot frontage sold for $32 on the first Monday in November, 1849, just after the city was platted, to Nelson Wescott. Wescott built Chariton's first store, a cabin of hewn oak logs, on its west quarter. By some accounts, Chariton's first well also was dug on this lot. Before that well, pioneers had collected rain water and hauled water from the Chariton River. The 82-foot lot later was subdivided into four single lots with 20-foot frontages, then reassembled by the Smyth brothers.

Prior to the 1905 fire, Jay J. Smyth owned the three single-front buildings east of the W.H. Smyth building. He operated a loan office from the first building, now site of the east half of his 1906 block, and was on the verge of opening a new bank, the Commercial, when the fire occurred.

If you look carefully at this postcard view looking north along the west side of the square, which dates from the summer of 1906, you can see the ruins of the W.H. Smyth building at the extreme right.

W.H. Smyth's loss in the 1905 fire was estimated at $19,000 --- $9,000 for his building and $10,000 for the goods it contained. The building was insured for $3,000, but the goods were uninsured. J.J. Smyth's total loss was estimated at $16,000 for three buildings and personal contents. He carried no insurance.

In February of 1906, the Smyth brothers recognfigured ownship of their lots so that Jay J. Smyth took control of the two west lots and William H. Smyth, the two east lots. The Chariton Leader of Feb. 15, 1906, reported the transaction this way: "Messrs. Jay J. and W.H. Smyth have effected an arrangement by which the former has the controlling interest in the two west lots on the northwest corner of the square, and W.H. Smyth will control the two lots adjoining on the east. They will have corresponding charge of the new buildings to be erected as soon as the weather will permit."

Jay J. Smyth planned his new building as home for the new Commerical Bank, and may have considered the corner lot more suitable for that. W.H. Smyth did not plan to go into business again and, indeed, devoted the rest of his life to managing his property and other assets, so location may have been less important to him.

The Chariton Leader of July 12, 1906, reported that "The foundations are now in for the new business buildings on the north side, covering the territory destroyed by fire last December. The structures will be much better than the former ones and will be built out of gray (sic) brick. The foundation for the bank vault of J.J. Smyth is now being put in and from now on the construction work will be much more rapid."

And on July 26, 1906, The Leader reported, "Good progress is being made on the new buildings on the north side. The W.H. Smyth block is up above the second story and work is now being pushed on the J.J. Smyth block and the brick work is commencing on the J.A. Brown building."

By December the Jay J. Smyth block was complete and was being equipped. According to the Leader of Dec. 13, 1906, "Jay J. Smyth has his fixtures placed in his north side bank building and will soon open for business. It was almost a year ago that the Commerical Bank was to open, but on the night before, the fire came, causing months of delay."

More research is needed to determine when the north half of the Jay J. Smyth Block, in which Chariton Leader publisher Henry W. Gittinger had a minor financial interest, was added to the main part of the building. In addition to the Leader offices and printing plant, this portion of the building also housed a variety of offices and shops.

Jay J. Smyth continued to operate in his business block until death during 1920 as the result of injuries sustained in an automobile accident. The block remained in the Smyth family through the life of his son, Porter Jay Smyth, who died during 1963.

The following postcard view shows how the double Smyth blocks looked not long after their completion during late 1906.

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