Friday, November 16, 2012

Building Detective: The Dewey Block

900 Court Avenue

The old Dewey Block (at left, above), now occupied by Chariton Floral, is known by many, too, as "that building with the blue front," reference to the 1960s "modern" packaging that conceals an 1890 facade --- or what's left of it (no one's quite sure what's behind the false front).

The structure has a number of claim to modest fame. It was built by a daughter of Lucas County's first major entrepreneur, John Branner; it was the location of Chariton's first Hy-Vee store; and it once was owned by Leo A. Hoegh, Chariton attorney who went on to serve as Iowa governor from 1955 to 1957. His offices were located in it.

The legal description of the property at the southeast corner of the square, intersection of Court Avenue and Grand Street, is the east half of Lot 1, Block 14, original city of Chariton. John Kizer purchased the entire lot from Lucas County by deed dated Dec. 1, 1851. Kizer sold it to John Branner on April 25, 1854, and the Branner estate transferred title to the lot to his widow, Jane, on Oct. 22, 1873. On July 8, 1890, Jane transferred ownership to her daughter, Victoria J. Dewey, who commissioned this building during that year.

There's more about the Branners elsewhere in this blog, parts of an incomplete project entitled Working Title: The Almighty Branners and The Almighty Branners: Part 2.

The Dewey Block had been completed by late October, 1890, when The Chariton Herald was able to report:

"One of the finest brick buildings in the city is the Dewey block on the southeast corner of the square, upon which Messrs. W.F. Layton & Co., the architects and contractors, are just now placing the finishing touches. It is well proportioned, of excellent style, constructed of first-class material from bottom to top, and exhibits good workmanship throughout, including foundation and brick work done by G.B. Routt. Messrs. Layton & Co., who drew the plans, superintended and completed the structure, are entitled to much credit for the architectural skill and excellent workmanship displayed in the construction of a building than which no other on the public square reflects more credit upon the public spirited enterprise of our goodly city. In the selection of this enterprising, capable and reliable firm as the architects for her brick block Mrs. Dewey displayed a discriminating judgement and an appreciation of home talent that is truly commediable, and from which others may well take pattern. It is not only folly but also a gross injustice to send your money away from home for something of less value than you can get in your own town. Patronize home talent and home industries in preference to all others should be our motto."

The firm W.F. Layton & Co. consisted of two young men, William F. Layton as majority partner and Oran Alonzo Hougland. Layton died two years after completion of the Dewey Block, during December 1892 of cancer at age 38, but Hougland carried on independently as architect and, for a time at least, as contractor. He became after the turn of the 20th century one of southern Iowa's most prolific architects.

The first tenants of the new block's first-floor retail storefronts were The Novelty, a variety store that moved in during October of 1890, and a drug store operated by G.E. Whitlock & Co.

By about 1910, when this postcard view of the south side of the square was taken, A. J. Woodman, who had a second hardware store in Russell that later became his base, was tenant of the east storefront of the Dewey Block. By this time, Branner daughters had entirely rebuilt the east half of the south side of the square. The triple-front building to the right of the Dewey Block, built by Virginia M. Branner, occupied the site now filled by the Ritz Theater/Connecticut Yankee Peddlar building and the building occupied by Cornerstone Christian Book Store. The towering building to the far right, also built by Victoria J. Dewey, contained the Lincoln Theater and retail, office and living quarters on its first and second floors and Knights of Pythias lodge rooms on the third floor. The site now is occupied by Hammer Medical Supply. A 1930 fire destroyed everything east of the alley on the south side --- other than the Dewey Block and the brand new Ritz Theater facade which adjoined it.

As the years passed, the east half of the block became home to a succession of grocery stores and the west half, sold during 1921 to Henry W. and Olive Brewer, clothing stores and other retail operations. Offices and apartments, some occupied by members of the extended Branner family, occupied the second floor. By 1946, the east half was owned by Walter Dewey, Victoria's son, and the west half, by Olive Brewer, Henry's widow.

During May of that year, both sold their interests to Midwest Realty, a holding company, which in turn sold the entire building during September of 1948 to Hyde & Vredenburg, "Hy-Vee." Hyde & Vredenburg turned around three days later and sold the building to business partners Edward G. Danner, an optometrist, and Leo Hoegh. What now was a double-front Hy-Vee grocery store became their tenant.

Although the building sustained significant damage from a fire during the 1960s, it was repaired. Hy-Vee, however, closed out its operation here when the firm's first Chariton "supermarket" opened on North Main Street, north of the square.

The Danners had sold their interest in the building to the Hoeghs during 1957 and, in 1966, the Hoeghs sold the building to Jack Young, who reconfigured its interior to serve as a furniture store. He also added the familiar blue front to give it what then was a modern look. Although occupied now for many years by a floral shop, the building has changed relatively little since Jack Young's day.

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