Thursday, November 08, 2012

Building Detective: W.C. Brown Block

This double-front building just off the southwest corner of Chariton's square at 105 and 107 South Main Street is unique among the city's commercial buildings because of the tiled canopy at cornice level and its diapered brickwork. The designer is unknown, although its builder was Andrew Jackson Stephens, who also constructed the Lucas County Jail and the Stephens House, now home to the Lucas County Historical Society. The latter is listed on the National Register of Historic Places; the former would be eligible if an application were submitted.

There are a couple of long-standing misunderstandings about the Brown block, the first being that it was constructed in 1917 --- as carved in stone in the crown of the cornice atop its south storefront: "W.C. Brown Block, 1917." It was actually built during the winter of 1913-1914.

The other misunderstanding involves the Iris Theater, later the Strand, which some have contended was located in the south storefront of this block. Actually, the Iris/Strand was located in a slightly later third component of the Brown Block, immediately south of the building we see today, which was demolished. Part of City Hall's north parking lot occupies that site today.

The half block in which the Brown is located had been until its construction always filled with frame buildings which burned periodically, meaning that nothing old had survived here.

William C. Brown, a native of Indiana, arrived in Lucas County in 1866 and farmed west of Chariton until 1906, when he moved into town with his wife, Hester, and bachelor son, David, who continued to farm with his brother, Ira. On the 5th of September, 1912, Charles Eckfelt sold the 20-foot lot under the south half of the current building to David Brown and the 20-foot lot under the north half to William C.

Construction at behest of the father-and-son partnership began during the fall of 1913. The Chariton Leader of Oct. 16, 1913, reported, "Excavation work, at the southwest corner of the square, is proceeding for the new double room, two story brick block of W.C. and David Brown. The work will be pushed along as fast as possible as Mr. Brown says he has a number of applicants as renters. There is demand for several more business houses in Chariton at present."

The Browns, apparently armed with detailed plans, approached construction of their new building in a business-like fashion, seeking and receiving three bids. The Leader of Dec. 11, 1913, reported on that process as follows: "Bids were submitted by three contracting firms, Monday, for the erection of the Brown building. The foundation is already in. The bid of the Teas Bros. was $12,100, D.A. Enslow's was $12,085, and that of Andy Stephens was under $12,000. He gets the award. Now that the contract has been let he will get to work right away assembling materials for construction and may run up the side walls between this and spring, depending on the weather, however."

The weather that winter proved to be cooperative and The Leader of Jan. 8, 1914, was able to report that "in spite of the fact that mid winter is here building goes right ahead in Chariton. A.J. Stephens has a force of brick layers working on the Brown building."

By late spring, the new building was complete, basically as we see it now. The Herald-Patriot of April 25, 1914, reported that "Clint Noble has leased the north room of the new Brown building, which is being constructed near the southwest corner of the square, and will move his restaurant and cafe into it in a short time. The dwelling apartments above this room have been leased by Mr. and Mrs. Auldey Tansey."

Somewhat later, the south business front was leased to a battery company headquartered in Creston.

William C. and David Brown continued to act as joint landlords for their new building until December of 1916, when David died unexpectedly at the age of 49. His interest in the block went to his father. Earlier that year, during May, William C. had purchased the lot immediately south of David's portion of their buidling, and during mid-1917 resolved to build upon it.

The Herald-Patriot of July 12, 1917, contained this report: "Chariton is to have another business block, excavating starting this morning. The new room will be 22x80, two stories in height and will be fitted for living rooms above. It is being erected by Wm. Brown on the lot just south of the two buildings he now owns at the southwest corner of the square and will be an exact duplicate of the two rooms already built. Mr. Brown has three daughters and he proposes to give each one of them buildings."

Those three daughters were Mary M. Tharp, Ella Miller and Effie L. Veirs. William C. actually transferred joint ownership of the existing Brown Block and the lot upon which its third component would be built to the daughters on Dec. 30, 1916, immediately after David's death.

On the 26th of July, 1917, the Herald-Patriot reported that "the first floor of the new Brown building, which is being constructed, will be occupied as soon as it is completed by D. Earl Combs with a picture show, which will be under the management of "Bob" Percifield, who has had considerable experience along that line. The new building will be 150 feet long with a stage 20x30 feet and a horseshoe balcony. There will also be a canopy and lobby over the sidewalk. Mr. Combs expects to operate a five and ten cent show."

The canopy, provided by the Milwaukee Corrugating Co. and advertising "Vaudeville" and "Pictures," was illustrated in the April 6, 1918, edition of "The American Contractor," some months after the theater actually opened. As part of the construction process, a cut was made in the tiled coping of the cornice of the south storefront of the original block, a new brick crown was added and the stone announcing "W.C. Brown Block, 1917," inserted, neatly centered above the now three-front block.

On Sept. 20, 1917, The Herald-Patriot reported that "D. Earl Combs will open his new theatre soon at the southwest corner of the square. He will show the best pictures, vaudeville, musical comedies, etc. The building will seat about 600 people, while the scenery will be the same as that used in the Orpheum at Des Moines. The room will be thoroughly ventilated by the washed air cooler process and the picture machine booth will be constructed of asbestos and will be absolutely fireproof. A picture machine with mercury for making direct current will make pictures absolutely flickerless."

The new theater opened during the first week of November, 1917, and the Herald-Patriot reported on Nov. 8 that "the name suggested by Mrs. Frank Shaffer and Mrs. Mae Gasser, 'The Iris Theatre,' is the one which won the prize of $5 in gold and a year's pass."

An advertisement elsewhere in that edition of the Herald-Patriot listed attractions for the coming week: Monday, John Barrons in "An Old Fashioned Young Man, a story that will appeal to everyone," along with Orpheum Vaudeville; Tuesday, Viola Dana in "The Cossack Whip" (don't miss it, it's a thriller)," again with Orpheum Vaudevelle; and Wednesday, Muriel Ostriches in Moral Courage along with the final Orpheum Vaudeville performance of the week. Thursday's atraction was Louise Glaum in Sweetheart of the Doomed. The attractions on Friday and Saturday were to be Alex Sanders, "Jew comedian," with The Million Dollar Beauties, a tabloid show subtitled Bevy of Pretty Girls. Weekend reserved seats were 15 cents, 25 cents and 35 cents; admission to the Saturday 2:30 p.m. matinee was 15 cents and 25 cents.

William C. Brown, the builder, died on June 18, 1918, of pneumonia and a "complication of troubles." By that time, however, the Brown block was in the hands of his daughters.

Earl Combs did not continue long in the theater business and a variety of owners and managers followed. In 1922, the theater was leased to D.E. Arris and W.E. Dixon, of Plattsmouth, Nebraska, who opened the rechristened Strand Theater there. The building's theatrical career was over by 1929 when Ella Miller sold her third of the Brown Block to Dr. James B. Robb, who converted the upstairs apartment into his offices and the old theater space into quarters for a hardware store. This third of the Brown block had many tenants during the years that preceeded its demolition. The property was sold to the city of Chariton in 1988.

The south half of the original block, by this time owned by the heirs of Mary Tharp, was sold during 1934 to R.E. Larimer. It currently is occupied by H & R Block.

The north half of the original block, now occupied by part of the Midwest Heritage Insurance operation, was owned until her death by Effie Veirs, then passed into the ownership of her only son, Lee. On the 12th of April, 1964, Lee sold the building to the Knights of Pythias lodge, but continued to live in the family apartment upstairs. He shot himself to death in that apartment on Jan. 28, 1965. You can read more about Lee here in a post entitled, "The Last of Lee Veirs."

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