Saturday, February 16, 2013

Building Detective: Now and Then

This plain and practical building at 914 Court Avenue occupied by Hammer Medical Supply is not the most visually exciting structure on Chariton's square, but still has a story to tell --- the third bricks-and-mortar chapter in the built history of the scrap of land on which it stands.

Constructed during late 1958 and early 1959 to house the F.W. Woolworth & Co. dime store, previously located on the north side of the square, it brought back to retail life a site that had been underutilized since 1930.

The building, only modestly altered since, was the first post-war large-scale "modern" retail space built on the square. It reflected confidence by a then major corporation that the town square would remain the commercial center of the city. And there seemed to be no reason to think otherwise at the time --- the half block then housed from east to west the city's largest grocery store, the area's largest and most modern theater, a lively drug store and, now, the latest in five-and-dimes.

 This article from The Chariton Leader of April 21, 1959, gives an accounting of the new building and some of those involved in its construction:
Grand Opening Set
The Chariton Leader, April 21, 1959

The new, modernly designed F.W. Woolworth store on Court avenue will open its doors Thursday morning. A grand opening sale is scheduled to continue through Saturday.

Special advertisements on the opening and information of interest to shoppers appear today. Officials from the Woolworth company are expected to be in Chariton for the opening, according to Chariton store manager Virgil Wohlwend.

The grand opening will include giving away of several special prizes.

The new building is only the second location of Woolworth's in Chariton since it was established here in 1931. The building more than doubles store area available in the former store located on the north side of the square.

"We are extremely pleased with the new building and feel confident shoppers of the Chariton trade area will join with us in our satisfaction. The store offers the most modern shopping methods, accessibility to products, quick service and quality merchandise," Wohlwend stated.

Approximately 60 by 125 feet, the building offers year-around air conditioning, double check-out counters, self-sesrvice shopping, personalized service counters for special needs.

To the rear of the new store are the office areas and modern emplyees lounge room.

General contractor was Dave Halferty of Chariton. The building is being completed on the 28th anniversary of Woolworth's existence in Chariton.


The triple-front lot on which the new Woolworth building was constructed had been vacant or under-utilized since 1930, when a major southside fire destroyed the three-story Lincoln Theater building that had occupied the site since 1903.

During 1940, 10 years after the fire, a small but memorable streamlined diner building was constructed at the east end of the then-vacant lot. It opened during October of that year as the White Swan Cafe under the management of Roy Morgan. This was a memorable building both because of the food served inside and the bold "WHITE SWAN" sign that marched across the top of its facade, flanked by large molded swans sailing toward it from either end. Here's how The Herald-Patriot of Oct. 3, 1940, reported its opening:

White Swan Under Management of Roy Morgan Opens On South Side of Square in City

The White Swan, Chariton's newest restaurant, opened last night on the south side of the square under the management of Roy Morgan.

Completely modern and attractively finished, the restaurant is complete with modernistic fixtures. The building itself is painted white inside and out and has fluorescent lights. The kitchen proper is in the basement with the food being sent to the main floor on a special lift.

The White Swan had a useful life of about 15 years before it was moved away to make room for the new  Woolworth building --- first to the current site of the Chariton Nursing and Rehabilitation Center and finally, some say, north on Highway 14 to Belinda, where it served as home to a cafe for a time before eventual demolition.


The glory days of the lots where the White Swan and Woolworth buildings were built occurred between 1903 and 1930 when the site was occupied by the three-story Temple (also known as Dewey and Lincoln Theater) Building. When constructed, this was the largest and grandest building on the square.

When built during 1902-3, the Temple Building (aka Dewey and Lincoln Theater block),  center in this postcard view of the south side,  was the largest and tallest commercial building on the square.

The lots themselves (the west three-quarters of Lot 2, Block 14, original city of Chariton) were part of the Branner inheritance, vast land holdings in Lucas County accumulated during the 1850s by Tennessean John Branner, who died March 10, 1871. The quarter block that forms the east half of the Chariton square's south side most likely was the site of the log cabin Branner built for himself and his son, Napoleon Bonaparte Branner, upon arrival from Tennessee in 1853.

After John's 1871 death, N.B. Branner was joined in Chariton by the other Branner heirs --- his mother, Jane, estranged for many years from John; his sisters Virginia and Victoria (widow of Union Gen. Joel A. Dewey); and Victoria's son, Walter Dewey. N.B. Branner had returned to Tennessee to serve the Confederate cause during the Civil War, returning to Iowa immediately thereafter; his mother and sisters had lived in Tennessee throughout the war.

Victoria Dewey, a visionary entrepreneur, had commissioned the double-front brick Dewey Block, which still stands in altered form, at the intersection of Grand Street and Court Avenue in 1890. By 1902, she had acquired title from other Branner heirs to the three vacant single-front lots at the alley end of the Branner holdings and decided to build another, larger, commercial building. This was announced in The Chariton Herald of April 17, 1902, as follows:


Mrs. Dewey will build a large business block on three of her vacant lots on the south side of the square, this summer, work to begin in a few weeks. The block will be 60x100 feet, or thereabouts, and two stories high. The first floor will consist of one 20-foot and one 40-foot room, and the second floor will be for offices. The Knights of Pythias are negotiating for a third story on the block, which they will use for their hall.

The Knights of Pythias and its auxiliary, the Pythian Sisters, were in 1902 the aspiring youngsters among Charitons three largest and most influential fraternal organizations. The Masons and the Odd Fellows had since 1881 maintained separate lodge rooms on the high-ceilinged third floor of the Union Block on the square's northwest corner. Although the Knights had, during 1893, built a single-front building on the east side of the square (still extant) with modest lodge rooms upstairs, now they wanted more.

By May 1, 1902, the Knights and Sisters had bought into the idea of adding far grander quarters to a third floor on Victoria's new building, a move that would set off a competitive building spree among the lodges. During 1904, the Odd Fellows built a grand new building of their own on the north side of the square, selling their former Union Block quarters to the Masons, which enlarged that building and expanded and improved their lodge rooms. The Herald of May 1, 1902, announnced the Pythian decision as follows:


At a large and enthusiastic meeting last night, the Knights of Pythias lodge, of this city, voted to build a third story on the new Dewey-Branner block to be erected on the south side of the square this summer, and use the same as their hall. The lodge will pay for the erection of the third story, and will have a 99 year lease on it in return for keeping the roof in repair. The building will be a fine one throughout, with stone front, and will be 60x100 feet. The Knights will have one of the finest halls in the state when it is completed.

Victoria Dewey selected the Des Moines-based and then-popular architectural firm of Liebbe, Nourse & Rasmussen to design her new building. That firm's building in downtown Des Moines, formerly housing the flagship Younker Brothers Department Store, probably would be most familiar of their still extant designs to today's Lucas Countians.

The call for bids went out in The Herald and other newspapers during June of 1902: "Plans and specifications for the Pythian Templle will be on file July 1 with W.H. Dewey and J.H. Collins, and at the offce of Liebbe, Nourse & Rasmussen, Des Moines, Iowa" (Herald, June 19 and 26, 1902).

On Aug. 7, 1902, the Herald reported that "the contract for building the large three story Dewey block and K.P. hall, on the south side of the square, has been let to Johnson & Best, for about $20,000."

By Oct. 30, 1902, the Herald was able to report that "the brick and stone work on the new Dewey business block on the south side is being pushed rapidly during this fine weather. It is said that the front of the block will be the finest in this part of the west."

Work on the structure slowed during the winter, but on March 12, 1903, The Herald reported that, "work on the new Dewey block was resumed this week with the arrival of warmer weather."

By midsummer, 1903, the building was complete, although considerable finishing work remained --- especially in the third-floor Knights of Pythias rooms.

When completed, the Temple Block contained two commercial rooms on its first floor, one single-front and the other double, as well as the entrance to the staircase that led to the second floor, where apartments and/or offices were located, and to the third-floor lodge rooms. The second floor also contained a large room known initially as "Dewey Hall," perhaps intended to accommodate a commerical college that was projected for Chariton when the building was designed. This views from the west end of the south side shows how the building (at left) looked soon after its completion during 1903.

The first commercial tenant of the first floor was E. M. Press, a clothier who had been in business for roughly 20 years in the south half of the Manning & Penick Building on the west side. He rented the entire first floor of the new Dewey Block temporarily during September of 1903 to hold what was advertised as a  massive "clearance" sale, then leased the space permanently during October and moved his store to the south side.

Press and a variety of other commercial tenants, including operators of a skating rink, leased the commercial space in various configurations until March of 1909 when the entire floor was leased to J.L.H. Todd of Des Moines and P.G. Skaggs of Eureka Springs, Missouri, who remodeled the area into the Temple Theatre, designed to accommondae both moving pictures and vaudeville shows. The Temple opened to overflow crowds on April 14, 1909.

Chariton and Todd turned out not to be a good mix, however, in part because --- as The Patriot of May 13, 1909, put it --- "Mr. Todd is a southerner, a Virginian, and he has a rigid rule in his theatre against colored people mixing in with the whites."

Durng May, Chariton resident G.N. "Shock" Knox, who was black, sued Todd for damages after being denied integrated seating and during June, Todd sold the theater to Walter Dewey, whose mother owned the building, and R.G. Hatcher, his business partner, then moved along (reportedly to Keosauqua).

Dewey operated the the Temple until the fall of 1917 when he had the theater totally renovated, adding among other features an orchestral pipe organ and a marquee. The Temple re-opened as the Lincoln Theatre during late November, 1917, and the theater continued to operate until the building fell in 1930.

By the time this photograph of the south side was taken some time between 1927 and 1930, the Temple Theatre had been rechristened Lincoln and had acquired among other amenities a marquee and a pipe organ.

Throughout its lifetime, the third-floor lodge rooms held pride of place in the building. Here is how they were described in The Herald of Dec. 31, 1903, immediately following their dedication:

"The beautiful hall dedicated by the Chariton Knights of Pythias is said to be the finest in the state of Iowa. The hall occupies the entire third floor of the Dewey block on the south side of the square --- the largest business block in the county.

"There are four main rooms in the suite, besides several ante-rooms. Upon entering from the outside hall, one first finds himself in the ante-room, from which he passes into the reception room, 12x24 feet in size, which is fitted with rich rugs, mirrors, and golden oak furniture.

"Next comes the parlor, a large and home-like room 23x24 feet in size, from which fronts one of the large bow windows, and which is filled with comfortable rockers and tables, with heavy rugs and curtains and a library.

"From the parlor one can pass into the main lodge room, which is without doubt one of the finest lodge halls in the west. The main room is 36x46 feet, besides which there is a stage 18x36, built in a theatre style, with exit to the parlor. In the wings of the stage are the property rooms. To the rear of the room, half way to the ceiling, is a railed balcony for the use of the orchestra in case of a dance. The balcony also extends into the banquet hall, south of the large room, which was used for the ball last night.

"The ceiling of the lodge room is of embossed steel, with a dome sky-light, fitted with a myriad of electric lights. The ceiling is about eighteen feet high, and the tall windows are draped with heavy dark green curtains. On the hard wood floor is an immense Wilton velvet rug of solid green, about 30x40 feet square, which alone cost $250. The walls are to be artistically frescoed with Pythian designs, the immense west wall to be entirely covered with one mural. The Pythian colors, red, blue and yellow, are used in the ceiling border and the effect of the room as a whole is delightfully artistic and pleasing. The eight pedestals for the room are the work of Gene Holmberg, and are of golden oak, with the "F.C.B." monogram on the side. Four of them are marble-topped, and finer specimens of the cabinet maker's art were never turned out.

"The whole south end of the third floor is taken up by the banquet hall, which is vacant at present, and is to be rented to other local lodges that may want it. It is 34x58 in size, with ante-rooms in connection.

"Besides the rooms described above, there are cloak rooms, closets, ante-rooms, etc., in abundance, completing without doubt the finest suite of lodge rooms in Iowa.

"The electric lighting for the suite has been put in artistically, and the effect at night is thus to the very best advantage. The main lodge room was used for the program yesterday afternoon, the second floor of the building was used for the banquet, and the banquet room was used for the ball.

"To build and furnish this elegant suite of rooms the Chariton Pythians will have expended fully $9,000. Their share of the building cost $7,000, the furnishings cost $1,300, and other expenses will be fully $700. The lodge had on hand $2,500, and has borrowed $6,000 to pay the remainder. The expense has been heavy, but the members do not regret it, and now have a hall of which they can be proud for a lifetime and which can be equaled by very few lodges in the whole west."

For a variety of reasons, including the optimistic view that brick buildings were practically fireproof, an exterior fire escape was not included when the Dewey Block was built. That was remedied midway through its relatively short life when an exterior iron stair was installed from lodge rooms on the third floor past the second floor to street level on the alley side of the building. As it turned out, that fire escape would come in handy.

The end for the Dewey/Temple/Lincoln Theatre Building came on Wednesday, Feb. 26, 1930, when what was initially though to be a small and containable blaze was discovered at 5:30 a.m. in the basement. The 1917 renovation of the building had produced three commercial spaces, as well as the theater lobby, at street level --- the Lincoln Cafe, the Lincoln Barber Shop and the Lucille Vanity Shop. Fire broke out under the cafe.

Everything seemed to be going well and evacuated residents of apartments above the Lincoln were anticipating begin able to return home when at roughly 6:30 a.m. the fire department's big Pierce Arrow pumper truck failed and could not be brought back to life. That left the Chariton firefighters with only Old Betsy, the 1883 Silsby Steamer still going strong today, to fall back upon as calls for emergency assistance went out to Russell, Albia, Ottumwa and Indanola.

Between 7 and 8 a.m. the flames went entirely out of control, shooting 50 feet into the air above the Lincoln's roof and spreading rapidly first to the single-front building next door to the east and then into the new Ritz Theater, just completed during 1927. Brands from the burning buildings flew across the square, setting awnings and roofs alight --- flames extinguished by bucket brigades. Old Betsy performed well, probably saving the Dewey Block on the southeast corner and the Gasser Block, across the alley west of the Lincoln. Dynamite also was used to knock down walls in hope of stopping the flames.

Neighboring fire departments then began to arrive and by 10:30 a.m. the fire was under control, but the Lincoln building, once Chariton's grandest, was rubble, as was the building just to the east. Although gutted, the Ritz Theater's facade survived, allowing a new theater to be constructed behind it during the months that followed. Harry Cramer, who owned both the Ritz and the adjoining building, rebuilt both promptly.

But Victoria Dewey had died during the same year her grandest building burned and her son and sole heir, Walter, had neither the remarkable drive nor optimism that had powered his extraordinary mother and Aunt Virginia. As a result, he pocketed the insurance money and allowed the lots to lie fallow for 10 years.

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