Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Building Detective: The Blake-Ben Franklin Block

George W. Blake opened Chariton's first store devoted exclusively to hardware during 1865 in a wood-frame building on the west half of the lot now occupied nearly 150 years later by this handsome 1901 structure that still bears his surname embedded in its cornice.

By 1869, when this photo was taken, Blake was doing business in the most easterly of three nearly identical two-story buildings toward the left of the image. "Hardware" is painted across the top of its facade. Whether he built it or bought it along with the lot (purchased from Walker W. Baker on Oct. 21, 1865) isn't known.

In this photo, the northwest corner of Chariton's second courthouse is at far right; the new Opposition House hotel next, on what now is the Hotel Charitone corner; then continuing to the left across North Grand Street, Warren S. Dungan's new two-story building (on the site of Piper's), a single-story business building and two vacant lots. Blake purchased the most westerly of those lots a few years later, giving him room to expand and his family, sufficient space to build the current Blake Block.


Blake was born July 7, 1841, at Brewster, Maine, came to Iowa at age 17 and had gotten as far as Ottumwa, where he was working as a clerk, when the Civil War began. He enlisted in Co. K, Second Iowa Volunteer Infantry, and was chosen to be second, then first, lieutenant of that company. He was wounded so severely at the October 1862 Battle of Corinth that it was thought he would not recover, but he did and served honorably until his discharge during 1864, coming to Chariton the following spring.

During September of 1866, the rising young businessman married Caroline Edginton, a native of London and daughter of Edward T. Edginton, a Chariton pioneer who arose to considerable prominence and then fell from grace after the Civil War as the result of a financial debacle involving his service as county treasurer.

By 1881, when Caroline died of tuberculosis, the family was living in a grand home in southwest Chariton. The household included the three Blake children --- Charles Arthur, Harriet B. and George Clarence, ranging in age from 12 to 1 year --- as well as Caroline's somewhat disgraced father.

During 1887, George married again, to Tamar Arabell Chickering, and continued to operate his north-side hardware store until Dec. 20, 1900, when he died unexpectedly at home.

None of George's survivors had an interest in operating a hardware store and so it was closed after his death and the old building torn down and plans made to construct the current building on its site. The Chariton Herald of May 9, 1901, reported on construction plans for the building as follows:

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 (a reference to the Ensley-Crocker 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."

The facade here appears to be primarily of brick with stone accents, but the report suggests that the ground floor originally included more of the same stone used for the entire facade of the Ensley-Crocker Block, constructed on the west side during the same year.

As built, two Blake Building storefronts were separated by a staircase accessed from the street that led to the "office rooms" on the second floor. When the two storefronts were combined to form a larger retail space, the stair was moved to the west side of the building where it continues to offer access to the second floor, now apartments.

The designer probably was Chariton architect O.A. Hougland, although that has not been documented. The year 1901 was a banner year for Chariton's square and, in addition to the Blake Block and the Ensley-Crocker Block it also brought construction of Virginia Branner's new thriple-front block, very similar in material and detail to the Blake Building and facing it across the courthouse square from the south side (a site now occupied by the Ritz Theater/Connecticut Yankee Pedaller building and the Harbor House Christian Bookstore building).

The Blake and Branner blocks were further united by the stone barley-twist finials that crowned their facades, a detail added a few years later to the new I.O.O.F. building just east of the Blake, as well.

The Blake Building remained in the hands of George Clarence Blake and his descendants until at least the 1980s making it, perhaps, the piece of real estate on the square owned for the longest time by the same family. Gary and Betty Pepping, long-time owners of Ben Franklin, owned both the business and the building, however, as does the Felderman family, which continues to operate Ben Franklin in the tradition of a town-square variety store.

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