Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Pedalling (Connecticut Yankee) through the Ritz

Dave Hendricks had the world's second-worst cold when I stopped in at Connecticut Yankee Pedaller (or, as we like to call it, Iowa's best bicycle shop) yesterday --- so I didn't take his picture. I swiped the image (at left) off the shop's Facebook page instead. Since I have the world's worst cold, we enjoyed comparing symptoms.

But I was really there to take a closer look at his "history wall." Connecticut Yankee Pedaller occupies Chariton's 1927 Ritz Theatre building, which --- in 2007, perhaps 25 years after it had closed --- became the shop's home (Chariton has a very nice new theater, Vision II, just a block off the square).

The current configuration of the interior --- floor of the auditorium leveled with a big mezzanine added above and "basement" storage below --- dates from the Ritz's post-theater use as a furniture warehouse. It also served as a rather racy night club for a time before that if I'm remembering correctly.

The Hendricks also own the building just west of the theater, where their shop was located before it was moved entirely into the theater. It now houses Harbor House Christian Store, owned and operated by Pam and Rich Magnuson. Both buildings are involved in the Facade Improvement Program now underway in the Courthouse Square Historic District.

The framed magazine pages at the center of the wall had caught my eye earlier. This spread featuring the then-brand new theater was published on April 14, 1928, in the trade magazine Exhibitors Herald and Moving Picture World. Dave found it online, so I figured that I could, too --- and here it is. You should be able to right-click this, open in a new window and read it for yourself.

The theater, designed by Chariton architect William Lee Perkins, was built commencing in April and May of 1927 by Harry J. and Jeanette Cramer, who had been in various retail businesses in Chariton since moving here from Albia in 1917. At the time, there was a triple-front building here that dated from 1902. The Cramers demolished the eastern two-thirds of that structure and had the Ritz built in their place. Grand opening at the new Ritz was August 31, 1927.

The Ritz in 1929, before the fire.

The Ritz as rebuilt after the fire.

The Ritz in May of 1955.
This was not a movie "palace" by any means, but was viewed by experts in these matters as a practical example for towns of Chariton's size where new theaters were needed but funds weren't available to decorate them with chandeliers, marble and other accessories used to embellish grand movie "palaces" in places like Des Moines and Cedar Rapids.

The interior focus was on the screen --- behind curtains on a stage that could be used for live performances, too. Every seat had an unobstructed view of the screen and, in summer, the auditorium was air-cooled by massive fans under the stage that circulated cool air from the basement next door. There were restrooms for both ladies and gentlemen and a small private viewing room on the mezzanine level of the lobby.

During February of 1930, only three years after construction, a huge fire broke out on the south side of the square. It destroyed both the three-story Temple Building on the alley to the west as well as the building next-door, took out the roof of the Ritz and gutted the second-floor apartments above. Debris and water filled the auditorium.

The 1927 facade was not damaged, however, and the Cramers moved quickly to rebuild the theater behind it. The Ritz re-opened on May 22, 1930, and continued to serve as Charitons principal --- then only --- theater for more than 40 years.

The building to the west, also designed by Perkins, also was built for the Cramers, also during 1930, and for most of its life housed drug stores. The apartments on the second floor of both buildings, some of the finest in Chariton in their time, were known initially as the "Cramer flats."

The exterior of the Ritz still looks much the same as it did when constructed, although the pinnacled and pented crown of the facade was removed many years ago for reasons no one remembers.

At some point, the arched recess was enclosed harmoniously with matching brick and various marquees have been added, including the current incarnation which dates from the last days of the Ritz as a theater.

The Hendricks have restored a portion of the terrazzo floor in the lobby and the tiled "Ritz" embedded in concrete just outside the front doors will be restored as part of the current project.

In addition, all the brickwork on both of the Hendricks buildings will be tuck-pointed and repaired, new street-level glass will be installed and Harbor House will get a sign that is a better fit for its storefront (the current sign was brought from the business's earlier location).

If you care to poke around (and Dave will allow you to do this) you can find other remnants of the Ritz Theatre days. Some of the lighted surround of the old stage remains in place, although damaged during various conversions over the years, at the far end of the shop's mezzanine.

Be sure to take a look at the history wall, too --- and the Hendricks have prepared a brochure detailing their building's history which also is available. Oh, buy a bicycle, too.


norm prince said...

Fantastic looking store and wonderful to hear it is part of the renovation of the square. Don't suppose part of that work would be to restore the facade to its original shape at the top ?? I am sure there was a reason to flatten the top but so much of its early appeal is now missing.

Frank D. Myers said...

No, there are no plans to restore the upper facade --- even with assistance, that would be a very expensive project. The carved limestone ornaments at the top of the original facade were recycled from the building previously on the site --- they have vanished completely.