Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Preservation Sunday

Historic Preservation Commission Chair Alyse Hunter is shown here with American Legion Commander Don Garrett (center) and Ross Browning, instrumental in all phases of restoring and renewing the Legion Club.

Sunday was a wonderful day, but not exactly what I’d call a day of rest and after an equally busy Monday and Tuesday --- I’m ready for a nap. The full and busy Sunday revolved in part around my status as the newest and least effective member of the Chariton Historic Preservation Commission. The commissioners who actually know what they’re doing are Alyse Hunter, chair; Melody Wilson, Martin Buck and Larry Clark.

The Historic Preservation Commission has done and continues to do a variety of great things, but a principal function is to serve as community conscience when architecturally and historically significant buildings are at issue and to push, prod and facilitate nominations to the National Register of Historic Places. All this despite the fact it receives no public funding and depends for income on the kindness of strangers and proceeds from an annual tour of the Chariton Cemetery.

Sunday brought an open house at the American Legion Hall to celebrate restoration and renewal of a very significant part of that building, the type of project that makes preservationists extremely happy, followed by the cemetery tour --- which this year originated at the museum, in which I’m also involved.

So after church Sunday, I headed for the cemetery to figure out where the heck Frank Lunan and Martha Anderson were buried (I’ve always known where Hortense Guernsey Becker and Alma Clay were) and inadvertently rendezvoused there with Larry and his wife who were marking, cleaning and decorating the graves of the four educators featured on this year’s tour.

At 2 p.m. we met at the Legion Hall to tour and present Commander Don Garrett with a small check (seed money for the next phase of restoration) and a framed enlistment poster dating from perhaps 50 years ago that turned up in the walls of the courthouse during a project there and was passed on to the commission.

The American Legion Hall is one of a suite of public buildings designed by Chariton architect William L. Perkins now on the National Register due in part to the efforts of the commission. Other Perkins buildings include City Hall, the spectacular Masonic Temple, the Charitone Hotel and the building that houses the Chariton Newspapers. Of the five, the Legion Hall probably is the one that speaks its history most clearly.

Carl L. Caviness Post No. 102, American Legion, was organized in 1919 and named for the first Lucas Countyan killed in combat during World War I. The post first bought an old house on the current hall site, then tore it down during the early 1920s and made plans to build the main block of the current structure.

Architect Perkins donated his planning services and a good deal of the work on the tiled-roof brick building was done by volunteers, Legionnaires and non-Legionnaires alike.

It is a grand building, but the Legion in Chariton always has been a very important part of the community and always has lived up to its building. One example of that was the Chariton American Legion Junior Band (the musicians were high school students; “junior” just meant the musicians were younger than the Legionnaires). It was the best band of its type in Iowa and one of the best in the nation from 1929 until 1956, when it was retired.

This building served the Legion until after World War II, when a flood of returning veteran  pushed membership to several hundred and led to the addition of a club so that Legionnaires could both meet and socialize.

This was not a fancy building. A Quonset hut, probably military surplus, was moved in west of the Perkins building, given a tile façade and finished simply inside. But it served the Legion well for more than 20 years until it, too, was retired --- perhaps in the early 1970s. After that, it was used primarily for storage and over the years deteriorated.

The exceptional things about the two-part Legion Hall are how eloquently it tells the story of the American Legion in Chariton --- and that both parts have survived intact.

Some years ago, Legionnaires decided to restore and renew the Legion Club addition, in part because it was at ground level and could be made handicap-accessible without too much difficulty. The Quonset was gutted, slightly rearranged inside, insulated, dry-walled, refloored and redecorated. Where the bar once stood, an extremely nice kitchen has been installed behind a serving window. The entrance and the restrooms are handicap-accessible. More than $80,000 was expended in the process.

And that’s what was being celebrated on Sunday.

The next step, restoration of the Perkins building, will be more expensive, more complicated and will take more time. The building is not in disrepair, but is outdated. It’s worked hard for 85 years as needs a major overhaul. There is no timeline on the next phase of the process because of the substantial cost involved. But I certainly hope it goes as well as the first phase.

After Sunday’s open house, commissioners scattered to finalize arrangements for the cemetery tour before regrouping at the museum --- but that’s a story for another day.

No comments: