Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Chariton's square deal

Molly Myers Nauman points out details of Lucas County's Richardson Romanesque courthouse, which dates from 1894.

Molly Myers Nauman, architectural historian and preservationist, was in Chariton on a fourfold mission Monday that wore me out, but didn't seem to faze her at all. Molly, based in Ottumwa, also is one of southern Iowa's most engaging people, so her visits --- generally sponsored as this one was by the Historic Preservation Commission --- always are lots of fun, too.

Her first task on Monday was to spend an hour or so with upper elementary students at Van Allen School, At 12:30, we began a walking tour of the Chariton city square, similar to those found in a majority of county seat towns in Iowa's 99 counties.

Like many other town squares in Iowa, Chariton's --- although largely intact --- has problems with vacant storefronts and structural deterioration. Although there are enough businesses in town to fill it, many of those have moved into newer buildings elsewhere, most recently True Value Hardware, which relocated into a new building just a half block west. And the newest bank in Chariton, our fourth, is constructing a new building on the west edge of town rather than locating downtown. All of this is understandable and practical, but complicates efforts to conserve some of our best buildings.

We started at the 1904 Free Public Library, one of 101 across the state built in large part with grants from Andrew Carnegie. Chariton's was the first constructed according to what became known as the "Chariton Plan," two large reading rooms on either side of a central check-out area built high so that the lower floor was usable, too.

Chariton's library has been lovingly maintained over the years and expanded twice to the north, additions not evident here. The first was modest, but friendly to the original structure. The most recent addition, which doubled the library's size, was designed to mirror the original front, complete with massive stone base, elaborate brickwork and tile roof. That addition also offers a much more user-friendly ground-level entrance from the parking lot, conveniently located in relation to an elevator that makes the entire structure handicap-accessible.

Molly points out features of the Chariton Newspapers building from its side yard. Like the library, this building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The next stop, just next door, was the Chariton Newspapers building, constructed in 1917 and the first in a long series of structures designed by William Perkins, an architect who practiced in Chariton from 1917 until his death in 1957. Other buildings by Perkins that we visited on the tour were the Charitone Hotel, just west of the newspaper building and now something of an eyesore --- although the city is working to acquire it from the absentee landlord who virtually abandoned it; City Hall and the American Legion hall.

Molly discusses the I.O.O.F building as Fred Steinbach listens.

On the north side of the square, Molly pointed out as of particular interest the virtually intact I.O.O.F. building (taller, to the right) and the sympathetically designed Blake/Ben Franklin building next door, where upper windows have been modified. The old Charitone Hotel is at the far right.

Singled out as of especial interest on the west side of the square were these two buildings, designed in sympathy in the Richardson Romanesque style to complement the courthouse just after it was constructed and with facades of the same quarried stone.

Following the walking tour, several of us gathered with Molly to discuss her experiences in Ottumwa with the Main Street Iowa program and the potential for a similar program in Chariton.

And finally, at 5:30 p.m., we all met at the classic Prairie-style home of my friends Fred and Sherry Steinbach, for a public program about their house, which will be officially nominated to the National Register of Historic Places in June. This is another of Chariton's William Perkins-designed buildings, constructed for J.T. and Molly Crozier in 1917 in the northwest part of town.

The exterior of the home is virtually unaltered, but minor changes were made inside by the family who acquired it during the 1960s from the late Mary Crozier. These changes included altering the front stair from classic Prairie to pleasant Colonial, removing the collonnade that once led from front hall into the living room and, most regrettably, removing the original chimney piece in the living room. All of that was entirely understandable in the 1960s, but looks more dated now than the original would have.

Fred and Sherry bravely opened their home for tours to about 30 who attended the public meeting and Molly presented the nominating program she will give before the Iowa National Register review committee during June.

So Monday was a busy day, but informative.


This is Chariton's official clean-up day, and we'll see how that goes. A full morning is planned at the museum; involvement in that last year prevented me from hauling away a load of junk from my garage that badly needs to move to the landfill; and there's a third load waiting at the church. It's not clear how all this is going to work out, but most likely it will.


Ed said...

I'm sure you knew this but the first Carnegie library in Iowa was built in 1893 in Fairfield. The 'Chariton plan' obviously wasn't even thought of yet because it isn't laid out well compared to more 'modern' Carnegie libraries.

Frank D. Myers said...

Hi Ed: Yes, I knew Fairfield was first but had never thought about its design --- I'll have to look it up. I think (but can't swear to it) that the smallest "Chariton Plan" library is in Eldon --- a miniature version of Chariton's. It's always fun to see these scattered around the state --- but what were they thinking when they planned those stairs? That not quite so many people would get as old as many do these days I suppose.

Ken said...

Frank, if I'm not mistaken, the buildings you show on the west side of the square (the northwest corner, I assume) used to be the location of the Montgomery Ward store (or "Monkey Ward," as Dad used to say). I take it that's no longer the case (since I don't see the name on the large white rectangle). Are those buildings at least occupied these days?

Frank D. Myers said...

Hi Ken: The two stone "west side" buildings actually are half a block south of the old Montgomery Ward building, just south of the alley. The Montgomery Ward building now is occupied by Chariton Vision Center. The north stone building, formerly occupied by Coast to Coast and then True Value Hardware, has been vacant since True Value moved to a new building just west of the northwest corner of the square. That building is for sale. The south stone single-front building, built by the Stantons, is still occupied by Johansen Plumbing & Heating, although it manages to look almost vacant sometimes.

Ken said...

Oh, I see. I was confusing the mid-block alley with the street that runs along the north side of the square. Thanks.

deb said...

Frank, I'm a distant cousin of yours through Mary Ellen Miller, daughter of Harry Miller of Monroe Co., IA. I have read your blogs about Millers and your posts. I tried to e-mail you, but the address I found bounced back to me. Please contact me at:

Frank D. Myers said...

Hi Deb: No e-mail address was included in your comment here, so this is the only way I have to get in touch. The e-mail address you used should work now (my "in" box filled when the computer was down) or you can use Hope to hear from you!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the post write-up and pictures. I wasn't able to attend at 5:30 but I certainly enjoyed ou very interesting history lesson and tour in and around the Chariton square. As a "newbie" (4 years) to Chariton - to Iowa - and even to the Mid-West, much of this was "new" to me. Thanks for your involvement with this, with Lucasn County history - and for this post.
(*Thanks to Molly, too : ) )
-Eric Hann