Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Building Detective: The Combs House

D. Earl and Nina (Lutz) Combs commissioned what probably was Chariton's most ambitious home of the 20th century --- now the Cohen home --- during 1929, among the century's least economically propitious years. Although hardly a mansion, it remains one of Iowa's most graceful large homes built in the Tudor Revival style.

Its estimated cost upon completion in late 1930 was $45,000 --- the equivalent of roughly $600,000 in 2014. That amount is based upon standard rates of inflation, however, and does not take into the consideration the virtual impossibility of reproducing it today.

The design was the work of Carl V. Johnson, a Des Moines architect who was 38 when he accepted the commission. Although rising in his field at the time, Johnson died at the age of 45 a few years later, on Dec. 13, 1936, after a short illness with aggressive cancer. As a result he seems to have been largely forgotten. This fine house certainly is one of his best works.


D. Earl was among Chariton's most successful entrepreneurs of the first half of the 20th century, and the story of how he got his start became a business legend in the city. According to that story, he was operating Combs Music Shop (on the west side of the square in what now is known as the Stanton Building, occupied by Johansen Plumbing & Heating) in 1916, when he offered John Lyons a Victor Victrola as down payment on a small poster and outdoor advertising company. 

This was not D. Earl's only Chariton enterprise. A year later, in 1917, he built and opened the Iris Theatre a block south, just north of City Hall.

But outdoor advertising turned out to be where they money was, so the theater business was short-lived. By mid-century, Combs and built the largest outdoor advertising firm in Iowa, with branches offices and shops in Ottumwa, Fort Dodge and Mason City. 

D. Earl had married Nina Evelyn Lutz on June 11, 1913, at First Methodist Church in Chariton; and by 1929 --- when the couple and their four children were living at 604 North 7th Street --- was feeling very prosperous indeed. The Combs  children were daughters Elizabeth Ann and Mary Kathryn and sons George and Robert.


The site selected for the new Combs home was a quarter-block lot at the intersection of South Eighth Street and Woodlawn Avenue. This had been the site of the large and rather grand home of Theodore M. Stuart, among the patriarchs of Lucas County's legal profession, and his wife, Sarah.

T.M. Stuart died in 1922 and Sarah, during 1925, and for some reason the old house was demolished after their deaths and the building materials used elsewhere. Another ambitious house was begun in the middle of the lot, then abandoned. 

When, in 1929, D. Earl acquired the lot from Theodore M. Stuart Jr., then practicing law in California, the new house was just a shell with scaffolding still in place.

By early April, 1930, remnants of that abortive building effort had been removed and excavation was nearing compleltion for the new Combs house.

It was completed during early December of that year and the family was able to move in prior to Christmas.

Construction of the house had created quite a stir in Chariton --- and D. Earl was a good businessman and not adverse to publicity. So its completion was treated a little that of a public building (but without an open house). Congratulatory advertising and long reports were featured in the Chariton newspapers, including this one from The Leader of Dec. 23, 1930 (if this story looks familiar, it's because I posted in a couple of years ago at the Chariton's Square Deal blog)

Beautiful Residence Combines Ideas Gathered in Many Places During Recent Years
Is Last Word in Attractiveness and Convenience of Arrangement
(The Chariton Leader, Tuesday, Dec. 23, 1930)

The last of the finishing touches have been applied, the skilled workmen have gathered up the tools and implements of their craft and have moved out and the owner and his family have moved in to their new residence at South Eighth and Woodland avenue, and one of the most complete houses erected in Iowa this year takes on life and activity and becomes a home for Mr. and Mrs. D. Earl Combs and family. And such a home it is! The writer requested of the builder permission to see and describe the new residence and the request was granted. Following its viewing we doubt our ability to do the assignment justice. Beauty, stability, practicability and completeness have been combined in making the plans and dreams for the new home a reality for Mr. and Mrs. Combs.

In their travels about the country the past few years Mr. and Mrs. Combs have gathered ideas they wished carried out when the time came for erecting their new home. And in building this new residence they have incorporated many of these ideas.

Approaching the house at the south entrance one passes through a vestibule and enters the main hall in the center of the house. The hall floor is of blue, tan and green tile and at the north end of the hall is a tiled pool and fountain. The background for the fountain is of light green tile, with a wisteria vine in contrasting color on embossed tile. To the right and at the southeast corner of the house is the library or reading room, just north of the door to the library and in the center of the east side of the hall the staircase with its Venitian wrought iron banisters leads to the second floor. Just north of the stairs is a passageway to the rear hall with outlets to the kitchen, to the outside of the house on the east, to the rear stairway, to a lavotory and the basement stairway.

To the west of the main hall one goes down two steps into the living room. At either side of the arched entrance between the living room and hall is a small window with Venitian wrought iron grill, and a wrought iron banister is on either side of the steps between the hall and this room.

The walls and ceilings of all the rooms on the first floor excepting the kitchen, and the ceilings of the bedrooms and baths on the second floor are of Kraftex. This is a material that cannot crack, takes paint and is readily cleaned with soap and water. Insulation was used not in the outside walls, but in the walls between the rooms, making them practically soundproof.

The library walls are in black walnut panneling. Black walnut is the woodwork used throughout the first floor with black walnut doors. The floors of the house, from basement to third floor are of white oak. Ivory painted woodwork was used on the second floor with gumwood doors between rooms.

From the hall one can see into every room on the first floor except the breakfast room.

The commodious living room has a fireplace at the west end of the room. At the northwest corner of the room is the entrance to a vestibule leading to the porte-cochere. Vari-colored tile were used in the floor at this entrance.

From the living room the entrance to the dining room is at the north through an arched way and up two steps. The upper part of the walls are decorated with hand painted scenes while the lower part is walnut paneling.

The breakfast room is just east of the dining room. The breakfast room floor is of rubber tile. The walls are of green vitrolite below with hand-painted decorations above. A large china closet is at the south end of the breakfast room, with vitrolite top, below which are deep drawers for table linen, while above and behind leaded glass doors is the china closet proper.

Just east of the breakfast room is the kitchen. Here, as in the breakfast room, the floor is of rubber tile. The walls and ceiling are of vitrolite, the walls ivory and green with black trim, while the ceiling is white, studded with pinions at the corner of each vitrolite block, the pinions set about a foot apart and adding to the attractiveness of the arrnagement. A ventilating fan is in the ceiling through whieh cooking odors are ushered to the outside. The sink at the north side of the room contains an electric dishwasher. Table tops at either side of the sink are of tile, built in cabinets surround a part of the room, with space for electric refrigerator at the east side of the room. An opening in the wall is the top end of a chute leading to the incinerator. Tin cans, bottles, and other things for which there is no further use may be dropped into the incinerator, which is located in the furnace room, where they are burned. An ironing board folds into the kitchen wall and the room is wired for an electric clock. An opening in the wall between this room and the breakfast room is for convenience in serving.

A doorway from the east side of the house leads to a terrace where an iron gate opens onto a sidewalk of slate flagging. The terrace is also floored with the same material as the sidewalk. An ornamental hedge fence will lead from the east side of the grounds to the gate entrance to the terrace and forming the boundary between the front lawn and the garden.

The basement extends under the entire house. At the west end of the basement is a large recreation room. The walls are of knotty pine and the ceiling of Masonite. A fireplace is in the center of the west wall. A circulating heating and cooling system regulates the temperature of the recreation room at all seasons.

In the northeast corner of the basement is the heating plant. The furnace is an oil-burner, with temperature controlled at all times by a thermostat located in the dining room. A humidifier in the dining room wall aids in keeping the air moist at all times. A gas water heater is located in the furnace room which is automatically controlled. The heating system is of the hot water or vapor type and is known as invisible radiation, all radiators having been installed before the walls were enclosed, and the walls being built over them. Beneath each window is a grilled opening through which the warm air enters to give the room its proper temperature.

In the southeast corner of the basement is the laundry room, while the drying room is to the west of the furnace room. A fruit cellar is just west of the drying room. The laundry room is equipped with stationary tubs, electric washer and ironer.

The second floor has four bedrooms, each with ample closet space, two baths, one with shower equipment, large hallway with closet space connecting with hall.

The guest room walls are papered in panels of Chinese design. The boys room is papered with hunting scene designs and the paper lacquered, and may be washed with little effort and without injury to the walls. In fact the walls and floors of the entire house were planned for practicability and for a minimum amount of effort in giving proper care.

In the girls' room a paper of modernistic design was used.

The master bedroom at the southwest corner of the second floor has barrel ceiling and hand painted walls. The bedroom windows at the south are of violet ray glass and in case of sickness this room will become the hospital quarters. There are two closets off this bed room, one of them being fitted with sliding glass doors behind which will be pull-out wardrobe hangers on which suits and dresses may be put away. At the end of the closet is a shelf for shoes.

The private bath off the main bedroom has tile floors and walls and an electric heater is installed in the wall to supplement the heating requirements.

The other bath room on the second floor has tile walls in orchid color and the floor. In one corner and behind a glass door is the shower and needle bath. An electric heater is also installed in the wall of this bath room, and from one panel may be let down a show shining stand.

The third floor, finished in the same complete manner as the rest of the house, has a large store room, bed room, bath room and several closets.

The exterior of the house is of Mankato and Bedford stone and face brick with stone trim. The roof is of slate. The lightning rods are placed between the walls, and connect with the radio aerial and water pipes. The gutters and flushing are of copper; metal weather strips are installed on windows and doors and roll wire screens are at every window.

The house is wired for telephones in the basement and on the first and second floor; and radio outlets are provided for the living room, reading room, recreation room and second floor.

There are twelve lighting circuits in the house and 202 outlets for lights or electrical appliances. All wiring for lights and telephones come into the house through underground conduits.

Several hundred plants and bushes have been set out in the planting arrangement and a large flood light will be set at the terrace on the east to throw light on the garden.

The above perhaps can give the reader a fair idea of the arrangement of the house and some of the details of its many practical features and conveniences. To tell of the attractiveness would require the ability of a past master in description.

Its completion adds to the attractiveness, not only of the neighborhood, but of the entire community as well. Its stability in construction assures the family of a lasting abode for many years to come. Its beauty and convenience of arrangement will add to the joy and comfort of the occupants. Its surroundings and environment will give to the younger generation of the household happy memories to carry into later years of a pleasant existence together with these walls which they called "home."


The newly completed Combs residence was designed by Carl V. Johnson, architect, of Des Moines. The general contract was held to Glenn Anderson, builder, of Chariton, who had supervision of the entire construction.

Material was furnished by the Leonard Lumber Co. and Eikenberry & Co., Chariton.

The slate roof was installed by Mefferd & McGuire, of Des Moines.

Carr & Young, of Des Moines, constructed the Bilt Well mill work for the new home.

Weather strips for doors and windows of the new home were installed by the Reese Iowa Weather Strip Co., of Des Moines.

The oil burning furnace was made by the Bnnett & Allison company, Omaha, and was installed by C.B. Ensely, of Chariton, who also supplied some of the builders hardware and plumbing for the home.

Traxler & Fuller planned the landscaping.


As soon as the ground thawed during the spring of 1931, construction of another large building in the Tudor Revival style commenced just northeast of the house. This was designed to serve as headquarters of what then was known as the Southern Iowa Poster Service, containing offices, shops and garaging for company vehicles --- as well as family vehicles. This building was finished during the summer of 1931.


Combs enterprises continued to flourish during the first half of the 20th century and well into its second. Sons George and Robert joined their father in the family enterprises, but George died too young and so Robert became principal in the firms after his parents' deaths.

Nina (Lutz) Combs was killed in a car crash near Red Oak at age 66 during May of 1955. George died at 43 during November of 1961. D. Earl was 76 when he died during January of 1964. 

Tough new highway beautification legislation that severely restricted outdoor advertising spelled the end for the Combs Outdoor Advertising Companies during 1976. Although the company was compensated for its losses, more than 500 "non-conforming" signs across Iowa were sold to the Iowa Department of Transportation and removed and the business end of servicing other "conforming" signs was sold. The sale of other Combs enterprises followed.

Eventually Bob and Elinor Combs, who had continued to make the Combs house their home, decided to sell it, too, and move permanently elsewhere.

Mary Kathryn "Kay" (Combs) Callahan, who died July 31, 2013, in Houston, was the last surviving child of D. Earl and Nina Combs. Her family brought the remains home for burial in the Chariton Cemetery last summer. Kay's husband, John A. Callahan --- who grew up in Chariton, was a West Point graduate and a career Air Force officer --- died March 10 at the age of 92 in Florida, where he had moved after his wife's death, and his remains were brought home to Chariton for burial on March 21.

No comments: