Thursday, April 14, 2016

The year the courthouse went topless

The question arose this week, as I was slaving away over the program for Monday's annual membership meeting of the Lucas County Historical  Society --- When did the spire that topped the 1893-94 clock tower of the Lucas County Courthouse disappear?

This is the answer --- so take notes. You never know when a piece of trivia might come in handy.

The short version is 1954. In other words, the venerable courthouse has been in a state of despire for more years than it had been bespired.

The photo above, which dates from Wednesday afternoon, shows how the courthouse has looked for the last 62 years. The photo below, which dates from 1894, shows how the building, with spire intact, looked at about the time it was dedicated. That combination of clock tower and spire totaled 140 feet.

The spire's removal occurred with remarkably little fanfare. The Chariton newspapers gave no coverage at all --- that I've been able to find --- to the fact its demise was under consideration.

The earliest story about the matter that I've been able to locate consisted of two paragraphs buried at the bottom of Page 6 of The Leader of July 13, 1954:

"Portions of the county courthouse clock tower are being removed, re-inforced, and rebuilt by Rex Perry Co. of Knoxville.

"The work began Monday morning. The reason for the re-construction work is that portions of the tower were becoming dangerously weak."

The Herald-Patriot of July 22 carried a small front-page photo with only the cutline, "Lucas county's courthouse will have no steeple in the future. Work of dismantling the tower which had become dangerous is shown above. When work being done by Rex Perry of Knoxville is completed the clock tower will have a flat roof. Supervisors said that the cost of scaffolding alone to do the job of rebuilding the steeple was too expensive. Perry is the son of John D. Perry who was a contractor in Lucas county for many years."

And that was that.

Today, the decision to lop off a significant portion of Lucas County's most prominent public building would be a major news story, so why not in 1954?

It's entirely possible the supervisors took the newspaper and, perhaps, the citizens of Lucas County by surprise --- the element of surprise is one reason newspapers sometimes bury stories.

But the most likely explanation is that no one really cared --- historic preservation was not high on the priority list of Iowans during the 1950s. In 1955 in Chariton, for example, both the Mallory mansion, Ilion, and St. Andrew's Episcopal church --- or great architectural interest --- were demolished. The former project received some publicity; the latter, none at all.


As the 20th century prepared to turn to the 21st, considerable interest developed in restoring the courthouse spire and studies were completed. The most likely strategy would have involved a fiberglass replica of the original. But that project eventually fell by the wayside and it's highly unlikely that it will be revived.

And when compared to what happened down the road in Ottumwa, Lucas County's courthouse has been lucky.

The Wapello County Courthouse (left), like the Lucas County Courthouse, was designed by Des Moines architects (William) Foster & (Henry F.) Liebbe and dedicated during 1894, It looked quite a lot like the Lucas County Courthouse, complete with spire --- but on steroids.

Down there, when confronted with the need to repair the tower, supervisors just knocked the whole thing off --- including the clock --- leaving that once grand building nursing a stub.


The Lucas County Historical Society's annual membership meeting will begin at 6:30 p.m. Monday in the Lodge at Pin Oak Marsh. The program, "A Walk Around the Chariton Square, 1850-1910," will begin at approximately 7 p.m. Coffee and pie will be served afterwards to all comers. All are welcome to attend; membership is not a requirement.

And if you noticed in the current courthouse photo that the hands on the courthouse clock are missing --- well that's because the clock is in Minneapolis and under restoration. It's due to be put back into place later this year.

At some point after 1954, the clock was electrified and spare parts --- the massive weight and pendulum --- brought to the historical society for safekeeping. We were delighted to turn these items over to the supervisors again last year so that the original mechanism could be restored and look forward to hearing the old girl chime out the hours again this summer.

1 comment:

Sonja said...

I just LOVE reading the history of my small town. I've always known the courthouse without the spire. I didn't even know it ever had one. thanks for the info