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Charles City has many architectural gems

Charles City has many architectural gems

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CHARLES CITY | Charles City has many architectural treasures still intact today despite a town history that includes major floods, fires and a devastating tornado.

“Charles City has architecture of local, state and national significance,” said Paula Mohr, architectual historian with the State Historical Society of Iowa.

For Mohr, the first thing that comes to mind when talking about Charles City architecture is the Charles Theatre.

“It’s one of the most important movie theaters left standing in the state,” she said.

Ron Turner, the head of the Charles City Historic Preservation Commission, said the Charles Theatre is one of the very few art deco theaters left in Iowa.

The theater, completed in 1935, now is used both as a movie theater and a place for stage productions.

The facade design is a series of rectangular shapes in bright, metallic colors. Inside there's a curving, metal staircase.

THE FLOYD COUNTY COURTHOUSE and the Charles City Middle School are also in the art deco style.

The courthouse, designed by Hansen & Waggoner, now Waggoner & Wineinger Architects, of Mason City, was built in 1940-41. This three-story structure of tan brick, Bedford stone and polished red granite is on the National Register of Historic Places.

"It's really a beautiful piece of refined, classical architecture," said Tom Waggoner, consulting architect at WWA, whose father, Karl Waggoner, designed the courthouse.

He said it has classical features inside and out, including the marble in the main entrance, and the siting and the landscaping "set the building off beautifully."

In the original design the word "Floyd" was carved from limestone on a parapet above the roof, while cast bronze letters were used to spell out "County Court House" beneath the parapet.

The limestone lettering was removed in 1965 when the parapet was removed due to leaks in the roof.

In 2012 the county had the word "Floyd" added back to the exterior of the building, this time in stainless steel letters with the same font as the original limestone lettering. The bronze lettering for "County Courthouse," which was removed due to a brick replacement project in 2011, was replaced with stainless steel lettering.

The project was paid for through donations.

Mohr said the restoration of the original lettering shows county officials are not only preserving the building, but are willing to “go the extra mile.”

THE MIDDLE SCHOOL BUILDING was completed in 1932. Turner, a retired teacher who used to teach in the building, said the original oak woodwork and doors are still there.

The middle school is one of the few remaining 1930s buildings that preserves the architectural heritage of the city, according to a 2012 report from the committee appointed by the Charles City School Board to study the pros and cons of renovating and continuing to use the structure as a school or building a new middle school at the high school campus.

The committee did not recommend one option over the other, and the school board, which elected four new members this fall, continues to study the issue. In the meantime, a repurposing committee is exploring ways the building could be used if it no longer serves as a school.

Jeff Sisson, a member of the Charles City Historic Preservation Commission, said one unique aspect of the city's architecture is the 200 block of North Main Street. Limestone buildings from the 1860s and 1870s are still there.

"That block is the only intact (downtown) block from the tornado," he said, referring to the 1968 twister that destroyed 60 commercial buildings, three schools, six churches and 500 residences.

The tornado only caused slight damage to the tops of the buildings in that one block downtown, he said.

The limestone for those buildings was quarried in Charles City. 

“Even with a couple of fires and a tornado, you still have some incredible buildings downtown,” Mohr said.

CHARLES CITY IS ALSO HOME to the Sherman Nursery office building, which was completed in 1906. It's a three-story, limestone block building in Italianate style.

A stone mason from Italy set the arch in the front entry.

"It's gorgeous," Turner said.

The Charles City Historic Preservation Commission is working on getting the Sherman Nursery building on the National Register of Historic Places.

In addition to the main building, the application will include three bridges -- a stone bridge from 1902 and two railroad bridges.

Mohr said Charles City also has residential neighborhoods with significant architecture.

Howard Burr, an architect from Waterloo, designed the Blunt House at 1834 Cleveland Ave. This Prairie School house from 1919 is a two-story structure, but it still has an a horizontal design. It also has a beautiful green tile roof, Mohr noted.

Another Prairie School house at 310 Third Ave. was designed by a Minneapolis architectural firm Purcell, Feick and Elmslie.

Mortimer Cleveland, an early 20th century architect from Waterloo, designed a number of homes on Ferguson and Blunt streets. Mohr said she thinks he got a commission to design one house in the neighborhood and other people liked it so much they asked, “Could you design a house for me, too?”

CHARLES CITY ALSO HAS A HOME designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. This one-story, L-shaped house at 1107 Court St. was built in 1950 for Alvin Miller, a Charles City dentist. It has had several owners over the years but is still known as the Alvin Miller House.

The house, located on the Cedar River, had three feet of water inside it during the flood of 2008. The house was put on the market afterwards, and the current owners, Paul and Jeanette Griffin, are having it restored.

Mohr said Wright had a book published in 1954 titled “The Natural House,” which includes information about the Alvin Miller House and photos of it.

“He obviously was very proud of it," she said.

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