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Search for historic homes has Charles City man on a mission

  • Christopher Anthony and Mary Ann Townsend do some research on homes of historic significance at the Floyd County Historical Museum on Wednesday afternoon. Press photo by Kelly Terpstra

  • Christopher Anthony and Mary Ann Townsend, members of the Charles City Historic Preservation Commission, have undertaken a search to identify historic homes or structures in Charles City. Press photo by Kelly Terpstra

  • Christopher Anthony and Mary Ann Townsend, members of the Charles City Historic Preservation Commission, have undertaken a search to identify historic homes or structures in Charles City. Press photo by Kelly Terpstra

  • Christopher Anthony and Mary Ann Townsend, members of the Charles City Historic Preservation Commission, have undertaken a search to identify historic homes or structures in Charles City. Press photo by Kelly Terpstra

  • Christopher Anthony and Mary Ann Townsend, members of the Charles City Historic Preservation Commission, have undertaken a search to identify historic homes or structures in Charles City. Press photo by Kelly Terpstra

By Kelly Terpstra, kterpstra@charlescitypress.com

Christopher Anthony’s day off from work was a productive one.

Anthony, manager at Otto’s Oasis greenhouse in Charles City, is also a historian, not to mention Civil War buff and lover of antique clocks, and he spent a snowy day Wednesday inside the warm confines of the Floyd County Historical Museum.

On this day he was scanning maps, leafing through documents and analyzing pictures to find historic homes and other structures in Charles City.

He had help in his search.

Anthony pulled a chair alongside Mary Ann Townsend, the Floyd County Historical Museum director. Each is a member of the Charles City Historic Preservation Commission, which was founded by Jeff Sisson in the mid-90s.

“My passion’s in history. Go look at my house,” said Anthony, about the arts and crafts structure that he thinks may be an earlier modular home from around the turn of the 20th century.

“We have modular homes like that out on the Avenue. Today you buy and you set them up. These were the early version of it. They just didn’t come assembled. They came in pieces like a jigsaw puzzle. All the parts were numbered and you had a map,” said Anthony. “The goal is to try to identify some of them in this town as these types of homes.”

Anthony’s mission is to document and create an inventory of historic structures in Charles City – but he needs the public’s help.

A website is also in the works that would feature homes or list structures discovered with an interesting past.

“Kind of the cumulative goal would be to eventually get organized and try to identify as many homes as we can in town to their architecture, history – from their era,” said Anthony.

That means photos from previous owners of homes help out a lot – even if you think the picture is obscure or worthless.

“Sometimes what the background of what the picture shows has a lot,” said Anthony.

Anthony has been in contact with Charles City real estate agents Connie Parson and Veronica Litterer for help in peeling away the mystery to the history of homes in the area.

“There’s not a lot that the deeds and stuff ever offer – very seldom do they,” said Anthony. “They said sometimes you might get lucky and they might mention something.”

Many of the prefabricated, modular homes Anthony is talking about were built by the Gordon-Van Tine Co. The company began selling home kits in 1916 in the Sears-Roebuck catalog.

The Gordon-Van Tine Co. Historic District is a nationally recognized historic district located near downtown Davenport. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2017.

“Gordon Van Tine out of Davenport bought those plans, prepared the lumber and all the necessities for building it, marked them for identification, printed the plans and sold somebody the home, shipped it in and you built the house,” said Anthony.

It didn’t take long for him to discover six or seven homes similar to his own, a couple within blocks of his residence.

“Around the corner – a block and a half – there’s a house just identical to mine,” said Anthony. “It was remodeled. Three blocks over there’s another one – same roof line, same window lines and stuff and porch. Did this come from Gordon Van Tine? It must have been a plan of some sort when seven of them were built at one time.”

Anthony has done some research, explored around town and identified several homes in the area that were built by George Franklin Barber – an architect who designed Queen Anne-style and Colonial Revival homes in the late 19th century during the Victorian era. Barber also used mail-order catalogs to market these elaborate homes.

Anthony said he was identified several houses in town that resemble Barber homes. One is in the 300 block of Clark Street and another is located on a long paved driveway on Cleveland Avenue.

“It goes beyond that. There’s two documented George Barber homes in Charles City. There’s a couple others that could be. The tornado could have taken out some,” said Anthony.

The 1968 F-5 tornado leveled Civil War-era buildings and other structures in its path across town. The twister spared the west side of town where many elaborate homes from the 1880s and 1890s still stand to this day.

“West of Main Street, a lot of those homes are what’s left of the historic homes in town. The 1968 tornado made short work of a lot of historic homes between Main Street and Grand Avenue. That diagonal – there was a lot of homes in there,” said Anthony.

Anthony said he feels around 75 percent of homes in Charles City have not been historically documented. He said they don’t have to be centuries old to be added to a list that could be shared and viewed by anyone.

“It doesn’t have to be a 120-year-old home,” said Anthony. “A home built in the 50s and 60s has architectural significance to it.”

The emergence of the Hart-Parr Tractor Co. in Charles City, which later became Oliver in 1929, also influenced how houses were built in Charles City.

“I think everything east of Grand Avenue really grew because of the Oliver Plant and a lot of homes were growing,” said Anthony.

Young men who went off to fight in World War II and would return to their hometown also had an impact on how the housing infrastructure was laid out.

“There was a section of town after World War II, some of the smaller homes up like on 9th and 10th Avenue, that are small, simple homes that were built to entice the soldiers and sailors coming home from World War II to get a cheap house to move into and to get a job probably most likely at Hart-Parr or Oliver at that time,” said Anthony.

Anthony said even common homes – not just big, fancy Victorian edifices – can often hold as much intrigue and fascination to the onlooker when its history starts to become chronicled. The people living in those homes also tell a story.

“They were 18-year-old kids leaving and they come back and they’re 23 or 25 years old and they need to start life somewhere. So they get a job at Oliver. Where do you live? So they offered some cheap homes. I think Oliver probably instituted a lot of that,” he said.

Anthony and Townsend were discussing property that is now the parking lot of Theisen’s on Wednesday afternoon. With a fire insurance map from 1924 splayed across a table, talk continued to find its way back to the one house in that parking lot area that went missing before the tornado had a chance to take it out.

“All that parking lot was houses and some big homes,” said Anthony.

Anthony said the house was a three-story, Mansard-style mansion located near the garage area of Theisen’s on the corner of Kelly and Milwaukee Street. Anthony said an office building replaced the mansion, but soon vanished again when the tornado demolished it.

Anthony and the historic preservation commission have also talked about placing plaques near historic homes or structures that could regale background and biographical information about the architecture. Anthony one-upped that idea by saying QR code scanners, similar to what has been put up near grave sites in Riverside Cemetery, could tell even a better story.

“You scan that and that takes you to our website and we have a history in that building far more than that plaque can tell you,” said Anthony. “It could even be a parking lot with one of them there and you click it and it would show you what was there before.”

Sisson also wants to amass an Inventory of Historic Properties of Concern.

“We could look around town and ask questions as to whether or not there are qualifying properties that we should be keeping an eye on,” said Sisson.

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