When do you suppose it started? When did the demolition of old Clinton begin?  Perhaps it was during the Great Depression, when our town was just 75 years old. Clinton is a very historic community and is/was a tremendous part of American history early on…at the very birth of the Industrial Revolution.

In the picture, we see one of Clinton’s five department stores in the 1930s.  Imagine — five department stores.

And today we have none. The establishment was the premiere store prior to Van Allen’s. It was on the southwest corner of Fifth Avenue and South Second Street, when the “main” street was Second Street and this department store faced it. The Van Allen building ultimately changed all that. Initially, Clinton’s main street was First Street; then it was Second Street; later, it became Fifth Avenue.   What is it now….the Miracle Mile?

Throughout the years, the business address was known as P.S. Towle & Co. (1866); Towle and Spreiter (1880); Towle and Meyer (1912); Towle & Hypes (1917).  Interestingly, these department stores filled all four floors of the impressive red brick building known as the Toll Block.

It is odd how many graceful older buildings, which exude the classical architecture of bygone times, are quite often replaced by nondescript and rather mundane structures. Some of them look downright ugly.

Think back in recent Clinton history, and try to name a structure built in Clinton during the last 50 years that seems gallant and worthy of saving for posterity.  

Our stately 1920 Clinton High School was soundly built with those wonderful striated bricks (see back of current building where those bricks still exist), and it looks terrific. Oh, but that was 90 years ago. Let’s see…the post office?   No, that was 1907. The railway station? No, that was 1920.  Actually, there aren’t many newer ones that will withstand the test of time. Most modern ones are simply utilitarian…no pizazz.  

One wag responded with “Jimmy Johns” — which is said to have cost $1 million and does have great bricks, windows, and other appointments, but is that, truly, the best architectural achievement in Clinton’s recent past? If so, what does this say about our community? That we tear down the exquisite and build the common?

Haring Construction Company was contracted to tear down the Toll Block by Jan. 1, 1931, for $100,000, including construction of the new Terra Cotta building by May 1, 1931 —   wow, so cheap and fast too.  The original building was built in 1864 by Major  Charles H. Toll.

The new building, owned by the Ankeny Company of Chicago, soon would be home to Martin Morris Clothiers. Mike Kleinschnidt, the last janitor, turned over his keys with great sadness, as demolition commenced.

When the new Ankeny building was completed, its ground floor had various stores and the upper floors housed professional offices. There were 15 upstairs offices and five ground-floor businesses.  The well-known United Cigar Store was located in its tiny corner-facing shop.  The east side of the old building extended as far as the first “Reynolds” Cigar Store and Restaurant...which later moved further south on Second Street.

It would become, and remain, downtown Clinton’s favorite “watering hole” and restaurant  throughout the years between 1880 and 1970.

Before the Toll Block became a total mercantile package, its uppermost floors served as dance halls and clubs. As the Toll Block was being torn down, jeweler Gus Brumer, Jr. recollected dancing at the Four Leaf Club there.  Another popular spot was the Sheridan Club, back when dances were the central dating and social venue for all young people.

They “tripped the light fantastic” to such lilting favorite tunes as “After the Ball Is Over,” “Sweet Marie,” and “My Sweetheart’s the Man in the Moon.”

One Clinton Herald article of Jan. 6, 1930, was entitled “Are We Soon Forgot” — (a la Rip Van Winkle). It reads like a forlorn and plaintive wail about pioneers unable to recognize the town anymore, due to all the changes.

One elderly matron said, “I met my future husband at the Sheridan Club and, later, when we returned to a dance, I danced with another boy a lot. My future husband said, ‘I don’t want you dancing with him anymore.’ I replied, ‘Why not?’ and he said, ‘I don’t want my future wife dancing so much with someone else. And that’s how I learned that I was to become his wife.’”

The first businesses to sign contracts to inhabit space within the new Ankeny building were:   E.N. Woodbury Company — plumbing;  Rockwood & Rohwer — electric wiring and fixtures;  and the Clinton Bridge Works — steel fabrication.

It’s also an oddity that one portion of the old building was untouched, because of a leasing agreement. When that ran out four years later, the Haring Company demolished that section, too, and built a new part to match the new building. One wonders if that would ever be done today. Nowadays, it would likely be solved via a lawsuit.

And so, we find that the destruction of what was once “Old Clinton” actually began long ago, and that perhaps a thousand old structures have been removed in a very brief 80 years. One wonders what else may be forever lost to future generations, and what ultimately may replace them?

Will Clinton continue to tear down the exquisite to build the mundane...until there’s nothing left?

Coming soon — Part four of the Clinton Fire Department.

Gary Herrity is the Clinton Herald’s historical columnist. His column appears on page 5A on Fridays.

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