Remembering 716 Prospect Street

Webster City home holds remarkable history

716 Prospect Street before the fire that destroyed the tower and most of the second story (according to neighborhood oral tradition). The tower and main entrance to the house face west. The façade of the Armory Opera House can be seen in the left background. The roofs of the Hamilton County State Bank and the Wilson Hotel can be seen in the right background.

The recent passing of former Webster City Councilman and Mayor Eugene Gray stirs up memories of the family’s former home at 716 Prospect Street. For 24 years, from 1972 until 1996, Gene and Lois Gray operated a successful antique shop at this address. The 1st Street landmark is easily recognized by its long and beautifully weathered iron fence. It is the only 19th century residence in Webster City that retains its original cast iron fence and gates, vestiges of pioneer times when fences kept out stray livestock as well as scalawags. It is quite likely, especially considering its size and quality, the sole survivor of its kind in the entire northwest half of our state.

Those who have seen the house interior know that the hand-crafted black walnut, butternut, and oak trim, doors and fireplace mantles belie a secret that is not apparent when viewing the exterior: this house, built in the early1870s by a prominent pioneer Webster City couple, is the remnant of a once grand mansion that crowned the high ground of the Dubuque and Pacific Railroad addition to this city. It is the grandest of several large early homes that, along with the original Willson House, signaled the westward expansion of Webster City along 2nd Street after the railroad reached Webster City in 1869.

The house as built was a local example of the Italianate style, very similar to the Seuper house, a distinctive Des Moines Street house demolished to accommodate expansion of Webster City Products Company in the late 1980s. Similar designs were made popular throughout the country via widely available pattern books by architects like Andrew Jackson Downing and Calvert Vaux. It was a popular and influential architectural style for pre-Civil War country houses in the river valleys of New York state, where the style’s observation towers permitted owners sweeping vistas of America’s ever-expanding western landscape. No wonder then that when lawyer and New York native Daniel Darrow Chase built his showplace on lots 15 and 16 of the Dubuque and Pacific Railroad addition to Webster City, he and his wife, Hattie E. Bell Chase, built an Italianate villa. And it faced west!

Who were these Webster City pioneers, D. D. Chase and Hattie E. Chase? Documents in the special collections of Kendall Young Library tell us that Daniel Darrow Chase (1830-1892) and Hattie E. Bell (1838-1884) were married August 10, 1858 at New Woodstock, New York. Later that month, the newly wed couple moved to Webster City, Iowa, at that time a town with about 400 residents.

Mr. Chase received his jurisprudence education in New York, and after establishing himself in Webster City, received many important and prestigious appointments in the service of the public. The Biographical Record and Portrait Album of Hamilton and Wright Counties (1889) relates the following about Mr. Chase’s distinguished career:

He was elected to the Board of Education in 1860 and elected District Attorney for Iowa’s 11th Judicial District in 1861. He was re-elected to the same office in 1862. D. D. Chase served as Delegate at Large to the National Republican Convention of 1864 where President Abraham Lincoln was nominated for his second term. Judge Chase also served as committee chairman for the Iowa delegation to that convention. From 1865 to 1874 he served as the District Judge for the 11th Judicial District. The quality of his service as District Court Judge was publicly acclaimed by many, including Colonel Charles A. Clarke who offered the following resolution to his legal peers: “Resolved, that by his ability, efficiency and integrity in the discharge of every official duty, Judge Chase has won and is worthy, of not only the commendation and plaudits of the bar, but of the entire people who have received the benefit of his labors.” One of his most influential decisions as District Judge was his 1873 ruling that affirmed the right of the Legislature to fix rates for railroad fare and freight charges.

Judge Chase retired from the bench January 1, 1875, after which he resumed his Webster City law practice. In 1877 he was elected State Senator and served the Seventeenth and Eighteen Iowa General Assemblies.

A writer from 1889 had this to say about Judge Chase’s integrity as a lawyer: “As a lawyer he has few superiors-clear, cogent and terse in statement of a case, he is very strong before both the court and a jury. There are men in Iowa who are more ornate and dramatic, but there is no man who can make a stronger, clearer cut, or more powerful argument.”

The same writer lauded Hattie E. Chase: “…as soon as she was old enough she became a teacher in the public schools, and soon rose to the front rank in that profession. Mrs. Chase was a woman of great force of character, a born leader in society, and naturally impressed her views upon the people she came in contact with. There was no taint of aristocracy in her nature; she mingled freely with all the people in every part of the county. She was a self-reliant, helpful woman, and knew how to do everything that had to be done, and was always ready to help do it.”

As Webster City steadily recovers from the loss of its largest employer and continues to lose monuments from its past, let’s not forget about the people who made this county and state great, and the pioneer-era buildings that memorialize their legacy. 716 Prospect Street is one of those buildings. Like Hattie Chase, let’s do what needs to be done!

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Leonard Curtis was raised on the family farm near Blairsburg Township’s Mulberry Center Church. He is Associate Professor Emeritus of Theatre at the University of Northern Iowa.

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