A tour through history

Visitors to a dozen local empty buildings got a chance to not only see locations that are either for sale or rent, but also got a taste of their history on Wednesday evening as part of The Tour, hosted by the Webster City Chamber of Commerce.

Many locations have seen owners come and go through the years. The location at 510 2nd St., next to Al’s Barbershop, was first owned by American Family Insurance, and later, two different computer shops, according to owner Al Reynolds.

Other locations, such as the Webster Theater, were vacated more recently. The theater was closed in March for several reasons, including a lack of attendance and the cost of upgrading the projection system to a digital format.

David Toyer, outgoing economic development director for Webster City, said the asking price for the theater currently sits at about $45,000, plus the money it would take for upgrades an maintenance.

The theater now seats about 340 people, but that number, and much of the theater, used to be very different. Art Downard was at the theater during the tour to give historical perspective on the building. He was just one of many volunteers and Chamber of Commerce Champions that were on hand during the tour to discuss the background of many historical buildings in Webster City.

Downard has a long history with the Webster Theater. He began working there as an usher as a sophomore in high school, and worked his way up to management in 1939. After returning from service in World War II, he continued to work at the theater and bought it in 1964. He later gave the reins to his son in 1980, who owned the Theater until 1988, when the owners then gutted much of the existing theater.

The wide lobby of the Theater used to house the entrances of three businesses. Downard said a barbershop and a jewelry store that used to straddle the doors to the Theater were absorbed to create room for the lobby. Additionally, seven apartments used to be above the theater. Even with the smaller space, the theater used to have almost double the seating the current one does. About 750 chairs, with 150 of those being on an upper balcony, used to line the Theater.

“They were all 18 inch chairs,” Downard said. “Can you imagine anyone sitting through a movie in an 18 inch chair today?”

Now, Downard says that the chairs are about 26 inches. Downard also owned a drive-in movie theater in Webster City, which closed in 1988. He said there are now only four drive-ins left in the state, but he said that baby boomer nostalgia has allowed those drive-ins to thrive.

Another historical building that has not seen business for some time is the Kayser Law Office, located at 817 Des Moines St. It was built in 1926 by Judge O.J. Henderson. Nancy Kayser, owner of the Office, said it was built along with the masonic temple and both buildings have the same bricks and limestone trim on the windows.

The building has been a Law Office from its opening until 2009 and was designed specifically as a Law Office. Henderson’s law partner and court reporter, Eleanor Jones, was the first woman from Hamilton County to pass the bar exam in 1922. Her mother was the minister of the Universalist Church in town, which was torn down during the 90s. When that church was torn down, several stained-glass windows were salvaged, several of which are now housed at Kendall Young Library, and one which adorns the front wall of the Kayser Law Office.

The Law Office was closed in 2009 when Kayser’s husband passed away. She used to use the building on occasion, but now works for home. She said it’s difficult to sell any building, but she couldn’t find herself to broadcast that it was for sale.

“I didn’t want a for sale sign showing when Electrolux was going down,” Kayser said. “I didn’t think the city needed another for sale sign on a building.”

Kayser was contacted by Chamber director Deb Brown to take part in the tour, and Kayser said Brown has been a great influence on the city in her short time here.