Time Machine: Iowa City's Close House
A stunner in its day, it survived to shine again
Iowa City industrialist Chalmer D. Close built a showplace home on the corner of Gilbert and Bowery streets in 1874.
A century later, the Close House at 538 S. Gilbert St. was named to the National Register of Historic Places in June 1974, becoming eligible for federal funding to assist in its restoration.
The 30,000-square-foot Italianate villa-style brick house had 14 rooms and a walnut staircase and banisters leading to its third floor. It had eight fireplaces — four on each floor — with a large mirror above each mantel. It had servants quarters and three bathrooms. The home’s entrance was topped with a small balcony, a widow’s walk and a glass cupola.
The cornice work was done by pioneer Thomas Morrison, whose son was Iowa City druggist W.W. Morrison.
The house was heated by steam that was piped under the street from the Close linseed oil factory that stood diagonally across the street.
Chalmer D. Close, born in Genoa, N.Y., in 1832, arrived in Iowa City in 1854. His older brother, Manley T. Close, had arrived several months earlier, and the two partnered in a candle, soap and lard factory.
The brothers opened the M.T. Close & Co. linseed oil mill in 1861. Its name changed to C.D. Close & Co. in 1887 when Chalmer took over his brother’s interest. (Linseed oil is made from flaxseeds and has a variety of household uses.)
Chalmer and Helen Close lived with their daughter, Emma, in a house next door to the property as Chalmer contracted with August Hazelhorst to build the mansion in 1874 for $15,000 (more than $308,535 in today’s dollars). It was the birthplace of the next three Close children, Alice, Katherine, and S. LeRoy.
In the late 1880s, the National Linseed Oil Co. began taking over linseed factories nationwide. Chalmer Close remained at the helm of his factory after its acquisition, as well as the Cedar Rapids Linseed Oil Co.
By 1890, National Linseed Oil Co. had acquired all the linseed oil companies in the nation and was dictating prices and production. It was soon faced with an antitrust suit filed by the Illinois attorney general, a suit that would not be resolved for more than a decade.
Chalmer Close died of pneumonia on April 22, 1890. In June, his widow, Helen, donated $10,000 in his memory to the building fund of the new YMCA/YWCA at the University of Iowa. Because of her gift, the structure was named Close Hall.
Close Hall, finished in 1891, cost about $35,000. In addition to Helen’s donation, UI students and faculty contributed $10,000, Iowa City residents $10,000 and UI alumni $2,000, with the rest coming from other Iowans.
The Closes’ daughter, Emma, married William H. “Hal” Stewart in the Close mansion in 1892. Stewart worked in his family business, the S.S. Stewart & Co. shoe firm of Iowa City.
National Linseed Oil Co. closed the Close plant in Iowa City in 1898 and put up for sale. Thomas C. Carson bought it in 1899 and converted the factory into a grain elevator and warehouse.
M.T. Close’s family home was the first house north of his brother’s home on South Gilbert Street, directly across from the linseed oil works. The house caught fire on Christmas Eve, 1910. A faulty fire hydrant hampered firefighters’ efforts to put out the flames, and they immediately began to remove furniture and household items from the first floor.
When the fire was out, all that stood was a charred, waterlogged frame. The house was rebuilt.
Helen Close continued to live in the mansion, with her daughter’s family, until her death on May 9, 1920.
The Close heirs sold the mansion in 1923 to the Acacia fraternity for use as a chapter house, and students lived there until 1930, when it reverted to the Close family due to the fraternity’s financial problems.
It then became the Johnson County Juvenile Home. The county bought the home in 1941 for $4,800 as office space for the Johnson County Department of Social Services.
Many of the house’s distinctive features, such as the cupola, the small balcony and pillars, were removed.
In 1973, the Close House was nominated to the National Register of Historic Places while county officials debated how to fund desperately needed repairs.
When the county Department of Social Services moved out in the spring of 1974, the temporary office partitions were removed, and county officials considered using the home as a senior center and for storage of archives.
Instead, the once-elegant mansion was auctioned March 21, 1980, when Dr. Charles Skaugstad of Iowa City bought it for $174,000. Skaugstad’s son, Charles “Chuck” Skaugstad Jr., moved his interior design business into the first floor, rented the second floor and lived on the top floor.
Chuck Skaugstad renamed the house “The Mansion” and began a restoration that spanned several years, including the addition of a 26-foot cupola on the roof.
The restored mansion continues to house Skaugstad’s design firm.
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