Time Machine

Time Machine: The embezzler who built an elegant Cedar Rapids home in 1897

The historic Perkins house at 1228 Third Ave. SE. is shown this month in Cedar Rapids. Eric Gutschmidt bought the badly run-down 1897 Queen Anne-style Victorian home in 2017 and is intent on rehabbing it. It was built in 1897 by Charles Perkins, who left town in 1902 after admitting to embezzling more than $50,000 from his employer. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
The historic Perkins house at 1228 Third Ave. SE. is shown this month in Cedar Rapids. Eric Gutschmidt bought the badly run-down 1897 Queen Anne-style Victorian home in 2017 and is intent on rehabbing it. It was built in 1897 by Charles Perkins, who left town in 1902 after admitting to embezzling more than $50,000 from his employer. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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(First of two parts)

The Perkins house has been in the news lately, beginning with The Gazette’s mid-January story by B.A. Morelli about plans to restore the old mansion at 1228 Third Ave. SE.

Who was Perkins? Why did he build such an elaborate home?

Charles W. Perkins came to Cedar Rapids in 1891 as cashier for the Iowa office for the Northwestern Life Insurance Co. of Milwaukee. The company had offices in the Kimball block (later the site for the Merchants National Bank building).

Perkins moved to Cedar Rapids from Onawa, in western Iowa, in February, with his wife, Nellie, and their family arriving in June.

The family lived on C Avenue for about a year before moving to 1540 Second Ave. East into a home Parker had built for his family. But it was only a stopover to a bigger home.

the house

The June 19, 1897, Gazette contained a notice announcing a new home was about to be built on Third Avenue near 12th Street. The Gazette notice described the new home as “palatial,” with “all modern conveniences.”

“One of the features will be a hall 15-by-23 (feet), separated from a conservatory by grill work, the hall being practically 15-by-32,” the story stated.

“The stairway will be ornamented and divided into sections by pillars. There will be cozy nooks and corners all over the house. The front and porch will be of brick, and the second story will carry a portico in keeping with the architecture.”

The estimated cost of the house — designed by noted local architect Charles A. Dieman — was more than $6,000 as a time when the cost of a new home in the city averaged around $2,000.

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Perkins also built homes in the Greenedale addition, owned an Arizona olive oil business and had interests in Onawa retail businesses.

MISSING MONEY

So it came as a shock when details began to emerge in July 1902 about an embezzlement at Northwestern Life. Reporters estimated the loss exceeded $50,000 — about $1.5 million in today’s dollars.

Perkins’ hometown paper, the Onawa Weekly Democrat, reported Perkins had taken the money and that he had turned over rights to all his property to Homer Munger, the general agent in the Cedar Rapids insurance office.

“There has been no mention of any prosecution, and it is believed the matter will be honorably fixed up,” the paper reported. “Mr. Perkins has always been held in high esteem here at his old home.”

Perkins had been with Northwestern for about 15 years, first as a solicitor and then as the cashier in Cedar Rapids.

speculative deals

Perkins told a Gazette reporter he became responsible for taking care of three families around 1892 and that his salary couldn’t cover the costs.

When he was put in charge of the Northwestern Life office in Cedar Rapids, he saw an opportunity to invest some of the company’s money for his own benefit.

That worked well for about 10 years, until it didn’t, and he was deeply in debt.

Perkins went to his boss, Munger, on June 16, 1902, to confess and turn over his assets.

His Third Avenue home was worth about $15,000, or around $400,000 in today’s dollars. Other assets included a 5-acre olive and orange ranch in Arizona, land in Arkansas, mining properties in the West, and stock in a Mexican coffee and rubber plantation.

Because Perkins had voluntarily revealed the shortfall, company officials at first agreed to not make the matter public.

But it was discovered the properties Perkins had turned over had claims of more than $25,000 against them. And though he said he’d embezzled $60,000, the total was closer to $80,000.

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An analysis revealed Perkins had been earning $8,000 a year — more than $200,000 in today’s dollars — along with perks, which should have been sufficient to support even three families. Securities experts said he’d used less than good judgment in his investments ... not to mention his embezzlement.

Perkins cleaned out his desk and his home and left town. Reports from San Francisco said he had gone into real estate there, dealing in orchards. He died in Tulare, Calif., in 1931 at age 74.

In October 1902, his elegant Third Avenue home was sold to W.H. Stark, the new treasurer of the Lyman Bros. wholesale and retail millinery firm, which would soon have its own drama.

Next week: The Stark family moves in

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