Union Block Building

Union Block Building

Mount Pleasant, Henry County

Listed as endangered in 2008

Reason for designation

The Union Block was constructed in 1861 by William McCandless. It holds a commanding presence on the north side of the square in historic Mount Pleasant, taking up one quarter of a block. The Union Block was built as a double building with a shared central stairway, dividing the ground level shops on the east and west. Offices were envisioned for the second floor and a large community hall on the third. Court proceedings were also planned for the third floor, in anticipation of a new courthouse being constructed.

In 1869, the third floor of the Union Block Building was the scene of a nationally historic event. Belle Babb Mansfield was tested and awarded a license to practice law, becoming the first woman in the United States to accomplish this.

The third floor main hall, called the Opera House or Union Hall, was the largest and best equipped gathering place for community events and social affairs. In the 1870s and 1880s, it provided a platform for many nationally-known speakers. News articles confirm that Frederick Douglass, Bronson Alcott, P.T. Barnum and Anna Dickinson spoke there. It is believed that Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton also appeared.

Architecturally, the Union Block Building represents the Italianate commercial style, which developed in 1856 with the arrival of the railroad. It features a gable roof with entry on the side gable. The upper level windows have round arched tops, with simple brick hoods and bracketed cornice. The original windows with tracery remain; brick pilasters are located between the windows. The tops of the windows feature the same trefoil pattern found in the windows of the Henry Ambler residence, listed on the National Register in 1986. In 1991, the Union Block was listed on the National Register of Historic Places for significance in architecture and engineering. As the Union Hall, it was listed on the Register in 1988, for significance in performing arts, social history, entertainment and recreation.

Currently, the Union Block is divided into two ownerships. A restaurant is operated out of the west half and a nail and hand shop is on the east half of the first level. Parts of the second floor are rented. The third floor and the majority of the second floor are vacant and deteriorating from non-use. Only the used areas have heat, air conditioning and plumbing. The remaining interior is in desperate need of repair. The majority of the street-facing windows are broken and boarded up. The original windows are rotted and need to be replaced, at a significant expense. Additionally, water is penetrating the exterior brick wall and windows, causing deterioration of the wall. Walls have shifted or moved; areas of plaster are bulging outward after losing bond with the brick wall.

The building owners would like to see the building rehabilitated, but are financially unable to do it alone. Community members, city officials, the Chamber of Commerce, and Main Street Mount Pleasant are discussing the future of this landmark. The Union Block is a treasure in the local community, but also has state importance as the locale for early court proceedings. It has national importance as the site where Belle Babb Mansfield became the nation's first woman to be awarded a license to practice law.

2008 Iowa's Most Endangered Properties item 4 of 9

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