WEST LIBERTY, Iowa — A pre-statehood stagecoach inn located in the West Liberty area that has been placed on Iowa's "Most Endangered Properties" list is not widely known, even in Muscatine County, said the man who nominated it.
"I think it would surprise a lot of people that it's here," said Scott Brooke of the West Liberty Heritage Foundation. "It kind of sits back from the road. It's a 'sleeper.' That's what makes it so endangered."
The structure is is one of six listed this week on the 2014 "Most Endangered Properties" list by Preservation Iowa, a nonprofit group that encourages preservation efforts.
Unlike some other properties on the list, the older inn is in reasonably good shape and is, in fact, still occupied by members of the Elliott family, who own it.
It also is rarer. Brooke said he knows of only two other stagecoach inns that remain in the state.
The structure near today's West Liberty boundaries was built in 1842 by the Beers and St. John Co., which was awarded the U.S. Mail contract between Iowa City and Muscatine in 1839 and again in 1841. At that time, Iowa was still a territory, with its capital in Iowa City. Iowa became a state in 1846.
The company and a man named Egbert T. Smith built the inn as an overnight resting place for the company's drivers and passengers who rode the stagecoach along with the mail.
The site was at the crossroads of the stagecoach route from Muscatine to Iowa City as well as the route from Davenport to Iowa City, meaning more passengers.
The building was also a "swing station," a place where horses and drivers could be switched, which usually were set up every 10 to 15 miles along coach routes, Brooke said.
The inn operated until about 1855. Leading to its closure was the death of Smith's wife in 1854 and the coming of the railroad to Iowa City in the mid-1850s.
After it closed, the inn became a residence and has been used as such ever since.
"The miraculous thing about it is that over all that time, it was not modernized much," Brooke said. The building still contains the original windows, hardware and floor plan. "It's basically still a time capsule," he said.
The ground floor contains a foyer inside the front door, with a staircase ascending to the third floor, a large gathering room and two dining rooms. The original kitchen was in a separate building that no longer exists.
The second floor has four large bedrooms and a fifth smaller room that was for the stagecoach driver.
The building's basic design was copied from Smith's previous colonial home on Long Island, New York. The siding, windows, doors and interior millwork were constructed and shipped by steamboat from Cincinnati down the Ohio River and up the Mississippi River, Brooke said.
The nearly 3,000-square-foot-building sits almost square on a foundation of huge limestone blocks that were quarried nearby. A steel roof protects the original cedar shake shingles, and the windows are intact.
The exterior is clapboard, and the inside is finished in plaster, with a wall of mortared brick in between.
To save the building for the future, it needs to be made more weather-tight, one corner of the foundation needs to be shored up and it definitely needs paint, Brooke said.
The building once had an octagonal glass cupola where a lantern was hung at night so stagecoach drivers could find the building, Brooke said. Ideally, that would be replaced, he added.
Another piece of the property's history is that the wife of the builder is buried there, along with a family of five who died while staying at the inn, Brooke said. The explanation is that members of the family were sick when they arrived and never recovered.