Charles Stuart

Charles Stuart is shown here about the time the Stuart Building was being constructed with the Olson Construction Co. on the southeast corner of 13th and P streets.

For nearly a century the name Stuart was firmly attached to and associated with buildings, theaters, banks, real estate development and radio stations. Although family interests in many of these areas still exist, the Stuart name attached to them has largely disappeared.

The story of Charles Stuart, the scion of the Lincoln family, tells of his financial/entrepreneurial involvement in 31 area enterprises.

Charles’ father, James, moved from Connecticut to Chicago in 1871 and established himself as a wholesale grocer. He moved to Madison, Nebraska, in either 1878 or 1880, where he opened a private bank. Charles was born in 1884 followed by three sisters. Charles attended school in Madison, then Oakland, California, and graduated from high school in Berkeley, California, before James moved his family to 405 N. 25th St. in Lincoln in 1894. Charles entered the University of Nebraska to study engineering. James’ interest in banking continued with ownership in Madison, Norfolk, Elgin and Tilden.

Charles’ career in Lincoln began in 1907 when he moved to 1906 D St., where his mother had lived since her husband's death in 1898. One of his first businesses ventures was a Cadillac automobile agency in conjunction with Harry Sidles and Lee Huff. In 1909, the Nebraska Buick Co., with branches in Omaha and Sioux City, Iowa, formed with H.E. Sidles as president, R.H. Collins vice president and 25-year-old Charles as secretary/treasurer. The firm located its office in a new five-story building on the site of the 1905 fire-destroyed Halter/Furniture Block. The same year Charles built the Lyric Theatre adjacent to Nebraska Buick on 13th Street, south on the east/west alley.

In 1910, Charles married Marie Talbot and built a new house at 1830 E St., where their son was born two years later. During the 1910s, Stuart joined with the Seacrest family and H.E. Sidles’ sons who already were distributing radios and developing radio stations KFAB, KOIL and KFOR. Charles also collaborated with Sidles in building Union Airport north of Lincoln, northwest of Havelock. In 1916, Nebraska Buick reported having 75 employees in the 13th and P streets office.

As the Great Depression began to unfold n the 1920s, the Buick factory was unable to meet its payroll. Buick approached Stuart and Sidles for funds to pay Buick’s employees. In partial payment, Nebraska Buick received a wholesale dealership which included all of Nebraska as well as parts of Iowa and South Dakota. This led to the building of the second Nebraska Buick Building on the southwest corner of 13th and Q. Within a few years they were selling 22,000 Buicks a year to 501 dealers. So great was the firm’s volume that they even owned their own fleet of automobile train cars.

With the building at 13th and P outgrown, the Stuart Investment Co. began planning the Stuart Building which would displace the Nebraska Buick structure and the Lyric Theatre incorporating an entire half-block footprint. Lincoln architect Ellery Davis of Davis & Wilson became the lead designer of the building which was constructed during the Great Depression. The general contractor Olson Construction Co. received a one-page, single-spaced contract, really no more than a letter of agreement, as the only contract issued for the building.

Completed in 1929, the limestone, 13-story, gargoyle-topped, 158-foot-tall building had granite first floor sheathing over a concrete-cased steel framework and boasted a lobby of gold travertine marble. Never missing an opportunity, Stuart approached his attorney Max Beghtol and suggested his law firm become a tenant of the Stuart Building. Because Beghtol’s firm had a huge law library, Stuart thought it alone might attract other attorneys who couldn’t afford such a large reference tool.

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Also in 1927, Stuart Investment Co., partially because of the obvious success of the Woods Brothers Co., purchased 112 acres of land “12 minutes from downtown Lincoln” to the southeast. There, in Piedmont, Charles Stuart built a large house and planted what he called an evergreen forest adjacent to it.

In 1971, the majestic Stuart Theatre, cornerstone of the Stuart Building, was reduced in size, a drop ceiling installed, the balcony closed, chandeliers raised above the false ceiling and the stage walled off as Barrymore’s bar and restaurant. The Stuarts donated portions of the building to the University of Nebraska Foundation and the Lincoln Foundation, and in 1985 the entire building was sold to Larry Price who converted the former office tower into condominiums. In 2002, the theater was partially restored as the Rococo Theatre while the building’s name was changed to University Towers.

While the Stuarts continue to develop Lincoln, much of their success reckons back to Charles Stuart who died in 1938 but was known as a primary in Lincoln Pure Butter Co., Lincoln Terminal Warehouse, Lyric Theatre, Electric Park, radio stations, Piedmont and several Nebraska banks, Nebraska Buick Co. and the Stuart Building. He also served on numerous corporate boards and had an active ownership in 31 corporations.

Historian Jim McKee, who still writes with a fountain pen, invites comments or questions. Write to him in care of the Journal Star or at jim@leebooksellers.com.


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