If the Quad-Cities ever had an official symbol of Christmas, it was the giant star atop the 10-story Kahl Building in downtown Davenport.
For more than 70 years it lighted the sky at holiday time.
Now, just in time for Christmas giving, comes a book in which the Kahl Building star rises again — along with the history of the downtown landmark at 326 W. 3rd St. and the man who developed it, Henry C. Kahl.
The book is "The Kahl Legacy," written by Connie Heckert, of Bettendorf, for the Scott Community College Foundation. The foundation acquired the Kahl Building as a gift from the Kahl heirs in December 1994. The building, which also houses the Capitol Theatre and its restored Wicks theater organ, is now the Kahl Educational Center.
"The Kahl Legacy" is further evidence of Heckert's talent as a researcher and writer of local history, particularly Quad-City businesses and institutions. The 42-page book is indexed, documented with footnotes and packed with interesting facts, pictures and anecdotes.
It traces the life of Henry C. Kahl, nicknamed "Hummer" for his industrious nature. At age 13, he was driving a mule team for his German immigrant laborer father. When he died in 1931 at age 55, he was president of his own construction company and held interests in businesses ranging from a piano company to insurance and hotels.
With her usual thoroughness and flair for historic detail, Heckert presents a lively look at Kahl, his times and his contributions. Her book even has a floor-by-floor list, complete with office numbers, of the original tenants in the Kahl Building. It opened in the fall of 1920 with 184 office suites.
The building sprang from Kahl's vision for a first-class office tower in downtown Davenport. "I decided Davenport needed such a building and, as my heart is in Davenport, I wanted to do something for the town," he once told a newspaper reporter.
He retained Davenport architect Arthur Ebeling to create what one newspaper reporter described as "a multi-million-dollar skyscraper, the finest structure in Davenport . . . "
Alabama marble, swirled in pinks, covered the lobby. Bronze and copper doors and trim added elegance.
"The Kahl building will be the handsomest business structure in the city when completed and the most modernly designed and best equipped skyscraper in the Middle West," The Davenport Democrat and Leader reported.
Construction began in August 1919. Despite delays caused by strikes in the steel and railroad industry, the building was ready for occupancy in the fall of 1920. The first tenant, building manager C. Wesson, moved in on Sept. 20, 1920.
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The Capitol Theatre portion of the building opened Christmas Day, 1920. "With a seating capacity of nearly 2,500, (The Capitol) outstrips anything Chicago can boast by 300 seats," The Davenport Democrat and Leader reported.
The tradition of displaying the huge Christmas star atop the building began in the 1920s. The five-pointed star originally was 16 feet from point to point and contained more than 100 40-watt clear bulbs. It was mounted above the "Kahl Building" sign that crowns the building's elevator penthouse.
Visible for miles, the star became one of the Quad-Cities best loved symbols of Christmas. Among its biggest fans was V.O. Figge, the long-time chairman of the former Davenport Bank & Trust Co.. He was the husband of Henry Kahl's daughter, Elizabeth, and brother-in- law of Henry Wurzer, who had married Henry Kahl's daughter, Margaret. Wurzer managed the Kahl Building after Henry Kahl's death.
Nancy McWilliams, a long-time Kahl Building management employee, says that Figge called whenever he noticed that the star was not lighted. The lights were on a timer that sometimes malfunctioned, she said. Whenever Figge called, crews quickly fixed the problem.
In April 1992, she said, pranksters got on the roof and swung the star into place without securing it. A gust of wind blew the star down, destroying it. A new star was built of treated lumber. After Christmas 1995, the star was dismantled because of electrical problems and because of the danger faced by crews as they climbed to the penthouse roof and handled the heavy holiday symbol.
Lenny Stone, president of Scott Community College, said that while the star brings back memories, he gets no calls from anyone wanting to revive the tradition.
Questions, comments or ideas for this weekly local history/nostalgia column? Contact John Willard, Quad-City Times, 500 E. 3rd St., Davenport, Iowa 52801, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org; phone (319) 383-2314.