On a sunny Monday, I went through purgator. It was nine steep steps into a dark corridor with flooring of exotic tiles and mosaic patterns of flowers. Flowers were out of place in gloomy purgatory. Human-size Buddhas were imbedded into walls of bulging stones. There was an eerie resonance my voice.
I was among the first to travel the restored purgatory in perhaps 45 years. It was stolid, somber, until I came upon a square of canvas hanging limply from a rod. It said, “A picture no artist can portray.” I lifted it and there was a mirror showing my surprised mug.
It was archetypal of bearded B.J. Palmer, the philosophical — sometimes whimsical — chiropractic guru who was grand duchy of Little Bit O’ Heaven.
His “heaven” — with its purgatory — was once Davenport’s major attraction, bringing 2 million visitors during its lifetime in the 800 block of Brady Street hill.
Now, a PIECE of Little Bit O’ Heaven — the courtyard — is returning. Heaven is gone but purgatory is awaiting visitors in the path of the pearly gates in B.J.’s newly refurbished courtyard.
The courtyard to B.J.’s heaven — chock-full of healing Buddhas and shrines for good wishes — has been in shambles since the death of B.J. in 1961. But it has now been heavily restored and will be dedicated Wednesday.
“Times change and for years no one has much cared about the courtyard,” says Dr. Alana Callender, historian for Palmer College of Chiropractic. Once, the caretaker of the adjoining Palmer mansion even had a vegetable garden in the courtyard.
The courtyard and Little Bit O’Heaven were linked like kissing cousins in the halcyon days of “heaven” in the 1920s, through the ’40s and ’50s. There’ll never be another Little Bit O’Heaven, an immense three-story glass house of fountains, exotic plants and Oriental statues. One zero night in 1980 the boiler failed, says Callender. The plants froze and heaven closed, to be leveled.
But purgatory, true to its name, was not fazed by the cold.
B.J. WAS LONG DEAD, and his beloved courtyard dwindled. He once wrote that the courtyard “was a place where man can muse with the gods.”
When B.J. opened his Little Bit O’Heaven and courtyard 87 years ago, he clicked the latches on 2-ton mosaic gates that he claimed were in the style of the Taj Mahal.
The old gates are gone — replaced by iron — and there will be a ribbon-cutting for the born-again courtyard at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday. It will be a feature of the college’s annual August homecoming, an event that once had a circus tent for the crowds of chiropractors.
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B.J., always the flamboyant, once had a well-known fitness fanatic of the era parachute from a biplane onto the homecoming grounds.
Through this homecoming weekend, the courtyard and Palmer mansion, intact from the days of B.J., will be open to Palmer alumni.
Beginning a week from Friday, Aug. 17, and every Friday thereafter, the public may visit the courtyard, tour the Palmer mansion, and get a few shivers going through purgatory. The charge will be $5 a person.
B.J.’s monogrammed shirts are folded in his dresser. Visitors may still smell his cigar smoke.
Contact Bill Wundram at 563-383-2249 or firstname.lastname@example.org.