Recently, while sifting through the contents of a file cabinet, I ran across an article I had written back in 1985 about the long and painful death of an old house in Manhattan, Kansas. I felt a bit sad reading it because old buildings – and the physical connections to our history that they provide – continue to be destroyed. Still young at the time, I was naive enough to think that one day a majority of my fellow humans would share my enthusiasm for history and architectural integrity; I thought that the Great Awakening was just around the corner!
Needless to say, things turned out differently. I could not then envision television programs which encourage homeowners to gleefully mutilate their own homes with sledgehammers and replace the irreplaceable with cheaply made products from around the globe. The internet was not yet a “thing” and it was still possible to believe that the concept of true historic preservation would gain in popularity. Surely people would tire of swapping interesting historic structures for parking lots or soulless new construction!
The article below appeared in the Manhattan Mercury on Sunday, January 6, 1985. I could not have written it without the information graciously supplied by Rosemary Peak Wilson of Chanute, Kansas. Her faithful correspondence and detailed recollections of the Stingley house were essential to fill in the blanks. The story of the Stingley house is one that has been repeated over and over across the nation. All towns and cities have similar tales but most of them are never told. Therefore, I decided to dust this story off and present it to a new audience… more than 30 years later:
From Showplace to Showroom
From the sidewalk, the building at 120 S. Fifth Street, home of Midwest Waterbed Works and Soupene’s Alignment Service, appears unremarkable. A large garage door and plate glass windows make up the front of this deceiving structure which since the 1930’s has primarily housed automobile dealerships and automotive repair businesses.
Recently I pointed the building out to a friend and told her that an elaborate brick Victorian house house, complete with carriage barn boasting an attached outhouse, had been built there in 1877. “It’s too bad they’re gone,” she commented. “Oh, but they’re not,” I said. “Can’t you see them?”
After much pointing and walking about, she was convinced. “I’ve been by here a million times and never saw anything but those big windows,” she said. The unlikely metamorphosis of the house took place in two stages, but let us begin with the original house.
In the spring of 1877, construction began on the residence of Ashford Stingley, a prosperous Manhattan businessman, atop a limestone foundation built the previous summer. In 1879, the Manhattan Nationalist reported: “The beautiful residence that he erected a couple of years ago is considered by many the handsomest house in town.”
The house was built of locally made brick and trimmed with limestone around the doors and windows. Wooden porch brackets and gingerbread trimmed porches and gables. The roof of the tall square tower was crowned by a cast iron balustrade. It was a vernacular interpretation of the popular Italian Villa style. The interior featured a handsome walnut staircase, two fireplaces, folding window shutters, rich woodwork and ornate brass hardware. Modern conveniences included a dumbwaiter in the kitchen and speaking tubes connecting all rooms. A panoramic view of the city could be had by climbing a spiral staircase in the attic to the top of the tower roof.
In the northwest corner of the property a brick barn was built for for the Stingleys’ horses and carriage. An outhouse was attached to the barn on the east side, fitted with wainscoting, plaster walls and high arched windows allowing for light while maintaining privacy. Servants quarters were above.
In 1906, Ashford Stingley died, and in the following years the house changed hands several times. The house witnessed its first major transformation some time between 1915 and 1920 when it was in the possession of August Peak, who operated a local hog serum plant. Apparently Mrs. Peak found the Victorian exuberance too blatant for her tastes and set about to subdue it.
The paired arched windows were removed and replaced by single flat topped models, and the porch was shed to accommodate a much larger version made of limestone with a concrete floor. The extra width and low pitch of the porch roof greatly reduced the visual height of the house.
Drastic changes were made inside; one fireplace was removed, the other given a modern mantel to match the newly installed ceiling beams on the first floor. French doors connected the rooms and opened onto the new porch. The speaking tubes and dumbwaiter vanished; a new kitchen and sleeping porch were gained. Bathrooms were added and plumbing was installed in the outside facility. The barn was converted to a garage and given a poured concrete drive with access from both 5th and Houston streets.
After the brick was painted a uniform grey*, the transition to modern house was complete, and Mrs. Peak was undoubtedly very happy. The house maintained this new image until 1934 when C. A. Swenson saw the house not as a home, but as a business. His remodeling frenzy proved even more drastic than Mrs. Peak’s.
A bay window on the south side was torn off to make room for a staircase leading to the second floor, which was converted to three apartments. The entire roof was lopped off and the now-decapitated house was patched with brick to create a uniform height upon which a flat roof was constructed. The enormous porch was pulled off and replaced with an automobile showroom which covered the entire front yard. To the north, small shops were built up to the alley. The remaining spaces between the barn and the house and barn were enclosed by walls on the south and west sides and then covered by an enormous flat roof.
The barn, now integrated into the complex, became a spraying room for the painting of cars. The outhouse gained a new lease on life now that it, too, was inside and serving as the shop’s restroom. The driveway also remained and its outline can still be distinguished in the concrete floor which covers every square inch of what had been the back and side yards. From inside this space, one can still see remnants of the house, the barn, and the 107-year-old outhouse which is still serving its original purpose.
The fate of this fascinating structure is grim. Scheduled for demolition to make way for a parking lot, this house still stands as testimony to the enduring qualities of Manhattan’s early buildings. I can’t imagine any house recently constructed here which could tolerate over a century of similar use.
*The paint might have been yellow, not grey.