Not many people know this, but I am a found object sculptor. At a thrift store a few years ago, I found a dirty, soiled, velveteen bunny, all used up and worn. I picked it up and could feel and smell the old sawdust filler. I used it as part of a larger self-portrait sculpture called “MALEelam.” The bunny rests aside an old Polaroid photograph of me as a very young boy, posing in our backyard on Empire Drive, in Gahanna, Ohio. My family member must have had a hint that I wasn’t the most “butch” boy, so he brought a box of sports equipment and asked me to pose using the items., I have grown a lot since that moment in the backyard, but one thing hasn’t changed in me: even as small child, I knew that insides mattered more than external appearances.
The stuffed animal in my sculpture looks like the Velveteen Rabbit portrayed in Margery Williams’ 1922 children’s book of the same name. In that story, a boy is given a stuffed velveteen bunny-shaped doll. He carries it around constantly, and they become inseparable. The doll eventually grows worn out and frayed from the child’s intensive love. When the child endures a serious illness in which his toys need to be removed, the bunny is thrown away with the other toys. Eventually, because of the boy’s love, the velveteen rabbit miraculously becomes a “real” animal and lives in the woods with the other real bunnies. The very thing that made the toy tattered, frayed, and unkempt was the same force that provided the sawdust-filled bunny with vibrancy, enlightenment, and eventually, life.
From my perspective, this story describes the life of the Hegeler Carus Mansion. At one time, the Mansion’s hulking mass was perfect and beautiful. Just as we all age, the house was lived in and used, and it became much like that worn-out stuffed animal. When you walk through the Mansion today, you get a very real sense that this house did not exist simply as a habitable art object – something for show or a public spectacle. Rather, you realize that its purpose was to be well lived. What you find today is a nicked, scraped, peeling, mismatched, used-up, glorious experience – one that anyone would consider one of the best among their travels.
I originally thought that this “one-night stand” was going to be about the preservation of the house itself, but, as is often the case, I was wrong. Don’t misunderstand, the architecture is mesmerizing, and a must see. But the true vibrancy of the site comes through the dialogue between discontinuity and discrepancy of time. The mansion’s beautifully discordant song is best heard when the messy wear and tear of living is not smoothed over by reproduction wallpaper or refinished floors. In fact, in this “one-night stand”, “preservation” is needed only inasmuch as we need a dry place to keep track of all the dirt, dust, and left-over fragments of life. This historic site has more to say about each of us than it does about itself.
Getting the call
At the beginning of this venture, I felt like Alice in Wonderland or Dorothy in Oz (those of you who know me – go ahead and choose). My hosts at the Hegeler Carus Mansion contacted me, asking if I would consider doing a “one-night Stand” at the site. I had never heard of the Mansion, nor the names Hegeler or Carus, and quite frankly, I had never heard of La Salle, Illinois, which they told me was 1.5 hours outside of Chicago. I am ashamed to admit that I was pretty much like Alice, staring into a black hole. As I spoke to the caller, I quickly got online and pulled up the house’s website.
My first comment was, “Wow, that house is really big!” I was not exaggerating in my hyperbolic style – this house is over 24,000 square feet, or about 4,000 square feet per floor. I thought, why in hell was a house like this built an hour and a half outside of Chicago? This was farming country (I wrongly thought).
What story did this place have to tell?
My second comment was, “That is one spooky-looking house!” (think Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho). For the record, The Hegeler Carus House turned out to not be spooky at all – just saying.
In researching this house, site, city, and narrative, I was starting at such a basic level that I didn’t even know when I was asking a dumb question. I asked many. I became numb to my amazement, and immune to tectonic surprises. My time at the Hegeler Carus Mansion was like riding a roller coaster: you thought you knew how it felt to drop from the top, but it never was like that. You always screamed, even though you had been there before.
Sure, I had been to places like this before (the Breakers in Newport, Rhode Island; Vizcaya in Miami, Florida; and even the similarly dated Hay House in Macon, Georgia), and I’m used to big, over-the-top, in-your-face 1% mansions. But something here was different. It was partly visual, but mostly it was what I was to find hiding among the fading, cracked, flaking polychrome of this 1870s Second Empire behemoth of a house.
The story is as much a behemoth as the house itself.
I can’t even say for certain whether I walked through all of the 57 rooms. I never quite got a handle on the floor plan. I’m pretty good with things like this (I got 99% in spatial understanding in my 5th-grade aptitude test!), but I had to keep asking for directions. Seriously – no joking, I had to keep asking my host for directions to go to the bathroom. Over and over again.
The house consists of 7 floors, reaching upwards of 95 feet into the tree canopy. Despite the significant visual mass, the biggest part of the structure is the deceptively lace-like wood porch that surrounds almost the entire second floor. This massive porch seems to be calling out for some rocking chairs and relaxing, but I found out later that the porch is in such bad condition that simply walking on it could cause significant damage. Oddly enough, the porch was replaced in 1997, an example of the preservation best practice of “replacing in kind” operating as the mindless pursuit of an ideal that, in this case at least, never worked to begin with – but that is another story altogether.
The floor plan is organized around a 95-foot-long, wide central hallway that runs east, starting at the entrance foyer and dissolving, west, into the massive dining room. The house was essentially a cube (95 feet tall to cupola and about 95 feet wide at the central hallway).
Though the house was designed and constructed in 1870 to the highest fashionable standards of the Second Empire style, the family essentially left it alone afterward, making few significant changes to its architecture. Little has changed since 1936. A large extended family loved and used the house heavily; as the family grew and concentrated on work and community responsibilities, everything – the paint, wallpaper, floors, windows, and polychrome — was left to age and, like moss, allowed to grow into itself.
Since we couldn’t enter through the front door (due to the fragility of the porch) I entered from the back, through a small servants’ entrance off of the parking lot. It felt almost like entering a bunker. The house’s back side is rather flat and stiff. The dominant porch is held up with treated 4×4 posts, and part of the railing is makeshift with 2x4s. Oddly, the most impressive thing was a single large vent pipe hugging the side of the wall, towering over me. The house is surrounded on two sides by active factories with steam pouring out of the stacks and enclosed by tall, barbed wire fencing. It was a very odd juxtaposition. Questions started to line up in my mind like planes on a runway.
Kelly Klobucher, The Executive Director of the Hegeler Carus Foundation, met me at the door and escorted me upstairs. The stair from the ground floor to the first floor was walled in and dark, almost like that in a New York tenement. Once we got to the main floor, the space opened up and the primary stair hall revealed itself as a major player in this orchestra. We continued up another flight of stairs to the bedroom floor. The hallway here mimicked the main floor’s hallway, though a bit thinner.. At the east end was an odd yet inviting room with two large pivot wall-doors. The sun blasted through the crack between the doors and pushed its way deep onto the dark hallway floor.
Kelly led me into the bedroom. I put down my bags, threw off my shoes, and looked around. Heavy curtains covered the windows, making the room almost completely black. We opened the curtains and I was amazed at the actual size of the floor-to-ceiling windows and their expanse of glass. The Farnsworth House’s glass window-walls had nothing on this house! Because of the house’s misleading scale, when viewing it from a distance, I mistakenly thought I understood the proportion of the windows to the walls – I didn’t., Kelly paused a bit, hesitated, and then almost as if a dam had burst, began to tell me the story of this bedroom.
This room, she said, was not on the regular tour; in fact, it wasn’t open to the public very often. It was the bedroom of Paul and Mary Carus. Mary was the daughter of Edward C. Hegeler, the original builder of the house. Paul, her husband, died in the bed in this room. Following his death, Mary left the room, shut the doors, and never stepped back into it for the rest of her life. Paul died in 1914; Mary died in 1936. Out of respect, even the Mansion’s staff and volunteers don’t enter the room very often. Kelly stood in the middle of the space, looking at it as if for the first time. She noted that she had never seen it fully illuminated with sunlight., pausing briefly before stating, “This is a really nice room, it feels very comfortable”.
Of course, I was honored to be given the opportunity to hold my “one-night stand” in this room, and to sleep in this bed.
We had no time to waste. My plans were as big as the house. Kelly needed to show me around, and then I had an interview with a descendant, a dinner party in the fancy dining room, and finally a set of visits to places in the town of La Salle connected to the family legacy. For the next few hours, we hurriedly entered and exited every room of the mansion. Over and over, my jaw dropped — not only due to glimpses of what the house used to look like, but far more interestingly, what it had evolved into. Thankfully, only one room is 100% restored, and one is in progress; I say “thankfully” because it would be a disaster of major proportions to RESTORE this house back to its 1870’s appearance. In fact, the restored rooms barely kept my attention and interest. They were very nicely done, but gone was all the meaningful, worn, and frayed residue of a life lived. It felt as if the velveteen bunny had been re-made with new material and now looked as it had when first given to the little boy, pretty, but not at all a live being.
It was when we entered the basement floor, the least attractive and outwardly interesting space of the entire house, that I began to grab hold of the magnitude of the house’s story . There are two major legacy threads to the Hegeler Carus Mansion. The first is the incredible story of how the original patriarch Edward C. Hegeler (along with F. W. Matthiesson) invented the process of smelting zinc, and built a factory in La Salle — Matthiesson and Hegeler Zinc — that went on to become the largest zinc smelting factory in the world, eventually employing more than 1,000 people. The second important legacy is that the family became one of the very first academic publishers in the United States, publishing on culturally significant topics such as philosophy, spirituality and children’s literature Both of these legacies were visible either in the basement of the mansion itself, or in the factories that now border the historic site.
The family’s great wealth was amassed primarily through the production of zinc and other industrial chemicals. Matthiesssen & Hegeler began smelting before the Civil War. Zinc smelting ceased in 1961, and the last chemical production stopped in 1968. The company was sited in La Salle because of three geographic factors that combined, like a pin on a map, at the very spot that would allow for the most efficient manufacture of the mineral: large quantities of coal (to fuel the smelting process); the presence of zinc ore; and an easy and inexpensive way to distribute the final product. In the 1850s, La Salle, Illinois, was where that pin was placed. Originally, the zinc was distributed through a newly built canal system that allowed shipping to Chicago and the Great Lakes, as well as to the Illinois River, where barges could connect to the Mississippi River and the world. Multiple rail lines grew out of La Salle to manage the immense shipping demand of the factory. Kelly, my host, drove me to a spot that still retains some of the original transportation network, showing me the lock system that allowed barges to travel to and from the Mississippi. , and then pointing to the shoreline of the canal, describing a railroad behind the treeline that carried the zinc East and West of La Salle.
If the story ended there, this would be a legacy not unlike that of other super-rich industrialist families like Pitcairn, Carnegie, Frick, and Rockefeller. But the story goes deeper, into groundbreaking labor relations practices. The Matthiesson-Hegeler zinc facility became known worldwide for the progressive and thoughtful management of its employees. When other corporations (like Chicago’s Pullman) were battling the labor movement, The M&H was offering health benefits, free medical facilities, no-interest housing loans, schooling for both males and females, and higher basic pay than almost every other facility of its kind. The Hegeler – Matthiesson management philosophy grew out of a deep appreciation of the fundamental value of human life, and the unique stewardship responsibility a leader of such a factory should hold.
So embedded in the family structure was this responsibility for human engagement that Hegeler sent his daughter, Mary, to college. Mary became the first woman to graduate from the University of Michigan earning a Degree in Engineering in 1882. Later, she continued her education at the School of Mines and Minerals at Frieberg, Saxony. She eventually returned to La Salle to take over the corporation, allowing her her father to pursue his other interests. From this point on, Mary became the factory’s primary leader and manager, defining the concept of the Philosophic-Industrialist and clearing the path for a meaningful overlap between laissez-faire, capitalist enterprise and the philosophically principled treatment of employees.
These values are part of the reason that the Hegeler Carus Mansion was minimally maintained. Mary and the family dedicated their efforts and money toward sustaining the zinc factory and its employees. During the Depression, Mary emptied the house endowment to keep factory workers employed. This is the same Mary who, after her husband’s death, shut the door of the bedroom and never entered again. Clearly, she was a unique, strong, independent-minded entrepreneur, who took on a male-dominated business and succeeded through decades of difficult times.
As Mary aged, so too the Mansion. The house grew less perfect as the family’s community involvement increased. The essential pursuit of human dignity and the value of life took precedence over a beautifully maintained house. Many La Salle residents tell of seeing the mansion overgrown with ivy. The porch collapsed, and the cupola was removed due to storm damage.
Mary’s death was followed by many successful decades of continuing zinc production. In 1979, the factory was closed, and the family sold most of the land. Carus Chemical Co. had established a factory in 1915 on ground formerly owned by the zinc company. This is the factory that now borders the Mansion. Today, the Carus company is a world leader in chemicals needed for environmental remediation. It is the #1 global producer of Potassium Permanganate, and contributes significantly to water purification and environmental cleanup.
As we explored the basement, Kelly opened a simple door, which looked like a closet. She walked into the blackness of the space, telling me to wait in the hallway as she found the light switch. I stood there peering into nothingness. When the light came on, instead of a closet, I saw a room filled top to bottom with papers, magazines, lead type, multiple printing presses, and boxes and boxes of used printing plates. This space, I was told, was the heart of the Open Court Publishing Company. the second important legacy of this house. Founded by Mary’s father in 1887, Open Court was one of the first academic publishers in the nation. Its offerings grew out of Hegeler’s interest in how scientific thinking might illuminate questions of religion, psychology, and philosophy. Paul Carus was hired as the first managing editor, overseeing publications from the basement offices of the Mansion, and became Mary’s husband a year later. Paul and his father-in-law were motivated by insights from Eastern religions, and shared the project of uniting science and religion in mutually supportive worldviews. The power and influence of their publications on this “New Thought” have been credited with advancing interfaith dialogue and increasing the awareness of Buddhism, Taoism and other Eastern religious traditions in the United States. From this dark basement room emerged publications from the likes of Leo Tolstoy, Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, Booker T. Washington, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Ernst Mach, Ernst Haeckel, John Dewey, and many more. Open Court Publishing was among the first to introduce Americans to these important figures.
As we left this room, and Kelly shut the door, all I could think was that the “closet” we had just seen contained some of the most important documents in the formation of modern American culture. Kelly told me that they have very limited collections staff to oversee these items, but she hopes to one day better understand what is in this basement world of Open Court Press. Walking away, we discussed the Buddhist concept of the “Middle Way” or the need to choose a middle path between the extremes of asceticism and bodily denial and sensual hedonism or indulgence. The Buddha saw that the mind was contained within and dependent on the body, and therefore the body must be cared for to allow the mind to grow and develop.
Paul and Mary, surrounding themselves with Eastern ideas, artifacts, and religious objects, seemed to live a life in pursuit of this middle-ground between materiality and metaphysics. To me, the present condition of the house, like my sawdust-filled bunny, was a battleground between these two extremes. The house appears to be on the edge of philosophic chaos, constantly pitting the grandeur of the decor against the realization that none of it mattered, in some kind of middle expression of this Buddhist idea. Later, I visited the family grave site, and the extreme simplicity of the headstones reinforced the lifelong battle of the “middle path” vs. the family’s wealth and status.
After leaving the basement, we traveled up five stories to the cupola, making our way through a rabbit warren of attic spaces full of broken chairs, old travel trunks, floor-to-ceiling piles of papers and magazines, and every type of domestic appliance and artifact you can imagine. I thought about obsolescence, value, and meaning. These rooms looked the way the house felt. They all seemed to share a fundamental trait, but what that trait was, I had no idea. I could have explored that attic for hours on end. Everything seemed to have a hidden story, yet combined, they all started to hum a visual symphony of histories. It’s the way I felt when I first visited the French Catacombs: all of the fragmented remains had been collected in a way that produced a unified environment.
In the cupola, Kelly pointed to the factory in the vista and began to tell me about where all of this zinc and sulphuric acid production has led. The zinc plant achieved its initial success by producing munitions to stock the Union Army during the Civil War. It later became one of the primary manufacturers of zinc cartridges for ammunition for WWI and later WWII. In addition, during the time of production, almost every penny produced in the US contained zinc from the Hegeler-Mathieson Factory. The toxic waste left behind (unknowingly at the time) as a result of all of this activity was a pile of smelting slag that covers nearly 18 acres and stands 80 to 90 feet high — about as high as the Mansion’s cupola.
Long after the Hegeler-Mathieson zinc plant was closed the old factory was designated a Superfund site. Recalling the chaotic accumulations in the attic storage rooms, I found this to be another instance of how history can be complex and messy, making it hard to define an absolute narrative. It was amazing to stand in the cupola, peering out on one side onto the residential city of La Salle, and on the opposite side, onto a vista of steam stacks and factories. Kelly pointed out that it was very common in the early years of the industrial revolution for owners to build their mansions on the same property as their factories, a holdover from the cottage industry of pre-industrial society. Both Hegeler and Mathession’s mansions were contiguous with the factory site. Hegeler’s is the only one left.
Standing there, I felt surrounded by the debris of a crash between time periods. It is absolutely impossible to imagine a “period of interpretation” for the Hegeler Carus Mansion. Everything combined into a big, multi-layered, conceptual, kinetic sculpture. This sculpture kept pulling me back in time and then thrusting me back to today. When it was time to leave the cupola, I found myself traveling down the many flights of stairs, totally mesmerized by a simultaneity of experience. Everything felt familiar, yet it was all new. Eventually, we made it to the First Floor, where dinner was waiting.
Dinner was a wonderful gathering of family, scholars, staff, and docents who kept the conversation going with stories, history, and folklore about the Mansion. The evening flew by, the sun was setting, and one by one everyone left, eventually leaving me, alone. I walked around the house barefoot. I turned off the lights and retreated up to my bedroom so that I could get things organized before the true blackness of evening arrived. I pulled things from my luggage and threw them over the chaise lounge. The room was stifling hot, and all I could do was stare at those enormous windows.
I took a chance and pushed up a sash. It opened beautifully. The window fully extended to cover the upper sash, and suddenly a rush of cool air came in. I walked to the other side of the room and opened another window. Now I could feel a cross-breeze, and almost immediately, the temperature dropped. I dropped on the bed, allowing the breeze to cool my sweaty face. I simply lay there, and the blackness of night took over. It got very quiet. I could hear the sounds of cicadas, crickets, and off in the distance, train horns.
I set my alarm to a few minutes before sunrise, wanting to see how the sun entered this big old mansion. I sat on the side of the bed, let my eyes adjust, and looked around. The open windows allowed ample cool air in all night, and now the room felt comfortable. I stood up, walked to the bathroom and went pee. To get to the bathroom I had to cross that big hallway that contained those two large wall pivot doors. The sight of the sun busting through those doors was amazing. I walked down the long hallway and opened one of the doors. The sun filled the hallway, reflecting off the walls and furniture.
By the time I got back to my bedroom the sun was beginning to filter through the trees and enter the dark room. I sat on the bed for a while and took in the path of the sun’s slow movement. As I lay on the bed again, I noticed some odd discoloration above the mantel. Parts of the wall paint were darker green than the rest. I then remembered that Kelly told me that after Paul died, the sun coming in from the windows discolored the walls except for a few areas behind artifacts on the mantel. The darker green was the shadow of things that existed on that mantel through decades of the sun’s path. Imagine the stories that would be lost if we restored the paint in that room?
I packed, grabbed my luggage and walked toward the door. Then, I gently shut the door. I couldn’t help but remember how Mary did the same thing, but for different reasons.
There is an overlap between the dirt & residue of our existence, and the existence itself. One is not the result of the other, rather they are narratives unto themselves, and yet tied to the other’s path. As I prepared to walk out of the Hegeler Carus mansion, I turned around to look back at the ruinous state of the interior. For many, I know, the initial reaction would be to clean it up, restore the lost bits, and repaint the surfaces. For me, however, that would be killing the very thing that gives this house its vibrancy. Any enlightenment my visit came, not from knowing what it looked like back in 1870, but from seeing what it looks like today. It was telling that after a heavily detailed parquet floor was restored, the staff and board put up a rope at the door. It looks beautiful, but you can no longer enter the room. For this room, at least, enlightenment was exchanged for the sensuousness of beauty. I wonder what Paul and Mary would say about that choice?
“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”
“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”
“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.
“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”
“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”
“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
Kelly Klobucher – Executive Director, Hegeler Carus House
Hegeler Carus Family, Inga Carus
The Chipstone Foundation
 “Buddhist Philosophy,” Wikipedia, accessed 8 September 2016.
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