BATTLE CREEK, Mich. (AP) — The odd-looking house on Battle Creek’s Main Street has gone by many names: Penniman’s Castle, The Castle on Main Street, The Kingman Castle.
For $149,900, it could go by another name: your new home. The 1906 house is for sale.
Martin Ashley, a Battle Creek historian, grew up in the shadow of the castle’s parapets and for him, it’s always been a point of interest.
“The house has been lived in for very short periods of time and empty most of the time that it’s been intact,” Ashley told the Battle Creek Enquirer . “From that standpoint — besides the castle-type look, being empty — it gained a haunted feeling about it.”
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William Schaeffer of Wildwood, Florida, grew up in the Post Addition neighborhood in the 1950s. He and some friends once decided to have a look around inside the house.
“We roamed all over the house with goose bumps all over the place,” Schaeffer wrote to the Enquirer in 2007. “When I opened a bedroom closet, I was surprised to find a small door at one end of the closet. I opened it, and my hair stood on end.”
What Schaeffer found was a small, curved staircase going down. He didn’t know it at the time, but what he found was the servant’s quarters and connected access to the lower level.
“It took all the courage I could muster to slowly go down that stairway,” Schaeffer wrote. “We had all seen many movies with hidden stairways, and they always ended up in a dungeon or a laboratory.”
Ashley keeps a thick binder stuffed with everything he’s managed to find about the place.
Alongside newspaper clippings, saved pieces of tapestries and photographs, there were numerous documents detailing the design and construction of the house. The design was among a thousand dreamed up by architect Martin Chivers and built on land purchased from C.W. Post.
The construction was overseen by local contractor Ruel Seeley for Allen Penniman, whose family created the Penniman Block business area. That’s long gone, replaced by another Battle Creek fortress, the Heritage Tower.
Ashley said Penniman was particular and probably wanted a house that didn’t look like any others. He got that with a three-story stone castle with an interior of oak, birdseye maple and a rotunda that extended through all three levels.
“Few houses in Battle Creek have more elaborate and expensive interior finishings or more frenzied exteriors,” a 1914 story in the Enquirer said.
Penniman had “loads and loads of money and sort of just wanted to do something that would be remembered, I guess,” Ashley said.
Penniman moved to California in 1910 and sold the house to his mother-in-law, Bertha Marcellus, the next year.
Over the years, the house was bought and purchased a few times. Sometimes renters lived in it. Often, it was empty. Vandals and thieves made regular stops there. They cut pieces off the tapestries and took other items.
The house also became known by another name: Penniman’s Folly.
Then, in 1941, the third-floor ballroom was destroyed in a fire.
“There is a fire in the castle and it is very bad,” a witness, Betty Ann Marsden, wrote. Ashely obtained the note. “The firemen are in the castle and I don’t want to look at it.”
A 10-year-old boy also saw the fire, Ashley said, and had the journalistic sense to take a few pictures with a camera he happened to have with him.
Nobody was injured in the fire, although a Battle Creek Enquirer report at the time noted that firefighters were delayed by a freight train crossing Main Street.
The third floor was never replaced; its stone walls now make up the garage in the backyard.
Owners came and went. For a couple of years in the 1950s, the owners ran a fur store out of the house while they moved shop locations. With nobody living there in 1955, police discovered someone broke in and created a massive throne out of stacked furniture.
In the late 1960s, the Church of Christ briefly held meetings in the house.
Then, in 1994, Doug and Kathy Kidder bought the house. Doug loved the medieval feeling of the place, Ashley said, and renovated it with an eye toward decorations from that period.
In 2001, the house was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Sandra Huntington, the current owner, bought the house in 2006 and brought to it a more Victorian feeling, according to a 2007 Enquirer article. Huntington didn’t respond to interview requests for this article.
Ashley has helped arrange a few open houses at the castle and said he got such a response that people were turned away.
“There were people clamoring to get inside to see what it looks like,” Ashley said.
Battle Creek historian Kurt Thornton said the Penniman house is one of many beautiful homes in the city that are found in neighborhoods where the economic fortunes have changed.
“Even though your home may not be Penniman Castle, having that in the neighborhood gives people a sense of neighborhood,” said Thornton, who lives in the Fremont district.
Washington Heights, the Post Addition, the Fremont district and more contain some of the best architecture in Battle Creek.
“I wish I knew how to save them,” Thornton said. “I wish I had the answer how to make these not just financially viable but attractive places for people who want to live there.”
Information from: Battle Creek Enquirer, http://www.battlecreekenquirer.com