At Home: Landmark Topeka homes — History still standing

Three Topeka buildings harken back to earlier days

Topeka was founded in 1854 and since then, many important historical figures have chosen Topeka as their place of residence.

 

Along with backgrounds of significance, they brought a variety of architectural styles to what would become the capital city. Through the efforts of many who have rescued them from disrepair and potential destruction, these buildings still stand today for Topekans to enjoy.

Here is a trio of those historic buildings — two elaborate family homes and a French castle.

Dillon House

404 S.W. 9th St.

Across Harrison Street from the Capitol, this Italian Renaissance-inspired house was built by Hiram Price Dillon in 1911 as a home for his family, as well as a place to entertain guests.

Originally from Iowa, Dillon was an attorney who made his money handling the divorce of an American Royal heiress in Europe.

He met his wife, Susie, a talented musician, and settled in her hometown of Topeka.

Not one to flaunt his wealth, Dillon downplayed the grandness of the house he planned to build, considering it to be scaled down compared to other homes being built in neighborhoods, like Potwin during the same time period. It took three years to complete the home, which became known for its remarkable quality of craftsmanship, reflected in the materials used to build it.

A stone, brick and clay tile exterior are flanked at the entrance by lion statuary brought from Dillon’s family’s estate. There are 48 images of lions worked throughout the construction of the house. According to Julie Scott, events director at the Dillon House, the Dillon name came from the word “Dalian,” which translates to “lion.”

Other forms of imagery at the home include the Greek god Hermes, who stands guard above the door, and carvings of strong male figures that flank the fireplace mantel in the grand hall. Made of marble and cast stone, the fireplace is adorned with figurines, cupids and garland.

“There is so much detail,” Scott said. “The more you look, the more you notice different things in the carvings.”

Hardwood floors and wood paneling give way to a handcrafted oak staircase that leads to the second floor. A backdrop of European stained glass windows lines the main staircase.

Dillon’s library pays tribute to his love of literature, and includes built-in bookshelves, stained wood wainscot and a green tiled fireplace inscribed with a Shakespearean quote that translates to “My library is my kingdom.”

Intricate stained glass windows feature publishers’ marks from major printing houses of the time, and portraits of renowned authors and artists. A leaded, stained glass series depicts scenes from Lord Tennyson’s “The Idylls of the King” and illustrates the story of Lancelot.

The west wing was the former music and dining rooms, which were separated by a hallway that has been removed to create one larger space or two rooms for smaller events. The music room was where Susie Dillon entertained guests with beautiful music from her gold-gilded piano, affectionately known by house staff as “Goldie.” The piano is on display for visitors to see.

The Dillons were known for their hospitality and a quote above the grand hall fireplace reads, “None come too early, none stay too late.” They were also philanthropists and Scott recounts the story of the Dillons going to the post office at Christmastime to collect letters that local children wrote to Santa Claus. They anonymously dressed as Santa and Mrs. Claus, and fulfilled these wish lists by delivering gifts around Topeka until a journalist exposed their identities.

They also donated money to the district of Auburn to build the first multi-racial swimming pool in the area.

“The Dillons were great people. They really believed in giving back to the community,” Scott said.

Even the descendants of the Dillon House servants made mention of how well their ancestors were treated in their employ. Each servant had their own closet in which to keep their possessions, a practice that was unheard of at the time.

The servants’ quarters were on the third floor of the house, along with a laundry room and a room Hiram used as an art gallery. He took guests there to admire the art and smoke cigars.

When Ross Freeman, of the Pioneer Group, purchased the house, it was falling apart. The ceiling support beams were bowing, making it dangerous for anyone to walk on the second or third floors.

“It needed a lot of TLC,” Scott said.

About $5.5 million was invested in its restoration, which took three years. The main goal during the process was to protect and preserve the house and its history, which is evident in the preservation of the original stained glass and the light fixtures.

Today, the Dillon house is used as an event space for business lunches, rehearsal dinners, weddings and other events. It also houses the Dillon House staff and Pioneer Group offices.

“The Dillon House is a really nice piece of Topeka’s history that shows how things are timeless,” Scott said. “You can walk into the home and feel how grand it would have been.”

Anton-Woodring House

1011 S.W. Cambridge Ave.

Built in 1926 by Frederick Anton, this house has an illustrious background. Anton established the Topeka Tent and Awning Company, which was on Kansas Avenue. His wealth and expansion came from patents he received for improvements to awnings and awning arms.

During World War II, Anton’s company secured a $500,000 contract to make tents, flies and cot covers for the U.S. military.

Anton commissioned architect Ralph Scamell to design a house, which eventually incorporated features from many different architectural styles, including 20th century Revival, Italian Renaissance and Colonial with prairie accents.

Originally known as Terrace Lake — a reminder of a lake on the property that was filled in in the 1950s — the Antons spent countless years and money on the design of the gardens, which were inspired by Italian landscaping. The gardens included stone, balustrades, a gazebo and a formal reflecting pool.

Harry H. Woodring, the 25th governor of Kansas and secretary of war under former President Franklin Roosevelt, purchased the house after Roosevelt fired him from his post in 1942.

According to Don Chubb, the home’s current owner, Woodring was campaigning for another term as governor in August 1946. His young son, Marcus, was away at Boy Scout camp suffering from what Woodring believed to be homesickness. However, Marcus died three days later of polio.

The loss of his son devastated Woodring, and he quit campaigning and ultimately lost the election.

Democrat Charlie Rooney was so angry with Woodring that he purchased the land adjacent to the house and built eight post-war houses. Still today, Chubb and his wife, Janet, look out and see homes rather than a front yard.

Woodring good-naturedly responded by promising a $100 savings bond to the first wife who delivered a baby while living in one of the houses; he made good on his promise.

The house spent some time as an office building until it was abandoned and fell into disrepair. An application for a demolition permit had been made.

“My wife and I wanted to restore a house,” said Chubb, who has been active in several historic preservation projects. “We wanted one that was really in danger. We were looking for something we could rescue.”

They purchased the house in 1988 with a 5- to 10-year plan to restore it. Thirty years later, it’s finished.

The Chubbs restored the first and second floors of the house, and stayed true to its period architecture. Thirteen-foot ceilings are adorned with molded plaster and the home has four fireplaces. Large windows look out over the gardens, which the Chubbs set about restoring when they purchased the property.

Chubb’s favorite room is Woodring’s library, which is on the landing between the first and second floors. Although the library caught on fire when Woodring lived there, the African walnut paneling and marble fireplace still remain, as well as built-in bookcases and an open wall to the staircase.

The first few Halloweens after the Chubbs purchased the house, a local radio station broadcast its “Ghost Watch” from the property. The employees who worked in the house when it was an office building reported strange phenomenon.

When the house was on the Designer’s Showhouse tour, the workers also noticed strange occurrences, including the shower door in the bathroom that was once Marcus Woodring’s bedroom opening without being touched.

Chubb says he doesn’t believe in the ghostly folklore and instead encourages Topekans who are interested in his house to drive by or stop to admire the architecture and the gardens.

“We like it when people drive up and walk around,” Chubb said. “We’ve even had two couples get engaged on benches in the garden.”

Matrot Castle

6424 S.W. Huntoon St.

Seraphim Matrot was a French refugee who fled France — narrowly escaping with his head because of his socialist views — following the Franco-Prussian War. Convinced his enemies would follow him, he sought asylum in the United States and decided to move as far inland as possible to ensure his family’s safety.

In 1883, Matrot came to Kansas and chose a quiet valley away from other homes to build a 19th century French Normandy-style castle.

An architect and contractor by trade, Matrot built the walls a foot thick, with slits for guns in the turrets facing in all directions.

The front door design is a French fleur-de-lis molding with a fake keyhole. The real keyhole is concealed beneath a brass plate.

Inside, Matrot conserved space and materials by building large open rooms flanked by smaller turret rooms three stories high and employing the use of a spiral staircase. He also built a large wine cellar to store his homemade wines. The wine cellar served a second purpose as a safe room in case the castle was attacked, complete with an underground tunnel that could be used to flee.

Matrot planted grapevines on the estate and planned to enter the wine business.

However, Kansas had voted for Prohibition in 1881 and wine could only be purchased with a physician’s prescription.

When he died in 1898 on the second floor of the castle, folklore says his coffin couldn’t be brought down the spiral staircase, so a window was removed and it was lowered to the ground.

The castle has gone through several owners since Matrot, and central air, electricity, plumbing and a kitchen have been added to allow for modern use. It underwent a major renovation beginning in November 2004 that included brick and mortar work, and the addition of grape arbors.

The interior of the castle was redone in keeping with the period in which it was built. The castle’s structural exterior still stands much as it did in Matrot’s day.

Matrot Castle was purchased most recently by the Kansas Heritage Foundation, which plans to use it for charity events that fund educational initiatives.

“They are working with different charities in Topeka on ways the foundation can support education, with a focus on international education,” said Clint Whitney, president of Midwest Management Group.

Davenport Winery also uses the wine cellar space as an outlet for its wine, which is produced in Eudora. The outlet is open from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays.

“(The castle) is closed to the public at this point, but the winery is a great way for people to come out and walk around the exterior of the castle, and be able to go down in the wine cellar and do the wine tastings with Davenport Winery,” Whitney said.

In the future, Whitney hopes to use the castle to create an interesting space for weddings and other events.

“I hope to further develop the property,” he said. “It has character and an interesting history. It has a chance to be a really neat asset for Topeka.”

Shanna Sloyer is a freelance writer from Topeka. You can reach her at ssloyer@yahoo.com.

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