Sunday, May 17, 2009

What's the story?

A long time ago, I don't remember the year but it must have been at least thirty-five years ago, I went on a sightseeing trip to Hannibal MO with my family. Hannibal is famous as the place where Mark Twain grew up and there are all kinds of tacky Mark Twain sights that you can go see. I had been there before - it's the kind of place you go on field trips. My mother was always game for day trips too and we went a few times as a family.

Bill Bryson, in his book The Lost Continent, described Mark Twain's boyhood home very accurately:

It cost two dollars to get in and was a disappointment. It purported to be a faithful reproduction of the original interiors, but there were wires and water sprinklers clumsily evident in every room. I also very much doubt that young Samuel Clemens' bedroom had Armstrong vinyl on the floor (the same pattern as was in my mother's kitchen, I was interested to note) or that his sister's bedroom had a plywood partition in it. You don't actually go in the house; you look through the windows. At each window there is a recorded message telling you about that room as if you were a moron ("This is the kitchen. This is where Mrs. Clemens would prepare the family's meals ...). The whole thing is pretty shabby, which wouldn't be so awful if it were owned by some underfunded local literary society and they were doing the best they could with it. In fact, it is owned by the City of Hannibal, and it draws 135,000 visitors a year. It's a little gold mine for the town.

Since we had been to Hannibal before (I don't remember why were bothering to see it again) we were looking for something different to do and we saw an advertisement for "Rockcliffe Mansion". It had very little to do with Samuel Clemens (he had been a guest once) and we thought that was great so we drove up to it.

Rockcliffe Mansion was ... a mansion. A very beautiful mansion. Hannibal is situated along the Mississippi River. The business area is down at river-level but there are hills and bluffs behind the town and Rockcliffe Mansion sits on top of one of them. It was designed by Barnett, Haynes and Barnett, of St. Louis, who had also designed the Missouri Governor's Mansion and many of the turn-of-the-century mansions in St. Louis' West End. The original owner was a local lumber baron, John J. Cruikshank, and he moved in with his wife and four daughters in 1900.

The thirty room mansion had a formal dining room, music room, library, two parlors and a "Moorish" room on the first floor (besides the kitchen, butler's pantry and breakfast room). It had a ballroom on the third room (plus servants quarters, a sewing room and a schoolroom) and multiple bedrooms on the second floor. What I remember most about the house was that it was fitted out for both gas lighting and the "new fangled" electricity. Mr. Cruikshank wanted to be modern but didn't trust electricity was reliable so all the light fixtures had both electric and gas. This must have been fairly common at the time because after touring the mansion I was watching Meet Me in St. Louis and noticed, in the scene where Esther asks John to accompany her around the house while she turns out the lights, that all the light fixtures in that house had both electricity and gas.

I've always loved going through old houses but this one especially struck me because it had so many original furnishings and because of its story. The Cruikshanks moved into the house in 1900 and the daughters grew up in it. One of the daughters got married and moved into the house right next door. In 1924 Mr. Cruikshank died. His widow moved in with her daughter next door. The house was boarded up and never lived in again. Forty years later the city was going to condemn it and it was going to be torn down. (The daughter was still living next door.) But a group of intrepid local individuals decided to check it out. They gained access to the house and discovered a time capsule.

When Mrs. Cruikshank moved out she left everything exactly as it was. There was still furniture in it, and paintings, even some clothes were still there. It was as if she walked out one day, turned the key and never came back. And the house was so well built that it was still structurally fine.

Inside, [they] found, under the crust of years of soot and grime, gigantic rooms and halls with palladium windows and 10 carved marble and tile fireplaces. Rockcliffe, as the home became known, was built by a lumber baron, Mr. John J. Cruikshank, who had supplied as building materials only the finest quality walnut, oak and mahogany that could be found. With the double brick wall construction and the innovative designing by Barnett, Haynes, and Barnett of St. Louis, this particular home was far more solid after 75 years than most homes built today.

Once this was discovered the house, of course, had to be saved. And it was.

But although you can find this story many places (on the house's Website and on a wikipedia page, as well as information you can get at the house) it never answers the question that I have always had. Why did it happen? Why did Mrs. Cruikshank just turn the key in the lock and leave everything as it was? Why did they not sell the house? It might have been different in the depression, but in 1924 surely there would have been a buyer. Or even after the war. And even if they kept the house why was it never emptied? I've never seen an answer to these questions.

I've been thinking about this because Rockcliffe Mansion is now for sale. For a mere $1,500,000 you could own it and all of its furnishings. Here's a link to some exterior shots of the house and here's a link to interior views so you can see for yourself what a beautiful house this is. There's loads of beautiful woodwork (since Mr. Cruikshank was a lumber baron).

So, thinking about this, I did a little googling. I found an 1880 St. Louis Newspaper reference, dateline Hannibal, Missouri, referring to a case by the State of Missouri against John T. K. Hayward, James Hayward, & John J. Cruikshank for printing and circulating a lewd pamphlet. That may have been Mr. Cruikshank's father. I found a NY Times article about a divorce in the late 1800's between a John J. Cruikshank and his wife Mary (with a daughter and son mentioned). I found a photo of John J. Cuikshank's home in about 1890 on Lyon street which may be the home his wife Mary received in the divorce. I found a History of Cruikshank Lumber in google books which states that JJ Cruikshank retired from the business in the late 1890's and it was taken over by his son (must have been the son by his first wife). In retirement he built "Rock Cliff" the most beautiful mansion in northeastern Missouri. I found a story of ghosts in the house.

Finally I found the Missouri Department of Natural Resources site where I found the report (pdf) made when it was placed on the national registry of historic places:

When J. J. Cruikshank, Senior (d. 1890) moved his lumber business to Hannibal from Alton, Illinois in 1856 he was joining an already burgeoning trend. Although Missouri did not itself have large lumber resources, Hannibal turned its geographical position to advantage, using the Mississippi River to float logs down from Wisconsin and Minnesota and the railroads to transport processed lumber to points west and south. In that first year Cruikshank handled one million board feet of lumber. By the late 1880's this figure had risen to forty million annually and the Cruikshank firm was just one of a number of local lumber companies, twelve in 1870, ten in 1883. J. J. Cruikshank, Junior, succeeded his father as head of the firm in 186^, and by 1883, before the real peak of the business, he was estimated to be worth up to half a million dollars. After the Civil War, like others in his position, he expressed his affluence in a large Italianate house. Its location on the southeast corner of Fifth and Lyon Streets was just across the street from the father of his wife, the former Mary E. Bacon, and in the part of town known as Millionaire's Row.

In 1884 this marriage ended in divorce, and two years later he married Annie Louise Hart (born 1860), twenty-seven years his junior. In the next eight years, four daughters were born to them, and it is likely that the desire to please and to show off this new young family encouraged him to consider building a new and more fashionable house.

It goes on to say:

Socially, the house worked as hoped. At the opening reception in June, 1901, the Empire Orchestra played for 700 guests. Daughter Gladys was married on the stair landing-in 1912, Louise and Helen on the veranda in 1915 and 1925, respectively. The social high point came on June 2, 1902, when Mark Twain addressed some 300 guests from the stairway. By that time the lumbering-industry had declined considerably, and by 1905 rafting was "almost past." J. J. Cruikshank Junior's death in 1924 led to the house's closing. It remained unoccupied for forty-three years.

All very interesting, but still doesn't answer my questions.

On a Fodor's site I found someone's report on a trip to Hannibal:

Finally we went to the Rockcliff Mansion. WOW!!!

After J.J. Cruikshank, Jr.died in 1924, his window took a few items, fired the servents and went next door to live with her daughter. The family then ignored the house until the city told them in the 1960s to fix it up or tear it down. So the daughter arranged to have it bulldozed into the cellars!!!!
Some people in town were able to buy it from her just a few days before it was to be demolished. What they found was: books still in the book cases, hand carved furniture from Italy, Tiffany lamps, lighting fixtures and windows, linens, and clothing. There was some water damage, but the woodwork and wallpaper were still in good condition. All this, the daughter was going to wantonly destroy! It's definately worth the trip to see.

That seemed to be the same story the guide had told us when we visited the house so long ago. So maybe its true. But why? Why wouldn't the interior furnishings have been sold? It makes no sense to me.

It seems like a good mystery or at least a good mysterious background for a novel.

By the way, google is amazing. Once I knew the name of his first wife I discovered that she re-married in 1902 in England.