The Life and Death of 30 Ferncliff Place

The following article is a condenced version of a piece that I wrote and submitted for a narraive writing contest at Wittenberg University in 2003. This version was publishing on April 6, 2003 in the Springfield News-Sun as their weekly "Your Turn" column.


Most people disregard a house’s ability to live. For them, life is a scientific and religious phenomenon separated from the natural world of lumber and brick. If one observes life as a child’s first breath of air or a flower leaning to reach more sunlight, this is certainly true. Imagine a house as assuming the life of the people calling it home. Like any individual, it consists of the memories and stories that occur in its presence. The walls breathe a story that can never be recorded and therefore never duplicated. Families and eras will come and go, a cycle repeating long after our lives are through. Unfortunately, walls cannot speak in demolished houses. The narrative has ended for them, as they will be remembered only through photographs and words. In Springfield, Ohio, this story has ended for the grand Phelps house and home that sat at 30 Ferncliff Place. Once great, it now lives through narration alone.


In a city described as “booming” in the 1880s, due to its important role in the modern industrial revolution, this house was born to Cyrus A. Phelps in 1887. While Phelps provided the finances for his new home, it was most likely architect Charles Cregar who supplied the vision. Cregar helped shape much of late nineteenth century Springfield, including City Hall, the arcade, and numerous churches dotting the city landscape. It was appropriate he should design such a prominent house to sit among the Ferncliff mansions, each overlooking the city their owners helped to build. Out an east window one would see the King mansion, set upon a hill overlooking a growing metropolitan area in the front and Wittenberg College to the rear. To the west sat the grand white Geiger mansion, home to both a Wittenberg founder and its first two graduating females.


From 1887 to the middle of World War II, the Phelps house would be model to the American Dream through four distinct families. Phelps was a self made man in banking, a founder and first cashier of the First National Bank. Retiring in 1899, he would sell the property to John Webb, who made his fortunes in the railroad industry, from President of the Columbus, Delaware and Marion Railway Company to running his own railroad construction company and selling railroad bonds. The house then passed, in 1910, from railroad tycoon to industrial entrepreneur William H. Stackhouse. Being a wealthy industrialist in the American city that defined the word, Stackhouse, like the house itself, characterized Springfield at the turn of the century. While calling 30 Ferncliff Place home, he was twice an advisor to President William G. Harding and general manager of the Bettendorf Metal Wheel Company. When he left Springfield to run his company in Iowa, the house sat vacant for two forlorn years until Dwight Roush bought the property and began his own sanitarium in 1925. After the World War II, 30 Ferncliff Place had a new life as student apartments, a fitting fate for a house now so close to a growing Wittenberg College. For fifty years, it was home to hundreds of renters until it was purchased by the Delta Sigma Phi fraternity in 1992. Though renovated and used as their fraternity house from 1993 to 2001, neglect allowed the university to take control. They purchased the house in 1998 from a struggling fraternity, and in 2001 ended 30 Ferncliff Place’s impressive one hundred and fourteen year life in one day to make way for new low maintenance student apartments.


While people often copy architecture and styles, a house, can never be duplicated. There are paths worn into the floorboards that can only come with a hundred years of walking and children running with their friends. There are scratches in tiles from long forgotten accidents and soot marks on window ledges from a recently replaced wood heater. These traits breathe its life and history to anyone entering its doors. The Phelps’ home at 30 Ferncliff Place embodied a story all its own. Unfortunately, these walls can no longer speak and we are now forced to remember this marvel of a house through lonely words and dusty archives.