Walnut Hill’s Backyard Castle
Jul 08, 2016 03:58PM
Editor's Note: Omaha Magazine is pleased to bring you this article, which is excerpted from Miss Cassette's blog, My Omaha Obsession.
I have a confession to make: I trespassed to see a castle. The mysterious fortification in Omaha’s Walnut Hill neighborhood has captivated my imagination ever since.
It was the late `80s or early `90s. I was young and obsessed with the architecture of grandiose old buildings. After a friend moved into the attic of some titanic Walnut Hill home—one long ago renovated into apartments—we headed over to visit. Perilous stairs wrapped around the exterior of the subdivided home. As the night progressed, we hungered for new excitement. Another friend in the group suggested that we inspect his recent discovery: a castle.
“Stupendous!” we thought. Our group scurried down those treacherous stairs. Adventure awaited. After a brief walk, shortcutting through an alley, we arrived. Behold, the ramparts of a small stone castle. Silence fell upon our group. Needing a closer look, we scaled the fence to explore the castle at the back corner of the property. We tried to be quiet and respectful, aware that we were intruding.
Years later when I started my blog, My Omaha Obsession, I knew that the castle was a mystery that needed solving. Who built it? Why? The twists and turns in research have provided months of intrigue. The castle is only one part of the puzzle. Allow me introduce one of Omaha’s best little secrets. I assure you Joslyn Castle has nothing on this treasure in Walnut Hill.
The property at 4025 Izard Street is tucked away. If not traveling on foot, you might never pass the residence. The house faces north on Izard, an east-west road named in honor of Mark W. Izard (third territorial governor of Nebraska) by another territorial governor, Thomas B. Cuming. Coincidentally, Cuming Street is a mere block south. This particular stretch of Izard Street, (40th through 42nd streets) is bound on the east by the Mercer Mansion.
Three doors down from Mercer Mansion, the residence at 4025 Izard is one of the few single-family dwellings remaining in this majestic part of town. The Omaha City Planning Department’s Reconnaissance Survey of 2003 identified the property for architectural significance, recommending that it should be eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. The house was prominently featured in the report as a superb example of the popular Queen Anne style, noting its irregular form, decorative shingle work, porch, spindles, turrets, and tall chimney. A number of other homes in the Walnut Hill neighborhood were also listed in this 2003 report.
IN THE BEGINNING
While researching, I found that James Bayne Mason (also known as J.B. Mason) built the house in 1890. Mason was a local architect and contemporary of John Kiewitt and F. A. Henninger. Mason was born in 1846 in Scotland. He was originally an agricultural implement maker in Morrison, Illinois, according to the 1880 federal census. By 1886 he had made his way to Omaha. The 1891 city directory found him living at 4025 Izard Street, with his occupation listed as a “draughtsman.” An English word, a draughtsman is a person who prepares technical drawings and plans under the direction of an architect or engineer. By 1896 he was listed as an “architect” in private practice. Mason worked from an office at 309 South 17th Street. This address no longer exists but it looked to be just east of the Douglas County Courthouse. In the 1920s, that same office would house the “Omaha Stationary Company.” He also had an office at the Paxton Building through the years.
Mason lived in this Izard St. house of his design for a number of years with his wife, Maria, and their three children: Mable, Claude, and Nancy. The up-and-coming Walnut Hill neighborhood was one of the most prestigious areas in Omaha. Mason supposedly built his residence five years after the construction of Dr. Samuel Mercer’s well-known Mercer Mansion (similarly designed in the Queen Ann style) at 3902 Cuming Street. Sources report conflicting information about the floor plan of Mason’s home. The Douglas County Assessor suggests it was built in 1900, containing five bedrooms, 2.5 baths and 3,584 square feet. Another site claimed the house had 6 bedrooms, 3.5 baths, for a total of 4,583 square feet. This discrepancy may be due to the additional square footage of the carriage house added in 1910, now an apartment.
I wondered if this local architect, credited with designing numerous buildings and private homes around Omaha, also created the castle for his children. But I couldn’t find anything about that in the records.
Next, Johnathan A. Swanson bought the house. The president of King-Swanson Co. lived there from 1907 through 1921. An immigrant boy from Sweden, Swanson came to America by himself at age 15. He secured a job in Stanton, Iowa, working at a general store and post office. He later moved to Omaha and worked at Hellman Clothing, and in Hayden’s clothing department, where he became a buyer and manager. He then established King-Swanson Co., a men’s clothing shop.
Swanson eventually sold his interest in King-Swanson Co. and purchased Nebraska Clothing Co. with a partner. By 1921, Swanson and his family had moved from 4025 Izard and split their time between a 160-acre farm near Florence; a lake cottage in Paynesville, Minnesota; and a residence at 418 North 38th Street in Omaha. He died in 1929 at age 64. His son, Otto, would go on to run Nebraska Clothing Co. and later form Inclusive Communities along with other prominent local business leaders.
Subsequent years were difficult for me to piece together. The 1922 city directory was missing from the library. The 1923 city directory had 4025 Izard listed as “vacant.” The 1924 city directory was also missing from the library. I followed a trail of breadcrumbs from the American Chemical Society newsletter of 1923 to the Chemical Bulletin Vol. 10, No. 11 and found pieces of evidence suggesting that F. J. Mleynek lived at the property while working at Union Pacific Railroad’s testing laboratory in Omaha.
But I could find no indicator that any of the property’s well-to-do owners built the castle of Walnut Hill. The mystery remained. My research seemed stuck in a dead end.
AN OBSCURED OWNERSHIP
In 1925 “A. E. Fletcher, physician” bought the home at 4025 Izard. By 1928 the Omaha city directory listed the property as “A. E. Fletcher phys @ Park Hospital.” It was unclear whether 4025 Izard was his home address or place of business. Then, the 1934 directory listed the address under “Park Hospital” with no owner’s name. The mystery grew muddled. I was completely confused, but I needed to know more.
Even more confounding was the 1939 listing for 4025 Izard. There was one person, a hospital, and two companies: “Asa Fletcher, Park Hospital, D-Flo Chemical Co., Urego Chemical Co.”
Intrigued, I asked the librarian if she had ever seen that many company names listed after a home address. She had not. I guessed that maybe Dr. Fletcher had sat on the board of all of those companies. The librarian thought that might be the case. But it was odd that there were different phone numbers listed for each business under the same address.
I began to cross reference with the city directories in an attempt to find Park Hospital, D-Flo Chemical Co., or Urego Chemical Co. “Strange,” I thought. There were no listings or acknowledgments of these companies in the Omaha business pages. I would have to dig deeper into this Dr. Asa Fletcher character.
Asa Fletcher was born in 1884 in Ohio. Then he moved to Omaha. Years before Fletcher lived on Izard Street, “Dr. Asa Fletcher has changed his address from 1041 North 33rd Street to 3328 North 27th Street, Omaha,” according to the National Eclectic Medical Association Quarterly Vol. 11 of 1920. The quarterly also featured medical treatments such as “Plant Protein Therapy” and “Metaphysic Passionmania.” Page after page displayed photos of plants as medicine.
Under his “new” Omaha address, I traced him to the 1920 U.S. Census—3328 North 27th Street: Asa Fletcher, 38; Flossie Fletcher, 27; Wallace Krieg, 25; Ethel Hardin, 25; Katherin Krieg, 15; Donna B. Fletcher, 2. Who in the heck were all of these people? I wondered if the Fletchers kept a large servant staff. (I later learned that Asa’s wife, Flossie, had the maiden name Krieg.)
I began to wonder, “what is an eclectic medical practice?” Is it like homeopathy or the alternative medicine of today? Yes, apparently (according to Wikipedia’s entry on eclectic medicine). Much like today, the practice used a varied prescription of natural cures alongside different substances and exercise-based recuperation. It was popular in the last part of the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries. An eclectic doctor would utilize botanical remedies, Native American therapeutic plants, organic science, natural medication, counsel patients, and offer cures via mail. The word eclectic alluded to those doctors who utilized “whatever was found to be gainful to their patients…Standard medical practices at the time made extensive use of purges with calomel and other mercury-based remedies, as well as extensive bloodletting. Eclectic medicine was a direct reaction to those barbaric practices as well as a desire to restrict Thomsonian medicine innovations to medical professionals.”
I learned the last eclectic medical school closed in Cincinnati in 1939. Fletcher was from Ohio. Clicking on internet links, I delved deeper. I imagined Fletcher as an eclectic doctor, running an alternative, private hospital out of his home. Such a daring fellow might build a castle in his backyard.
After finding a copy of the Alphabetical List of Registrants of Trade-Marks from the Official Gazette of the United States Patent Office, I discovered that Dr. Fletcher applied for a number of patents, including one in 1920 under the name “Urego Chemicals Laboratories”: “Skin Preparations for Certain Purposes, No. 131.653.” I began to understand that Urego Chemicals Co. (from the city directory) was one of Fletcher’s companies offering naturalistic cures through the mail. There were additional patents under the D-Flo Chemical Co. name as well. He was an inventor.
“HE HAS A CASTLE”
My heart raced.“He built the castle!” I exclaimed, much too loudly for the library. Finally, I found solid evidence naming Fletcher in a 1928 article from the Omaha World-Herald, “He Has a Castle in His Back Yard,” complete with photos and illustrations. I rushed to the research desk and excitedly told the young librarian what I had unearthed. Of course he didn’t know what I was squealing about.
The article was delightful, whimsical, and well written. It explained that the castle was built of many different stones collected from different places. Dr. Fletcher modeled it after a Normandy castle. He also built a pergola. There was a Venetian pool filled with lily pads, blooming flowers, and goldfish. There was a rock border outlining the pool and stepping stones of all colors. He built the castle “because he saw the chance of creating something beautiful and artistic to grace his grounds; second, for a retreat from duties close at hand; and third, to typify in stone and mortar things that in life have impressed him.” It is 22 feet high, 16 feet in diameter. The actual family home-hospital contained “20 or more rooms,” with 21 different kinds of wood, and “many fireplaces faced with pottery from Holland.” Fletcher’s then-11-year-old daughter, Donnabelle, would gather her parents “in the castle in the cold weather for an evening of story telling, wienie and marshmallow roast.” Such wonderful details warmed my heart.
The article also revealed that I was wrong: He didn’t build the castle for children. He built it for himself. My assumption that his medical degree was from a Cincinnati eclectic medical school was incorrect, too. Furthermore, the story contradicted what I previously read about Fletcher being born in Ohio.
I probed deeper into newspaper archives. On March 12 of 1932, I found a World-Herald article under the heading of “New Incorporations”: “Urego Chemical Company; capital, 25 thousand dollars; A.E. and Flossie K. Fletcher and R. Rhoades, incorporators.” That was quite the chunk of change for 1932.
August of 1933 brought two different World-Herald articles about a grand party at 4025 Izard. A “Castle-Carnival”-themed party described Donnabelle and friends hosting as part of the Job’s Daughters group. Over the years there would be mentions of Donnabelle and her sister Bethel’s involvement with the Order of Job’s Daughters. Job’s Daughters is an organization for young women between the ages of 10 and 20 years old, focusing on teaching leadership, teamwork, public speaking, self-confidence, philanthropy, respect, and responsibility to young women. The international organization remains active today.
SOME ANSWERS, MORE QUESTIONS
By 1938, Dr. Fletcher was running ads in the newspaper that described Park Hospital as an “invalid and convalescent hospital.” One ad describes, “Quiet, Restful, Homelike. Specially trained nurses and physicians. Very low rates, especially for those wishing to make this their home.” I was beginning to wonder who, exactly, worked at Park Hospital. All of the want ads that I saw were worded similar to this one: “Young Lady to learn to be nurse aid. No tuition to pay. We furnish board, room, laundry, books, and laboratory equipment. Nor breakage fee to pay. Liberal salary while learning. Apply in person. Park Hospital.” That sounded like a good deal. Who knows how many young gals worked there over the years? Where did they take their eclectic medical skills after leaving Izard Street?
According to the 1940 U.S. Census, Donnabelle Fletcher was 22 years old and living at home. Asa was 58, Flossie was 47, and Della (possibly Donnabelle’s grandmother) was 77 years old. Servants or hospital staff at the time were: Lucille Store, 23; Doris Vetter, 21; and Margaret McPhodden, 19. In a September 1940 issue of the World-Herald, I discovered Donnabelle Fletcher’s wedding announcement. She married Jack Witte Croft and the wedding was held at the Fletcher home. I envision that glorious event in the backyard. I wondered: were patients and staff involved in family functions?
The World-Herald ran a curious story about the family again on April 10, 1949. The article mentioned Asa and Flossie Fletcher sighting a sea monster while on vacation to the Florida Keys. From the mocking tone of the writing and photo captions, I deduced that the Fletchers had a reputation for being odd. They spotted a sea monster, hosted a hospital in their home, built a castle, and invented eclectic medicines. It might have been too much for conservative Omaha society to handle.
Sadly, Dr. Asa Fletcher died in July of 1955. The obit mentions not only his castle, but also the sea monster. 4025 Izard then went vacant. I can’t help but wonder about the closure of Park Hospital. Flossie Fletcher eventually moved to Palm Springs, California. She died there in 1986. Mr. Owen Moore bought the property next. I found his name listed in a 1957 directory. From 1961-1972 Bryan Wilson owned the house.
Fletcher’s medical legacy lingered for a few decades. In April 5, 1979, a World-Herald reader penned a letter asking if anyone knew where she could get a bottle of Urego. I was reminded of time spent looking through my grandmother’s medicine cabinet as a child; I marveled at the ancient blue and brown bottles with hand typed prescriptions taped on. I like to think that by the late 1970s, some woman still had her jar or bottle of 1940s Urego Cream.
ANOTHER VISIT (NO TRESPASSING)
Not long ago, I was walking along Izard Street to get some photos of the property at 4025. I was pleased to see how well-maintained it was. I had done quite a bit of research about the current owners—Nancy and Douglas Taylor—and knew they are very active in the Walnut Hill Neighborhood Association. In 2011, they were involved in gathering community support to educate and advocate for changes at the Cuming Street gas station due to problematic drinking, drugs, and troubled youths.
The Taylors are true stewards of 4025 Izard and fierce supporters of Walnut Hill. I didn’t want to impose myself, but when one of the owners approached us out front on that day, I was so pleased. I found them to be lovely, gracious, and appropriately cautious. I explained who I was, and that I was writing a story about 4025. The owners certainly understand that people are drawn to the castle and their gorgeous property. They only request that people ask permission BEFORE taking photos and entering their gardens. During this discussion I confessed to them that I had broken their rule as a kid. It felt good to come clean. They allowed us to walk the property with them and take photos.
The Taylors said they bought the property from Mrs. Bryan Wilson. They shared a fantastic black and white panoramic photo taken in the time that Dr. Fletcher ran the Park Hospital. There were gnomes and yard sculptures with faces visible in the plantings. I could see that it must have been a very healing, spiritual place. Nancy said they were not sure when the grotto was taken down. There had been a pond with a stream encircling the castle and a stone path with huge crystals lining the walk. We could see the pergola was still intact, made with broken concrete. There is a fence around the property constructed of this same material.
Still curious, I felt compelled to climb that staircase wrapping around the castle’s side. It was still a thrill. As we walked around the grounds of the property, Nancy shared that she had heard a rumor that Dr. Fletcher used electroshock therapy and invented a therapeutic drink made of urine. She called it the Park Hospital Sanatorium. She alluded to Omaha society viewing Dr. Fletcher as something of a quack in his day. I cannot be sure if any of this is true, only that she had heard these things.
After writing my initial blog entry about the mysterious castle, I was delighted to receive many emails further informing my research. One reader lived nearby in the mid `70s. She was fortunate enough to get a tour of 4025. “At the time, they said the sanitarium had been for tuberculosis patients (that may have been a short period in its history) and there were still very narrow patient beds on the third floor,” she wrote.
Several decades of Walnut Hill kids grew up nearby the castle. Imagining their stories, my mind runs wild. One reader—who lived on the block from 1949-1997—shared a glimpse at the neighborhood children’s perspective: “the castle’s basement was scary to us as kids and the first floor fireplace was beautiful.” Several readers responded with high praise for the castle’s current owners.
What Dr. Fletcher created in his backyard remains a beautiful thing. The castle inspires fantasy. Imagine the Park Hospital and its park-like setting of the 1920s. It must have been so quiet back then. I dream that is why he named it Park Hospital. As his obituary states, Dr. Fletcher left Omaha a landmark.
4025 Izard Street has always been a bit aloof. Maybe that’s why the story of the property, the castle, and all the fabulous residents felt so compelling to me. In the fabulous architecture and humongous scale of Omaha’s old homes, there is still so much alive, so much of what we dream for our own lives.
The past sometimes seems better and richer than what is available in today’s world. Aspirational longings merge dreams of the historical and futuristic. Dreams manifest in the present of Walnut Hill, at a crystal-encrusted castle in a private backyard park.