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The Sells Mansion – Columbus, OH

A few years ago, I was riding on a plane to Columbus for JLC LIVE. I was working away on my laptop, oblivious to the fellow sitting beside me who was reading every word I wrote over my shoulder. When he asked if I was a carpenter, I may have exhaled audibly. I was sure that he’d start telling me about his most recent remodel, the molding he installed in his dining room, or the screen door he hung on the back porch. I couldn’t have been further off the mark.

Instead, he wanted to tell me about his friend in Columbus who had bought and restored an old home. Now that I found interesting! In fact, the fellow on the plane was so taken by my interest that he asked for my cell phone number. He said he’d call his friend and arrange a tour of the house while I was in town.

The day before the show, I was working on the convention hall floor when my cell phone rang. It was the homeowner inviting me over! He asked when I could come. Of course, I said, “Right now!” I grabbed Jed Dixon, and off we ran.

(Note: Click most images to enlarge)

Something told me that this was going to be one of those serendipitous moments, when you just happen upon a gem. Here’s what we found.

History and Architecture

The home is named after the original owner, Peter Sells. Peter Sells, along with his three brothers, owned the Sells Brothers’ Circus—one of the largest and most successful shows in the country. Reflecting their affluence and their place in Columbus society, Peter built this Richardson Romanesque mansion in 1895. It was a popular style in the gilded age. On the exterior, the house abounds with Gothic ornamentation, from broad 4-centered arches, to pointed 2-centered arches; from buttressed brickwork on the corners, to a fanciful chimney.

Notice how the brickwork corbels out in pointed breaks around the chimney?
You can see the same detail inside the home on the newel posts.

If you think about it, you’ll realize how easy it would be to replicate this molding detail. That white shape on top is a lamp shade. I cut it off in the frame of the photograph because it’s not the original shade. The newel post, like many in Victorian homes, also supported a built-in lamp. The current owners, David and Erica Brownstein, have been restoring the house since they purchased it in 1997. The Brownstein’s deserve our praise for doing such a good and thoughtful job. Ironically, on the last day of the Columbus JLC LIVE show, Jed met two of the carpenters who worked on the restoration—they were fortunate souls, to have worked on such a gem.

Standout Details

The main stair was probably the most intriguing work in the home.

The rail was hand-carved, and the balusters were, too—they were not turned. As you can see from the photos above, each of the balusters was carved in a plain, but stately design, with a slender, square-sided taper.

The balusters return to square at the base, and are locked in by fillets. The restoration carpenters replaced several missing balusters. Finding the replacements could not have been easy.
Jed got stuck at the stair, calling me over several times to shoot pictures he wanted, especially this one of the radius skirt board, and the drops following each spandrel. You can notice, in the background, how the backband captures the entire door casing, and the Federal-style applique on the frieze.
The spandrels were also designed in a simple, yet rich way, that is easy to replicate. The single wide cove is reminiscent of the rococo C-scrolls found on most Georgian and many Federal stairs.
The nosing on each step returns far enough to provide a perfect point of termination for the spandrel. The steps climbed to a wide mid-landing, allowing plenty of room to walk the turn before taking the next rise.
While Jed was studying the stair, I found this window detail, a perfect example of classical convention, as Brent Hull has pointed out to me.
In this detail, the cove molding on top of the apron is installed plumb with the outside of the casing, rather than the apron itself. The fact that the stool is chamfered, and not bullnosed, makes this detail a bit easier to achieve. It’s also a detail that is a bit easier for contemporary carpenters to accept, since we usually prefer to align our miters. (For more on this subject, see Stool & Apron and Stool & Apron Miters.)
Jed was still finding more stairs, like the ones that featured this newel post at the rear of the home. We included his hand in this shot so he’d have a good reference of scale. It’s a lot easier to replicate a detail from a photograph if you have something in the photograph from which you can accurately judge the size.
Meanwhile, I was still distracted by the trim details. The exaggerated plinth blocks at the bottom of the casing intrigued me. I started wondering, “Was that a hint of the Arts and Crafts movement?”

But it was the baseboard that provided me with the best clue. This home, built in the late 19th century, shows many signs of the Arts and Crafts style, just then becoming popular throughout the country.

The pitched baseboard detail (the base is slanted at about a 5 degree angle) reflects how the Gothic influence in a Victorian Romanesque home made its way into the bungalows of the Craftsman style.

The moment I saw that baseboard, I knew I wouldn’t forget it. And I didn’t! (See the 2005 JLC Craftsman-Style Mantelpiece)

(This article originally appeared on GaryMKatz.com)

Comments/Discussion

20 Responses to “The Sells Mansion – Columbus, OH”

  1. David Collins

    I’ve been by that house many times. It never occurred to me to knock on the door and ask for a tour. LOL

    Reply
  2. David Lemke

    Gary
    These kinds of homes and details always intrigue me. I often wonder what it would have been like to work on projects like this back in the day. How long would it have taken to build and by how many carpenters? Was there an architect or designer there just breathing the details to the carpenters or were the carpenters a major influence to how the details came about? Was our trade respected as a true profession back then or were we just every day construction workers as we seem to be now? Did the owner pay the guys well and was he glad to do so or just brow beat and underappreciated like most times today? You could not have “faked” it to make it back then, if you did your tools would be dull in a day or so and it would be over. It is sad to see our trade regress on a daily basis to just plain jane boring old houses with “low ball” the name of the game. Even the supposed “custom” homes are just cobbled together for the most part. Maybe I just live in the wrong part of the country, is it different in other areas? Are there any old carpenter books about the “life in the trenches” back then that you know about? No I don’t expect an answer to all these questions, but food for thought anyway.

    Reply
  3. Larry O'Loane

    Great article!

    The same thoughts as iterated in post #2 run through my mind everytime I see one of these grand homes of any era, built by the one percenters of their day.

    Reply
  4. David Alexander

    David, maybe you do live in the wrong part of the country. I live just outside of Salem, Massachusetts and I feel incredibly blessed that I have had the opportunity to work in truly magnificent homes here, built as early as 1739.

    What is really astounding to me is that these homes were all built before electricity, and the old pictures that I have seen show carpenters walking to work carrying a single wooden toolbox. I cannot fit all of the tools that I own into my van. Yet I often have difficulty duplicating something that was created with a just a handsaw, a chisel, and a mallet.

    I am in awe of the level of craftsmanship that I see in the old homes’ finish work every day. But I really wonder how many men had to be in a crew building a home like that. The staircase alone has what? 100 balusters? I wonder how many a really good carver could make in a day? And only God knows how long it must have taken to carve that railing.

    Reply
  5. John Tynan

    Thank you for sharing this with us. If I ever get to Ohio I would love to see it. I have been in the construction company for about 20 years. I worked with a builder and I can say that not many builders could do something like this even with all of the technology we have. It’s amazing what they built with the little tools they had and every thing is perfect.

    Thank you,
    John

    Reply
  6. David Foos

    Would you say alot of the small trim was applied with hide glue?
    Alot like furniture building.

    Reply
    • John

      Not at all. I don’t believe they used glue back then. That’s real craftsmanship which is an art that is lost.
      JWT4

      Reply
      • Gary Katz

        Of course they used glue ‘back then.’ They just didn’t have Titebond II.
        Glue has been around for centuries.

        Reply
  7. Eric Tavitian

    I remember learning with nothing but hand tools when I was taught by my dad as a 11 and 12 year old. He learned back in Norway in the early 50s. The men who taught him were those carpenters who walked to work with only a long wooden tool box. My dad was eventually titled a ‘master’ carpenter. I believe that was in part due to those men who showed him how it was done, before there was power poles on site, when if you couldn’t make it out of what you had in that box, well you walked home alone early. That was what it was like. So as told by my father. You got good and became fast or you stayed hungry. The pay was fair but no one got rich. You were able to feed a family and send your children to school on a Journeyman’s wages. It wasn’t easy but the men who built this country had pride in what they made. And that is why they kept doing it. At least that’s how I saw it from my prospective. One of the best compliments I ever received was from my dad before he passed was, “Your a good carpenter son”. It’s silly but sometimes that’s the thing that keeps me hanging on even when the customer is a jerk and does his best to not pay the last 10 percent owed.

    Reply
  8. Matt

    The craftmanship displayed on this house and others is awesome, no doubt about that. But I think we have to be careful about our perception.
    Descending from a family of craftsman and being brought up in an rural area of Germany where we had a very “seasoned” building infrastructure, my experience is that these marvels never represented common quality standards in design and execution.
    I think these houses have been exceptional back then as they are today and that’s why they have been maintained and are still there. Most of the common, low quality stuff was simply dismantled long time ago and what is still here has been renovated, spending effort which had been unaffordable in the old days for such objects.

    Reply
    • Gary Katz

      Matt,
      I agree with you completely: most historic homes are/were built by wealthy people. No doubt about it. The same is still true today. But those iconic homes–their details, proportions, and finish work–are still models and examples of ‘the very best’ which we attempt to achieve. No they never represented common quality standards in design and execution, but that’s why they’re exceptional and why we hope to save them and visit them.
      Gary

      Reply
  9. Matt

    Hi Gary

    My comment was not intended to question that this example of craftsmanship can (and should) serve as a role model. It was more intended to challenge the perception that all the guys “who went with a tiny tool box to work” as mentioned in the earlier comment have created such work on a daily basis.

    I think also today only a small part of the overall construction work is high quality. Let me give an example. I found a series of videos on youtube, produced by Larry Haun. Who, as Google indicates, should be fairly well known in the US. He guides through the process of framing a house.
    Now, his efficiency in working, his craftsmanship and some other things are admirable, but what he produces in my opinion is the “after one generation to be dismantled average stuff”. He places wooden sills (untreated wood by the way) directly on foundation walls, nothing to shield them against the moisture in the wall. The floor is shielded with plywood, nailed to the joists. Despite the fact that there is no insulation, my experience is that nails will start to screech in a few years because either the nail heads will sink into the plywood or the nail will be dragged out of the joists (if only slightly) and the plywood will move up and down on the nail, creating the typical screech of nailed floors.
    In order to do that right, it would be necessary to insulate the floor from below with diffusion open material (such as rockwool), screw and glue the plywood together, put a filling on top and lay out floating screed.
    Such a floor would last practically forever, but it would cost roughly 4 or 5 times what a naked plywood shielding costs…

    Reply
  10. Jim Baldwin

    As a response to some of the comments…
    I’m almost always impressed by the older stuff but I don’t “deify” the work or the workmen just because something happen to be old or preserved in some mansion. I don’t cut the workers any slack either when it comes to an honest evaluation of their work.

    Specifically as it relates to stairs, I feel I have enough experience to offer an educated opinion. The stair and balustrade is wonderful but not without a flaw or two…

    The graceful handrail is the best part but the balusters themselves are goofy and “plain-ugly” (obviously some architects’ “new-visionary notion”). And what’s with turning the baluster detail 45 degrees on its’ base??? Their reduced size and two-piece construction renders them spindly and weak (I’m honestly surprised they’re not all broken). Fitting the baluster bases into a floor dado with filler strip, is also “goofy” and unprofessional.

    As for the idea or notion that all this work “back then” was “lovingly handmade by Geppetto”, is usually way off the mark. Towards the end of the 19th century the industrial revolution was in full- swing and woodworking establishments (including huge factory sweatshops) had all the machinery we’d recognize today (albeit belt-driven and unguarded). The balusters for example, may have been made on a planer set-up with profile knives, while the handrail could have been completed on the shaper (both unorthodox methods but not unheard of or uncommon). Even prior to powered machine operations, men worked efficiently with hand tools (and some still do). It’s no mystery beyond our comprehension.

    Anyway I think it’s a good idea to try to understand how things were truly accomplished rather than fixing blame or accolades on “ancient astronauts”.

    And so I take what I like and and leave the rest. However, without conservation, preservation and publication (thanks to TIC) there would be nothing left and “no lessons learned”.

    Reply
  11. David Sochar

    I will second Jim Baldwin’s remarks for the most part. The Industrial Revolution made moldings, wood parts, and doo-dads by the train car load at such low prices that decoration became more than common. While the carpenters need not be deified, I will bet most of the lead carpenters from 100 years ago knew their schoolin’ – after all, woodworking was taught in school since so many would have careers working wood. They were just glad to have the work from what I have read.

    At the time, ornamentation equaled wealth. Today, it is square footage and bonus rooms, all with acres of blank drywall.

    And those balusters are not quite hand carved, by my guess. Faceted ‘turnings’ were mass produced on a Mattison Rotary Knife lathe or the like. The cutting ‘tool’ is a large mandrel with all the knives placed at shear angles to the work. A terrifying thing. This lathe head – perhaps as large as 12″ diameter and the length of the spindles – spins at a pretty good clip – 2,000 rpm – while the baluster is ‘presented’ to the spinning knives so as to make a flat profile on the spindle blank. The blank is then turned – in this case 90 degrees – and then presented again, and so on for all four sides. There is a high failure rate as things get spindly, and no doubt twice as many were ordered for the job since many would be lost at install and in use thereafter.

    Usually a more stocky part is worked in such a machine – piano legs and billiard table legs come to mind.

    Today’s rotary knife lathes do all this hydraulically, while earlier machines were much less sophisticated, and I’m sure were about as unsafe as a machine could be. Modern balusters and newels are turned the same way, but simply rotated as they are presented to the knives. A four foot 4 x 4 Oak newel can be turned in about 25 seconds, hopper fed and dropped out the back of the machine ready to go to a similar machine that sands it. I had the good fortune of spending a bit of time in a ‘handle plant’ that stared making ax handles in the Civil war, and at that time (1975) made every croquet set in the US, as well as Jenny Lind beds, and balusters and newels for the stair shop that employed me.

    Reply
  12. Jordan Stull-Barnes

    I’m interested in whether this home was actually an example of ‘restoration’. Restoration refers to taking a building back to a particular time period, in regard to architectural ornament, particular materials used, as well as what plumbing, electrical and HVAC systems are (were) in use. In short, no one wants to live in a restored home that was originally built in the 1890’s because it wouldn’t have any of the modern amenities we have become so comfortable with. No dishwasher, central heat or AC (Ohio can be both extremely hot and cold!) and definitely no internet connection! Rehabilitation would be the appropriate term for a building that is being repaired with respect for the historic significance, but also with the upgrades of modern day use. Perhaps the owners don’t live there, and it truly is an example of restoration, just thought I would give my two cents.

    Reply
    • Gary Katz

      Jordan,
      Thanks for the fine-line definitions, and definitely the work done on the Sells Mansion is not a restoration–it’s a home and people live in it. Over the years, I’m sure it’s been updated in many ways.
      Gary

      Reply
  13. Greg Pack

    Wow, I haven’t ever seen such a detailed collection of pictures of my work-Thanks! As for the wood you see above-it was covered in layers of paint, and portions were altogether missing, which I was able to recreate using a mold, some saw dust, and hide glue. Anyway, please feel free for future discussions to “deify” this craftsman, ;)

    Reply

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