Archived Story

Jack Strayer: Chapin Mansion the jewel of Niles

Published 10:06pm Wednesday, May 23, 2012

For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated with the Fort St. Joseph Museum and Niles City Hall. I grew up knowing the history of both buildings because I was fortunate to have grandparents — Frederick and Kathryn Eaglesfield — who were both born in 1883, lived in Niles all their lives and shared their stories of the Chapin Mansion and life in Niles in the Victorian Age.

Like many other Niles residents, I always thought it would be a great idea if Niles City Hall vacated the Chapin Mansion — completed in 1884 — and allow it to become a “house museum.”

Then, a few weeks ago, it was announced that the City of Niles had purchased the vacant bank building on North Second Street and would move its office out of the Chapin Mansion and the old Niles Post Office and consolidate all its far-flung offices into one facility. The bank building was built in 1973 and it is a modern and attractive edifice and will serve us all well as City Hall, and save taxpayers money in the long run.

The Queen Anne-style Chapin Mansion belongs to all of us and is the crown jewel of all of the city’s assets. When I learned of the news that it was going to be restored, I hurried down to get a background tour of the building by Fort. St. Joseph Museum director Carol Bainbridge. Carol knows every inch of the Chapin Mansion and I was both relieved and a little bit awed to discover that the interior of the 14,000-square-foot residence is in excellent condition and stands much as it did in 1902.

Beginning in 1932, when the home became Niles City Hall, the hundreds of city officials who have worked in the building over the past eight decades understood the importance of the Chapin Mansion interior. The detailed woodwork, the stencil designs that appear throughout the building, the stained glass that adorns nearly every window and many original chandeliers and light fixtures and quite a few original pieces of antique furniture are all there and have obviously been maintained.

Niles is so lucky to have this well-preserved landmark to call its own.

However, the challenge to the City of Niles and all its residents is restoring the outside of the Chapin Mansion. It needs a lot of exterior work, from replacing the slate shingles on the roof, to improving the massive stone foundation. It will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to restore the exterior of the building.

The good news is that both private and public foundations exist to help finance some of the restoration of the Chapin Mansion.

Because the interior has been so dramatically preserved, it will help get the attention of the many philanthropies that have the responsibility of approving the grant applications that will soon come their way.

City officials and Carol Bainbridge are already hard at work seeking the appropriate preservation funding.

But foundation grants won’t cover all the costs of restoration and preservation. All of us who care about the Chapin Mansion landmark will need to pitch in and help with paying for its renovation, both inside and out.

The Fort St. Joseph Museum and the Ralph Casperson family will be conducting the very first fundraising event for the Chapin Mansion Museum at a book sale June 8 from 5 to 8 p.m. and June 9 and 10 from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. and again June 16 and 17.

The sale will feature more than 16,000 books and magazines and will be held at the Casperson  property at 1303 Niles-Buchanan Rd. in Niles.

You will be hearing more about the book sale in the weeks ahead.

We should all be grateful for to the City of Niles, the Fort. St. Joseph Museum and the thousands of people involved in the city’s history for taking this giant step in the preservation of our community’s heritage. The Chapin Mansion Museum is a landmark that needs to be proudly shared.

Let the restoration begin!

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