News & Archives

Apr 27, 2013

At the turn of the twentieth century, the newly-built Bass Mansion in Fort Wayne displayed Gilded Age opulence, with custom-designed wall and floor coverings, decorative woodwork, stone and tile fireplaces, and a sandstone exterior that sprouted carved grotesques at every turn. A century later, serving as the library for the University of Saint Francis, the house had lost its shine, with a check-out desk in the foyer and dingy original wall coverings and overtaxed systems.

When the library finally outgrew the historic mansion in 2006, university leaders saw the opportunity to return Brookside to its former grandeur as the "front door" of the college campus.  The university's renovation of Brookside won Indiana Landmarks' Cook Cup for Outstanding Restoration, awarded at our Rescue Party on April 27.

"It is a one-of-a-kind building in the community," says Sister Elise Kriss, president of the University of Saint Francis. "When people come in for the first time, their jaws drop because they just can't believe what they're seeing. It's not the typical house people grow up with or even experience, so it makes you wonder about life in another era."

Bass Foundry mogul John Henry Bass hired the Fort Wayne firm of Wing and Mahurin to design the 25,000-square-foot building as his "summer cottage" in 1903, after fire destroyed the original. When Bass's daughter Laura Grace Bass Leslie put the estate on the market in 1943, the Sisters of Saint Francis of Perpetual Adoration bought it for Saint Francis College (now the University of Saint Francis). Back then, Brookside was the university's everything-classrooms, offices, library and residence for the sisters on staff.

Brookside looms large in the memories of Fort Wayne residents, who remember fishing and ice skating on the artificial lake created by John Bass, visiting the Bass and Leslie families, or studying in the Saint Francis library. Envisioning a new use for the building that would keep it accessible to the community, the university restored Brookside to house the offices of the president, development, and alumni affairs, with majestically restored rooms serving as meeting spaces.

Fort Wayne architecture firm MKM architecture + design and preservation consultants relied on old photographs and physical evidence for clues to the rooms' original appearance. "Nuns never throw anything away so the university had an informal but vast archive of the house," says Zachary Benedict, a partner at the architecture firm.

Wind and rain had eroded the faces of the grotesques on the exterior the house. Inside, restoration workers removed layers of paint that obscured original stenciling. Plaster moldings, ceilings, walls, and some floors suffered water damage. Conrad Schmitt Studios restored murals and recreated one on linen, applying it to  the ceiling of the Louis XIV Drawing Room. In a happy surprise, workers uncovered an intricate repeating 30" tall stencil adorning a long second floor hallway. The firm recreated the complicated artwork, using 12 layers of paint and glazes.

The university commissioned new fabric wall coverings from Belgium to match the originals in the library and foyer. Plaster Plaster cornices were repaired or recast from molds taken from original sections. 

The $4.5 million project not only restored the mansion's opulence, but also incorporated essentials-new roof on the conservatory and other roof repairs, an elevator that makes the house handicap accessible, and heating and cooling systems.

"The University of Saint Francis could have opted for a much more modest updating. Instead, they went extra miles with a superior restoration," noted Indiana Landmarks vice chairman and Cook Cup judge Carl Cook.  "And no matter how great the photographs, it's even more impressive in person," adds our President Marsh Davis.

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