Tuesday, September 8, 2015

(Fort Wayne Monthly “Along the Heritage Trail with Tom Castaldi” – July 2010 No. 68)

Landmark on West Wayne 

Klaehn, Fahl and Melton

One of the finest examples of a well preserved downtown Fort Wayne structure is “The Home” located at 420 West Wayne Street.  Spanning a full century and portions of two others, it was the stately residence of Robert C. Bell who built it in 1893.  For the past eighty years it has been occupied by the Klaehn, Fahl & Melton Funeral Home. 

Robert Bell was a leading attorney in Fort Wayne in the late nineteenth century and served as a senator in the state General Assembly form 1874 to 1886.  He was born in 1844 in Decatur County’s Clarksburg, Indiana, and served in the Eighth Indiana Regiment of Volunteers during the Civil War. After attending law school at the University of Michigan, he began practicing law in Muncie as an assistant to the state Attorney General. He married Clara E. Wolfe in 1868 and the couple moved to Fort Wayne in 1871.

Among his law partners was William H. Miller who served as U.S.  Attorney General under President Benjamin Harrison.  Their Fort Wayne firm served as a forerunner of the present-day law firm Barrett-McNagny. As a leading Indiana Democrat, he was a close friend with the perennial Democrat nominee for the presidency, William Jennings Bryan, who visited the Bell mansion four times and at least one time gave a speech from the porch on the virtues of the silver standard. Robert Bell died in his home in 1901; the family continued to own the resident until 1904 when Mrs. Bell sold it to William K. Noble. In 1926, the Klaehn Funeral Home - present day Klaehn, Fahl & Melton Funeral Home - purchased the house for its business.

The home’s most obvious feature may be its imposing Romanesque design complete with gargoyles.  It is the work of the prominent Fort Wayne 1890’s architectural firm of Wing and Mahurin who designed other familiar local structures such as the History Center, Bass Home on the University of St. Francis campus, and Lindenwood Cemetery’s “Chapel of the Woods.” 

Materials for “The Home” were thoughtfully chosen. The exterior stone found on the front and sides of the residence is Indiana limestone. A Loggia or porch is the one that Bryan found so serviceable.  Entering the old mansion, the chandelier overhead still has one of its original gas jets used to power the fixture before it was modernized with incandescent lighting.   Surrounding the space is quarter sawed oak woodwork and paneling planed and carved from the timbers once a part of the Wabash & Erie Canal’s Saint Mary’s aqueduct.

 A large vestibule welcomes visitors inside that may have been a living room in a prior arrangement. The double doors were originally windows and reveal that the outside walls are over a foot thick. On the left of the lobby is the drawing room which may be the most intricately decorated room of all. Bird’s-eye maple paneling enhance the woodwork and three-dimensional carvings over the tops of the window blend with the doorways and fireplace. From the vestibule is the dining room that has hand carved double doors, when closed provided secluded dining. Its crown molding is formed plaster overlooking a mahogany hardwood wainscoting.  To the right of the fireplace is the door to the kitchen and pantry. Adjacent to the dining room through intricately carved doors opens to the library.

 Upstairs the second story was used as bedrooms and servant quarters, and today has been retrofitted for the senior funeral directors’ office area. A third floor provided great space for storage but also was used as party or game rooms. With its high vaulted ceilings one was ideal for use as a ballroom.

All of the west side of the building is new and added during a 1935-36 renovation. Again in 1994, “The Home” underwent a major restoration, including conservation of stained glass windows and the original slate roof replaced with new slate, generally restoring the home to its original condition.  Surely Robert Bell would be proud that the integrity of his home stands today reflecting the heritage of nineteenth century Fort Wayne.

Allen County Historian Tom Castaldi is author of the Wabash & Erie Canal Notebook series; hosts “On the Heritage Trail” which is broadcast Mondays on 89.1 fm WBOI; and “Historia Nostra” heard on Redeemer Radio 106.3 fm.  Enjoy his previously published columns on the History Center’s blog “Our Stories” at historycenterfw.blogspot.com.

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