Living history in Switzerland County: Mansion restoration leads to local business

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On a hillside overlooking Vevay, a mansion stands so high that drivers on the Kentucky side of the river stop and stare.

“What IS that thing?” they ask.

From the tower of that “thing,” the Benjamin Franklin (B.F.) Schenck home constructed in 1874, a person can see all the way to Belterra.

B.F. Schenck, the son of Vevay’s fabled “Hay King,” U. P. Schenck, was at the peak of his career when he built the remarkable structure. In an article published by Vevay Newspapers during the summer of 1960, Julia LeClerc Knox stated that the Schenck home was one of the local landmarks which placed the historical significance of Vevay “in a class with Vincennes and New Harmony,” and she added that its “imposing decor” is “like a back drop for the little town.”

Writing for the Indianapolis Star Magazine, journalist Henry Wood called the “palatial Victorian home” a “must see” on any tour of Vevay houses. The residence is a “sprawling, castle-like mansion,” wrote Wood, “containing 40 rooms and five bathtubs made of wood and lined with copper, reputedly cost its young owner $67,000 when it was built.”

With seven balconies, eight chimneys and four porches, a slate roof and exterior trim of tin, it was considered the most elegant house in the county.

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As magnificent as the B.F. Schenck residence appeared in the 19th century, the 20th century challenged it in a variety of ways. Mr. Schenck lived only three years after the home was built, and he never furnished all the rooms of his residence. When he became ill in 1877, he went to Florida – where he died and was buried.

Although his family continued to live in Vevay for several years after his death, they gave the property to the Baptist Convention for their retirees in 1923; and in 1945 it was purchased by Mr. and Mrs. Clarence Wiseman, who put it to use as a clubhouse for the Switzerland County Saddle Club; the driveway at the bottom of the hill was utilized as a quarter mile track.

Burrell Farnsley and Alexander Speer of Louisville bought the house and began restoration in the 1970s. Mark Miles, who was also from Louisville, bought the estate from Farnsley and Speer in the early 1980s, but long-distance restoration did not prove practical.

According to Julia LeClerc Knox, the mansion “had a varied experience” between owners, and it was often “at the mercy of village boys with destructive tendencies.” The residence continued to deteriorate and was again placed on the market in the mid 1990s.

Vevay Newspapers of July 7th, 1994, reported that Ruth Reynolds, who had been married in the B. F. Schenck mansion when her father, Reverend Casey, was superintendent of the home in 1924, toured the building with her daughter, Ruth Anne Allen and John Allen.

“It would be wonderful to have this house,” said Ruth Anne Allen. “We could live in it, and restore it. It would make a lovely bed and breakfast.”

In spite of periods of hard use coupled with long years of neglect, the house still had much to recommend it at that time. “In the rooms are extraordinary examples of fine craftsmanship,” wrote editor Don Wallis, who accompanied the tourists. He noted “the artfully carved wood mantels over the fireplaces; the floor-to-ceiling kitchen pantry with its 26 drawers; the wood-crafted interior shutters on every one of the Mansion’s 50-plus windows; in the dining room, the 180-year-old copper chandelier.”

Still there was much work to be done. Ruth Anne Allen’s son, John Allen said that he too loved the mansion – but restoring it, he observed, would “take a lot of work.”

“Not to mention money,” added Don Wallis.

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As it turned out, the Allens did not take the property; instead, Jerry and Lisa Fisher, who lived in Patriot at the time, bought it in 1998. While the Fishers later purchased the U.P. Schenck mansion on Market Street with all its original furnishings, the B.F, Schenck house was virtually empty.

For two full years, Lisa Fisher went in search of furniture that would match the grandeur of its architecture.

“I don’t like to shop,” she admitted, “but I like auctions. I really enjoy going to them.”

Most important, she really wanted to bring the house back to life. “I was on a mission,” she said.

Soon she had purchased six huge antique beds and other items for all of the rooms that would be used for the bed and breakfast.

In addition to making the building once again livable and inviting, Lisa Fisher oversaw an overhaul of the mansion’s infrastructure.

The entire house, originally lighted with gas, was replumbed and all wiring replaced.

Although considerable deterioration had occurred through the years, the original 13 metal fireplace mantels were still in place; and the legendary walnut and copper bathtubs were intact. Lisa Fisher was meticulous about using original materials found at the house or matching items to photographs of the original materials. The 130-year-old roof still had all its original metal and slate, and the new owners saved any spare piece of the original structure.

“I’ve got every piece of trim. I’ve got it somewhere. All my ‘relics’, I call them,” Lisa Fisher stated. She also has pieces of the original porch railings in a storage room. She even has a “Plant Box” never opened. “Plants,” she explained, “are the bottom part of a doorframe.”

Although the roof was sound when the Fisher’s bought the mansion, the entire east porch needed to be rebuilt and most of the pillars replaced. Lisa Fisher was quick to point out the knots in the newer pillar wood, comparing it with the clear wood of the original pillars: “They don’t make things like they used to,” she said.

From the east porch, visitors look down on a water garden and its exotic koi, and the hillside landscaping done by her husband, Jerry.

Lisa Fisher has personally been running the bed and breakfast since it opened six years ago, and response to the restoration has been extremely positive, she said. “It’s a very inviting, nice house. People absolutely love it! And I get a lot of repeat business. Sometimes there’s overflow from the casinos.”

“My husband and I do the upkeep. If the bed and breakfast can pay for its own expenses, then I’m a happy camper.”

Lisa Fisher also does tours of the mansion. “I generate some business that way.” And she gets “road traffic” too, people who are passing through Switzerland County and want to stay in a bed and breakfast. “I even get people who notice it from the Kentucky side,” she said, “and they come over to see what it is. It doesn’t seem to belong here, they say. It sticks out like a sore thumb.”

As to why Lisa Fisher chose to keep the B. F. Schenck legacy alive, she stated that she had admired the house since she was a child.

“I loved it, but I didn’t think I’d ever own it,” she said.

As a young mother, she would sometimes take her children to the old mansion “It used to look real scary. I’d have them run around the house a few times before we went trick-or-treating in town.”

Over the years, her attraction to the property, along with a respect for older homes, grew to a “passion to save old houses.” Eventually, her interests brought her and her family to Vevay and the Schenck residences – even though she “never had the desire to live in town.”

But the most important reason for her involvement with the Schenck properties had something to do with what makes life worthwhile, said Lisa Fisher, and she talked about how each person needs to do something worthwhile to justify his or her existence.

“Everybody needs to do at least one thing,” she said. For her, saving the Schenck mansions was one of those things.