The Powers-Jarvis Mansion will leave you speechless

If you go to one of the open houses at 357 W. Decatur St., bring a thesaurus. A big one. First-time visitors find themselves running out of superlatives somewhere on the curved front drive that sweeps around a grandiose, copper-clad porch perched on four 30-foot-high stone columns topped by a dramatic balcony.

The combined effects of sheer scale – the three-story house built of blond brick covers more than 9,000 square feet set on 1½ acres – are overwhelming. From its glowing, red-tiled roof offset by verdigris copper gutters and copper-clad ornaments like balustrades and even roaring lion’s heads, to vast windows glistening with a riot of leaded glass, the Greek Revival architecture is an in-your-face example of conspicuous, but beautiful, consumption.

 

It’s been that way since it was built in 1909 for Decatur business baron Charles Powers in those heady pre-income tax days that Mark Twain called “The Gilded Age.” This public display of ultimate prestige cost about $100,000 to construct 96 years ago but whoever gets to write the next chapter in its storied history will need to bring a lot more to the table: The bidding at the auction set for Aug. 15 will begin at $342,000.

What will the home’s new role be? A private house, a bed & breakfast or some other business, maybe even a museum. The possibilities are endless, according to the Bachrach family, who have owned it since 1988 and use the palace as a company guesthouse and training center for Bachrach Clothing Inc., the Decatur-based network of up-market men’s fashion stores founded in 1877.

Now, with the sale of their company to Sun Capital Partners of Boca Raton, Fla., the Bachrach family doesn’t need the home anymore and it’s time to move on. They’ve dropped a small fortune restoring the place over the years and say it’s ready to be anything – from sumptuous corporate headquarters to a return to its beginnings as the kind of private home that would make your relatives weep with envy.

Barb Bachrach James, great-granddaughter of the clothing store founder Henry Bachrach, is rooting for a domesticity redux. “I would love to see a family living in here again,” said Barb, 58. “I think they would enjoy it so much.”

Her husband, Ron D. James, who will retire as vice president of corporate operations for Bachrach on Aug. 1, has other ideas. “I would probably take a different slant on it, seeing it maybe as location for some more community-based organization,” said Ron, 60. “There’s a lot of room here.”

Then he’s off across the oak floors leading a quick tour, and visitors feel their adjective supply running thin again. Entering an expansive hall dominated by a vast staircase, the eye is drawn by the sumptuous dining room to the right filled with Indian mahogany paneling under 12-foot ceilings. The hardwood trim continues in the living room with a marble fireplace and bay window that has curved seating big enough for the whole family.

Then there’s the music room with elaborate plaster detail in gilt, and upstairs there are marble bathrooms and beautiful bedrooms with fitted original cabinets and hardwood doors two inches thick. The house has 13 rooms in all, with seven bedrooms plus four full baths and two half-baths and underground parking for four cars. There’s an attached servants’ quarters (they only get heart pine woodwork, but it’s nicely done), and you can take an elevator up to the home’s very own ballroom that dominates the third story.

The flooring up here is a vast 3,000 square foot sea of maple, and doors open off onto upper-level balconies (plus a widow’s walk on the roof) where winded dancers could take in the night air and maybe gaze down at the light of moon and stars captured in the back yard’s reflecting pool.

They say there are no ghosts here, but you could easily imagine them, perhaps appearing as the guests looked back on June 21, 1910, when the Powers held a house warming reception. Tuxedoed men escorted women who dripped diamonds and wore flowing silks and satins, all ready to dance the night away as an orchestra played and electric fairy lights, a novelty in 1910, turned the garden into a fantasy of subtle hues plied by waiters bearing silver trays of champagne.

Barb says you can still sense the echoes of those dreamy days in the Powers-Jarvis Mansion, now a refugee in time from that age of innocence before the savagery of world war had jaded our sense of destiny. At the turn of the century, all still seemed bright and possible, at least for America’s elite, who enshrined their optimism and economic power in magnificent homes that were as much statements as residences.

“Walking around this house, you really do get an idea of how they must have lived back then,” said Barb. “And you get a real sense of history.”