Indiana Landmarks announced today that it found the perfect buyer for Connersville’s Newkirk Mansion, a site on its 10 Most Endangered list. The preservation organization bought the house and a week later sold it with protective covenants to Connersville natives Mike and Jenny Sparks. Connersville is approximately 60 miles from downtown Indianapolis.
Completed in 1880 by the well-to-do owner of a furniture manufacturing company, the mansion at 317-321 Western Avenue retains original, ornate black walnut, cherry and butternut mantels and woodwork. Sited high overlooking the town atop a 3-acre lawn, the towered house commands attention even in a dilapidated state.
Newkirk’s widow died in 1933. Several years later, a new owner converted it to apartments, a 25-year stint that ended with its conversion to a nursing home in 1962. Long vacant, the house declined under a leaky roof that damaged the woodwork and plaster. Vandals destroyed some original features. An arson fire destroyed the property’s historic two-story carriage house in late April 2017.
In order to save the house, the Indiana Landmarks included it on the 2017 Most Endangered list. Indiana Landmarks optioned the property while it hunted for a buyer. After marketing the property and fielding calls from throughout Indiana and overseas, Indiana Landmarks negotiated to buy the house for $65,000 and selected the Sparks as buyers, selling it to the couple for $56,000.
“Shame on us if we couldn’t save a place like the Newkirk Mansion,” said Marsh Davis, president of Indiana Landmarks. “We took a $9,000 loss from our Efroymson Family Endangered Places Fund, and we consider it well worth the cost. Mike and Jenny Sparks understand what the property needs and they felt they couldn’t pay more, given the amount they will have to invest to restore it,” he adds.
The couple bought the Newkirk Mansion for the second time. “We owned the house from 1987 to the early ‘90s,” says Mike Sparks. “We sold it so our two boys could grow up on our farm in the country outside Connersville. We really loved the house. It was in great shape when we lived there. Clean, dry, no leaks,” he adds.
They sold the house to another family who were committed to maintaining its historic character, but after about 18 months, the man was killed in a car accident and in the ensuing years the house began a long, slow decline.
“For the past several years, we avoided that section of Western Avenue,” Mike comments. “It was just too painful to look at the house. We felt powerless.” Sparks credits the fire and Indiana Landmarks putting the mansion on the 10 Most Endangered list for making the couple take a renewed interest in the property.
The Sparks live on a farm near Connersville, raising corn, soy beans and a few acres of sunflowers. Mike retired after 29 years teaching automotive repair at Whitewater Career Center, while Jenny worked at Visteon. Mike Sparks was a charter member of the Connersville Preservation Commission.
What made the couple repurchase the house? “I’ve never seen another stairway with solid cherry hand-carved panels instead of turned balusters. It’s beautiful and massive, and the newel post is taller than my wife,” Mike Sparks notes. “We love the black walnut parlor mantel. When we lived there, it was still topped by the original mirror with a two-inch bevel. Vandals destroyed that years ago. We intend to replace it. We love the ornate butternut trim around the doors and windows, and the deep crown molding. We love the size of the rooms. And we love the site overlooking the city of Connersville. It would be a spectacular house anywhere, but the setting adds to its appeal. From the top of the tower to Western Avenue is about 115 feet, so it has quite a commanding view and presence.”
Indiana Landmarks closed on the sale to the Sparks on Tuesday, October 17 and the couple, with help from their two adult sons, have already cleared the overgrowth from around the house. “They’ve committed to Indiana Landmarks that before winter they’ll fully stabilize the house, fixing the roof to make sure it’s watertight,” notes Michael Flowers, community preservation specialist in the organization’s eastern regional office.
The restoration is expected to take several years to complete, reversing the decades of decline. But people won’t have to wait to see it. The Sparks, in partnership with the local Altrusa club, are opening the Newkirk Mansion for a “before” tour on Saturday, Oct. 28, 10 a.m.-6 p.m., and Sunday, Oct. 29, 1-6 p.m. Admission is $10 per person, cash sales only.
“We want people to see it, and appreciate how impressive it is, even now, and realize how important it is to save places like this one,” Mike says. The couple plans to share the house with the community by opening it for tours and events. Ultimately, they may create a B&B.
“We hope the house becomes a catalyst for downtown revival in Connersville,” Mike declares. “We intend to do what we can to fuel that. For example, we’re happy that Indiana Landmarks has attached a protective covenant to the deed of the Newkirk Mansion. If that had been in place, the house would never have reached the dire state that landed it on the 10 Most Endangered list,” he notes.
“We’re trying to create a historic district in Connersville, and we hope this project helps demonstrate that protection is a positive thing. If Indiana Landmarks had not put the Newkirk Mansion on the 10 Most Endangered list, we wouldn’t own it, and it would still be deteriorating and vulnerable. We could have lost it entirely. We thank Indiana Landmarks for putting us in the position to bring it back,” he adds.
“Since Indiana Landmarks created the 10 Most Endangered in 1991, we’ve included 122 places on the list. Of the total, 33 have been completely restored, 39 are safe or substantially safer, 34 remain endangered, and only 16 have been demolished,” notes Marsh Davis. “Considering the severe jeopardy these places face, it’s a strong record. We can’t buy every endangered structure to save it, but the Newkirk Mansion was running out of time, and it’s too important to lose.”
Michael Flowers, Indiana Landmarks Eastern Regional Office Community Preservation Specialist, firstname.lastname@example.org, 317-822-7939, 419-250-0812
Mike Sparks, email@example.com, 765-825-4390
Tina Connor, Indiana Landmarks Executive Vice President, 317-639-4534 or 317-946-3127, firstname.lastname@example.org
Jen Thomas, JTPR, Inc., email@example.com, 317-441-2487
Indiana Landmarks revitalizes communities, reconnects us to our heritage, and saves meaningful places. With nine offices located throughout the state, Indiana Landmarks helps people rescue endangered landmarks and restore historic neighborhoods and downtowns. People who join Indiana Landmarks receive its bimonthly magazine, Indiana Preservation. For more information on the not-for-profit organization, call 317-639-4534, 800-450-4534, or visit www.indianalandmarks.org.
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