John Grindrod: A step back into simpler times

I’m thankful that now in my 70s, I’m still able to work. I find that work provides the frame within which other parts of life neatly fits. For one thing, I surely appreciate the human interaction as I work, since my roomie Alexa isn’t really much of a conversationalist after she gives me weather and an occasional sports score.

As I go through my accounts’ buildings doing my housekeeping inspections, I’m often intrigued by their history, especially one, in particular, that I always enjoy visiting. It’s the building that houses the administrative personnel on the campus of the University of St. Francis (USF) in Fort Wayne.

It’s called the Brookside Mansion and is the former private residence of the wealthy industrialist John H. Bass. While it’s also called the Bass Mansion, no matter the name, it’s indeed a historical landmark with its own story, one from another era in far less technological times.

The former Bass residence really is the centerpiece on the small campus of this Catholic university on the west side of the city. It sits right beside a small lake fronted by the mansion and also two academic buildings. Mirror Lake is the result of John Henry Bass’s damming of a stream back in the late 19th century when Bass chose the location for a second home in addition to his primary residence at the corner of Berry Street and Fairfield Avenue.

The building’s origins can be traced back to 1889 when Bass hired architects to draw up the plans. A few years after the completion of the three-level home just before the turn of the century, in 1902, a fire in the basement destroyed parts of the mansion, prompting some reconstruction, which was completed in 1903. And from that point forward, that’s the look that has endured to this very day. In other words, the bones of this house belong to the late 19th century.

Bass and his descendants used the mansion as a residence mostly in the summer for more than 40 years before the family sold the mansion and surrounding 65 acres to the Sisters of St. Francis of Perpetual Adoration as a relocation site for USF’s precursor, the St. Francis Normal School in Lafayette, Indiana. It was in 1982 when Brookside Mansion was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

The repurposed rooms have plaques beside the entry points which provide what the rooms once were. On the top floor, there’s a ballroom, now used as a formal meeting room, with a skylight atop the high ceiling and original fresco paintings of muse surrounding the dome. Although the entire mansion is decorated to the Christmas max during the season with multiple trees, the largest is in the center of what once was a ballroom.

As I go from floor to floor, I’ll often gaze out one of the many windows and think of what the view must have been for the Bass family over 100 years ago. Originally the 65 acres were far different than they are today. One difference would be that exotic animals such as elk and bison once roamed the estate grounds.

Whenever I’m in there, I can’t help thinking about the building as it originally was. In those early days for the Bass family, there was no TV, no radio, no electric gadgets and certainly no cell phones. So, I imagine gatherings for meals at the table in the first floor formal dining room on the Mirror Lake side in those far less frenetic times included plenty of lively chatter amongst the family with no one tapping away on a cell phone!

And, when I walk through that one-time ballroom on the top floor, as I look around, well-dressed ladies and gentlemen seem to materialize as they dance in elegant fashion to the musicians’ offerings, dancing in ways that surely looked nothing like what’s seen now on “Dancing with the Stars.”

Yes, once upon a time, the world was so very different, with certainly far more talk and far more listening. The thought that always occurs to me whenever I visit here has to do with where I’ve been planted in time. While I’m generally happy with my post-WW II arrival, whenever I’m in this beautiful building, I always think I could have made a go of it in the early 20th century.

Oh, and, of course, I’d like to have been in the Bass family. After all, if you’re going to fantasize, why be poor?

John Grindrod is a regular columnist for The Lima News, a freelance writer and editor and the author of two books. Reach him at [email protected].