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'Castle' tour to benefit, show off group’s ideals
An Old House Society fundraiser will be held at the home of Mary and Chuck Wright in Lexington.(Pantagraph/LORI ANN COOK) June, 17, 2007)

LEXINGTON - When Mary and Chuck Wright walked in the door of the big, old, neglected house on Lexington's west side 22 years ago, the staircase won them over. | Photo gallery

"When I saw the staircase I knew we could do it," said Mary Wright, referring to the mountain of restoration work the couple faced.

Not only had the house been vacant for about a year, but a previous owner had covered virtually all its original assets with dropped ceilings, paint or wallpaper - except the beautiful, winding stairway that seemed to float between the second and third floors.

The stairway was actually floating more than they thought: Chuck Wright and his son, Chuck Jr., used shims and turnbuckles to firmly reattach the stairway to the wall.

It was just one of hundreds of jobs the family tackled over the following 15-plus years in an attempt to restore the house - dubbed the "castle" - to the glory David H. Van Dolah had in mind when he built it in 1898 in an attempt to persuade his wife, Britannia, to stay in Lexington.

Since finishing the work, the Wrights have opened the house about every five years for various groups hosting special fund-raisers.

Now, it's the Old House Society's turn. The Bloomington-based agency is launching a $1 million fund-raising campaign as part of an ambitious plan to get closer to its mission: "to promote and preserve neighborhoods, buildings, and landscapes that are more than 50 years old, and the communities and heritage they foster."

The drive will start off with tours on Saturday of the Wrights' home, the epitome of what the society espouses.

"We're obviously into historic things," said Chuck Wright. "It's a great thing that an organization exists to help people restore homes."

The Wrights could have used the services of the Old House Society's Architectural Salvage Warehouse when they restored the castle.

"When we restored this 20 years ago, we had to go all over the country to find cabinet fixtures," said Mary Wright.

The handles on the kitchen cabinets came from nine states. They match the ones on the only remaining original cabinets in the kitchen pantry.

The tin ceiling in the kitchen was salvaged from the old American State Bank in Bloomington. Chuck Wright said every time the couple took a trip, they would look for something for the house.

While the Wrights had to find all the period furniture, all the fixtures, someone to build cabinets and another to build storm windows, the castle still has several original features.

The kitchen has the original doorbell and speaking tubes that allow conversations between the kitchen and some of the bedrooms. Just outside the kitchen is the elevator Britannia Van Dolah, who was confined to a wheelchair, used to get from floor to floor.

After a lot of hard work, the Wrights also uncovered most of the original ceilings. The one in the dining room boasts trompe l'oeil, a painting technique that makes it look like it's wood. Each of the upstairs bedrooms has a different floral design painted on the ceiling.

Mary Wright thinks the original paintings were done by itinerate artists in exchange for a place to stay. She made stencils of the designs so that damaged areas could be replicated with the help of friend Janet Oliver.

The library, in one of the castle's towers, has the original bookcases. The upstairs bathroom has the original china tub, brass pipes and hookups for two fire hoses. The house also included the original doors - all 90 of them.

The doors to the first parlor, where the Van Dolahs would receive visitors, have angel faces on the doorknobs. One that separates the second parlor from the kitchen and servants' area has two different sides - very plain on the side facing the servants' area and more detailed on the side facing the parlor.

But the Wrights' attention hasn't been limited to the inside of the castle.

Outside, Chuck Wright and his son have constructed a small railroad track for a train Chuck purchased from an amusement park and worked to restore.

Mary Wright has restored part of the couple's 40 acres to wetland and prairie and the couple has planted an apple and pear orchard and 450 oak trees.


Open house

What: Open house of the "Castle" home of Chuck and Mary Wright

When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday

Where: 10 Spencer St., Lexington. Take Interstate 55 to the Lexington exit, turn right. At the "T" intersection, turn right then take the first right into the property.

Cost: $10 for adults; $5 children ages 3 to 12; free, under age 3. Tickets are available in advance at The Garlic Press, Normal, or Casey's Garden Shop, Bloomington, or at the door the day of the event. Proceeds will benefit the Old House Society's capital campaign.

Activities: House tour, train rides, nature walks, live music, food and restoration contractors.

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