Reflection: Tour of Lyle Mansion tweaks its mystique
On top of a gentle hill at the intersection of Grand and Loughborough in Carondelet Park stands an old white clapboard house with black shutters. Tall trees grow close, shading the upper windows from the afternoon sun. The front yard is newly landscaped and the shutters have fresh paint, but the Lyle Mansion stands silent on its busy park corner.
Growing up in Holly Hills, I passed the mansion at least twice daily, my romantic brain conjuring visions of women in hoop skirts sipping lemonade on the veranda while men in cravats rode horses around what is now Carondelet Park. On stormy nights or foggy early mornings, the mansion looks like something out of an old horror film, the windows staring across the park like empty eye sockets. Over the 19 years I lived in the neighborhood, my imagination and curiosity never failed to be piqued when I passed that corner. Why did such an impressive building stand empty?
After spending a decade abroad, I moved back to my old neighborhood. The house held the same fascination, so I decided to find the owner and ask to see the inside.
Lyle Mansion is owned by the city of St. Louis, and the only group that uses it is a once-robust, now-dwindling pinochle club started in 1962. Dan Skillman (commissioner of parks) very kindly agreed to let me inside; and the minute I walked through the back door, my heart sank.
We entered through a side door and stepped into a cluttered kitchen – an old drinking fountain standing inexplicably in one corner, the soaring ceilings splotched with water damage, the walls delicately spider-veined with cracks. Evidence of the pinochle club manifested itself in small, provocative ways: "Men Only" signs outside the bathroom (the club only allowed males until recently) and bulletin boards filled with newspaper clippings, member obituaries and group photos. Though the club was supposed to be meeting, no one was there – the heat, most likely, keeping them away.
In the room where they played cards, broken glass and the brick that had caused it lay scattered under the card tables. Skillman said broken windows were not a rarity at Lyle Mansion and that letting the club use the house was the one remaining scrap of security.
The basement was typical South City: clammy and disquieting. More shattered glass was on the stairs; and goose droppings and feathers everywhere. Skillman speculated that the massive birds had entered where previous vandals had created an opening.
Back upstairs, the once beautiful wood floors and lovely fireplaces hinted at what the house had once been. I was already fantasizing about starting a neighborhood group called something like Restore Lyle Mansion. I asked what the future looked like for Lyle, and Skillman mentioned a master plan that had been developed in 2003 for the entire park. But for budgetary reasons (and the lingering Pinochle Club) not much had been done with the house yet. Eventually, the hope is to rehab the house and use it as a rental facility.
Climbing the grand staircase, I thought more and more about how exciting it would be to bring the home back to its original glory – especially if it were to be a neighborhood effort. Built in the late 1850s it has a scant history – briefly owned by the Lyle family in the years before the Civil War, then serving for a time as the park-keeper’s residence before being sold to Eugene Field who in 1875 signed it over to St. Louis County (before the city divorced itself from the county) to be used for Carondelet Park.
Upstairs in one of the front bedrooms a box held old photos in frames - several of the Carondelet area from the early days of Lyle Mansion. Near the house had stood a train station, now gone, that matched the pavilions found around the park.
I looked out the floor-length window toward the tracks and the wrought-iron bridge that still remained, shielded from the home by a large stand of trees. The sound of the train’s whistle as it came into the station would have been a familiar sound.
As the upstairs tour continued, we found several doors closed – one with a large sign reading: "Do NOT Open! Raccoon on the Loose!!!"
Nonplussed, Skillman opened the door. I hung back, waiting for the animal to come barreling out of the room, heading for me with a mouth full of rabies. This did not happen – the little chap must have been long gone out of yet another broken window – but small, muddy paw prints ran along the walls and floors of the rooms, filling the tub in the bathroom.
On the way back to the stairs, I spotted the attic door behind which an almost ladder-like staircase led up into a place of utter blackness. Scrawled on the wall next to it were names and dates – another type of vandals’ equivalent of the muddy, rampaging paw prints.
We finished the tour with a moment on the veranda, where I finally asked Skillman my burning question: If someone would organize a group of volunteers to do the labor, would the Parks Department be willing and able to provide materials for a rehab?
Skillman said that was definitely a possibility and he would be happy to talk the idea through, although budgetary constraints might halt the project sooner than volunteers would hope.
As he drove away, I snapped a few last photos of the outside of the house. The place still piques my curiosity. But something has changed: It isn’t the Lyle Mansion’s past that fascinates me anymore – but its future.
Kara Vaninger is a freelance writer.