It Was a Splendid Old Mansion

 

This article appeared in the Journal Herald in June 1968

“It Was A Splendid Old Mansion!”

Now It’s The Board Of Elections Building

by Jessie Donahue

 

     It was the talk of the town when they built the twin mansions at 319 and 321 West Third street a century ago.

     And the passing years and careless traffic of business have not erased the signs of architectural grandeur or splendor of construction from the one mansion which still stands, housing the Montgomery County Board of Elections.

     Although the huge foyer and formal dining room have been chopped up into offices and the solid oak floor is now covered with tile, one can easily see why people flocked from miles around to ogle, whisper and stare when the mansions were built.

     Records are long destroyed, but research shows the twin mansions were built on the broad, unpaved street about 1865, when that area was an exclusive residential neighborhood.

     The Civil War had just ended, and a populace made poor by years of strife stood in awe as construction crews, using only the finest materials, began the brick and stone three-story buildings.

     The mansions were built by Solomon Rauh and Isaac Pollak, immigrant Jews who came to Dayton around 1860 and operated a wholesale liquor business further west of Third street.

     The two men were not related, but they decided to build identical houses, side by side.

     Brick for brick, stone for stone and board by board, the two mansions went up, identical in every respect.  They had the same antique hand-worked brass hinges and doorknobs, identical heavy oak woodwork, and every inch of each house was exactly the same.

     When they were finished, Rauh and Pollak stood on the shaded street and flipped a coin to decide which man would take which house.  Pollak won the house at 319.  Rauh’s identical home on the adjacent lot to the west was torn down about 15 years ago when the area was cleared to make way for the Safety building.

     Few persons are alive who recall the houses as they were then.

     Marie Rotterman, survivor of a prominent early Dayton family, recalls them well.  She remembers sitting on the front stoop of her family home and watching Pollak and his three daughters and three sons walk by.

     “The girls were very beautiful,” she said.  “They would stop and talk to us at times.  It was a handsome, aristocratic family, and their mansion was considered one of the finest in town.”

     One daughter, Corrine, married Morris E. Stern, a tobacco broker and president and trustee of Barney Convalescent hospital prior to his death in 1959.  Mrs. Stern was the youngest of the Pollak family, and was born in the mansion.  She died at the age of 76 in 1957.

     An older daughter, Hattie Rauh Stern, was the widow of Leopold Rauh, founder of the Egry Register company who died in 1925, and of Milton C. Stern, a former president of Egry Register, who died in 1959.  Rauh, a nephew of Solomon Rauh, who occupied the twin mansion, helped John H. Patterson and others found Dayton’s city commission form of government and was six times president of the Chamber of Commerce.

     Lawrence Rauh, Mrs. Stern’s surviving son and retiring president of Egry, said he doesn’t recall being in the old mansion while his grandfather, Isaac Pollak, was still alive.

     “I was born in 1898 and I must have been there, but I don’t remember being there until after it was turned into a dancing school” Rauh said.

     “I don’t think anyone is alive who could furnish a factual history of the old mansion, but I’ve always heard it described as magnificent, with spacious rooms, splendid fixtures and costly antique furnishings.”

     Ruah, who lives at 231 East Dixon avenue, believes his grandparents moved into the mansion about 1866.

     With the death of Isaac Pollak, the mansion was sold and in 1913 it was purchased by Fenton Bott, who turned it into a dance studio and added the large ballroom at the rear.

     Bott and his wife lived on the second two floors of the building, and few older Daytonians have forgotten their dance classes there.

     John Drake, a former president of the Montgomery County Historical society, believes the hundreds of boys and girls at Bott’s were too uncomfortable in their high starched collars and too shy to notice the intricate scrolls of the hand-carved oak woodwork, or the beauty of the spiraling stair.

     The Botts kept the gleaming crystal chandeliers, the plush carpets and oak floors, the oil paintings and scrolls on the walls.

     “It was very grand and spectacular and old worldish,” said Drake.  “The mark of culture was to attend there, learning social graces as well as the dance.”

     With the retirement of Mrs. Bott in 1949, the studio was operated by Mr. and Mrs. Donald Miller.

     But the fate of the old mansion was written in 1949 in a master Montgomery county plan to buy the land in that area and build a new civic center.  The county paid $78,000 for the mansion, but agreed to lease it to the Millers until it was torn down.

     A court battle ensued when county commissioners decided in 1954 to move board of election offices into the old mansion. Miller maintained his lease permitted him to stay until the building was razed. He lost the litigation when the court ruled in 1957 that the county could not lease the building for more than one year at a time.

     An auction was held.  To the highest bidder went the grand old furnishings, the antiques, the paintings, the collection of brass cuspidors and other relics of Civil War days.

     The board of elections moved into the building in July, 1957, and the end of an era was gone.  Rooms were partitioned, the floors were covered, modern fixtures were added and the spacious grandeur of the old mansion was forever gone.

     But signs of it remain today.  Two of nine solid marble fireplaces are still intact in offices, and 12-foot high scrolled oak windows and doors still stand.  Antique iron and marble register covers and solid maple shelves on wrought iron braces are still intact.

     The dozen basement rooms are lined with election board records where wholesale whiskey and family foods once were stored, but three-foot solid walls of brick and stone between each basement room have kept the basement dry and the past 100 years have deteriorated it not at all.

     “It would be impossible to buy materials of the quality used for construction here, on today’s market,” said Mrs. Margaret Risner, election board clerk.  “Such magnificent wood and hand-tooled brass just isn’t available today, unless you pay extreme prices for antiques.

     “It was a splendid old mansion, and it’s still a staunch old building,” she said.  “The windows are drafty and some of the floors creak.  It’s a maintenance nightmare and can you imagine the job of keeping it clean, even in its heyday?

     “Still, considering its solid strength and beauty, it seems a shame to think of tearing it down.”