NILES -- Niles City Hall has served as City Hall for so long that many in Niles may not know it once was known as the Chapin Mansion.
Built in 1882, the mansion fulfilled the desire of Niles storekeeper Henry Austin Chapin to erect the grandest home in town. But Chapin died in 1898, at 85, and 35 years later his grandchildren turned over the structure to the city for $300. The lone stipulation was that it be used for public or municipal purposes.
Today, it's still the city's crown jewel despite some deterioration both inside and out. It's also true its days as City Hall are numbered, thanks to the city's purchase of the former Standard Federal Bank building at 333 N. Second St. By the end of the summer, city government and utility department offices are expected to move into the former bank, allowing the former Chapin Mansion to become the Chapin Mansion Museum.
That's the hope, anyway. As Carol Bainbridge, director of the Fort St. Joseph Museum that's housed in the mansion's former carriage house, points out, it's too early to say specifically how the property will be converted into a house museum. All she knows for certain is the bottom line, as with most projects, is money.
The fundraising aspect of the property's restoration will start Friday when a massive book sale unfolds at the former home of the late Ralph Casperson at 1303 Niles-Buchanan Road. The city's most voracious reader, Casperson, 89 when he died three years ago, had amassed a collection of well over 100,000 books, some of which are now available at a downtown bookshop operated by Casperson's son, Al. Al Casperson took over the shop and will make available over the next two weekends some 13,000 to 16,000 books in more than 30 categories.
As for cash currently on hand for the restoration, Bainbridge said she's hopeful Niles City Council will appropriate this year $140,000 in community development block grant funds. The money would represent a "good start,'' she said, and might be enough to address such exterior issues as a run-down front porch.
However, much more will be needed if the Queen Anne-style, stained-glass windowed, three-floor, four-bedroom, five- or six-bathroom, nine-fireplace -- yes, nine, each with its own intricate woodwork -- structure is to appear as it did in its heyday. At one time, the house even featured a steam-powered elevator that transported guests to and from a third-floor ballroom.
Although a few furnishings remain in the city's possession, Bainbridge said most items were auctioned off just before the home's conversion to City Hall. She asked that anyone still in possession of such items contact her at 269-683-4700, ext. 212.
"I want to know what's out there, of the original stuff ... but we can interpret that house without furnishing it," Bainbridge said. "That house stands on its own. We can interpret the family and also its architecture."
The architecture is such, she said, that there may be no other building like it in Michigan or Indiana. The interior reflected a Japanese influence, with delicate stenciling and murals appearing on the walls throughout most of the first floor, Bainbridge said.
"It's probably still there, under the paint," she said. "Can we bring it back? It has to happen, although not right away."
Although impressive, the mansion isn't expansive simply because Chapin's family was small and there was no need for a lot of space, Bainbridge said. He spent $27,000 on the home, which in today's dollars would amount to a little more than $600,000.
Bainbridge said there's "huge excitement" regarding the restoration project, with a number of residents offering to help. But given the need to be historically accurate, professionals will be required to perform most of the work, she said.
There is one area in which she'd welcome assistance, however.
"They can help with fundraising. We need money for this to happen," she said.
Staff writer Lou Mumford: