Frozen In Time
The Inn has changed very little in the last 100 years, including retaining all of its light fixtures, furniture, decorations, and most of the bathroom fixtures.
The family of Columbus businessman, Joseph Irwin, moved into its new home at Fifth and Mechanic Street (now Lafayette Avenue) in 1864. It was of modest Victorian design, with low-pitched roofs and over-hanging eaves supported by brackets. Other distinctive features were the lacy iron railing and small “widow’s walk” on the roof. The original home was much smaller than the home you see today. To accommodate four generations of the Irwin family, the home has been enlarged and redesigned several times, first in 1890 and again in 1910.
After founding Irwin Union Bank & Trust in the 1870’s, Joseph Irwin remodeled and enlarged the house in 1890 to reflect his increasing wealth. Below you can see the house more than doubles in size, and the third floor is added on.
The final 1910 remodel by Massachusetts architect Henry A. Philips erased the remaining details of the original 1864 house. The opulent Victorian interior was removed and the sleeker, Edwardian style replaced it. Fine oak was imported from England, the tiles from France and Wales, and Italian marble for the family’s five fireplaces. The main living rooms and bedrooms have paneled walls or are covered with stretched brocade or silk instead of wallpaper. The house was the epitome of modern innovation. Gas lighting was removed and electricity was installed in its place. A hydraulic elevator (still functional), telephone, intercom, central vacuum system and a huge wood-heated clothes dryer were revolutionary additions. The old brick exterior was covered by a “tapestry brick” with stone trim, and several new chimneys were added which are now a prominent feature of the house. The veranda facing Fifth Street was removed. A bay window was added to the bedroom on the second floor on the west side and a portico was created at the west door. To accommodate additional service facilities, the house was extended on the north side. The roof line was altered by raising its pitch, adding several new sections and re-covering the roof with multi-colored Vermont slate. This change in profile provided a more spacious third floor. Virtually nothing about the house has changed since the 1910 remodel including wood trim, plaster moldings and and most of the bathroom tile and fixtures. The furnishings were purchased with the property, most of which date to (or in some cases, pre-date) the 1910 remodel.
The Italianate gardens, begun in 1910 and finished in 1913, are inspired by a garden excavated at Pompeii. A raised terrace links the house to the gardens. On the terrace, you will find quotations inscribed on the roof beams, seven stained glass motifs in the library windows, each representing a day of the week and four impish faces carved in limestone representing the seasons of the
year—spring, summer, fall and winter.
Just below the terrace on the upper lawn are two turtle pond fountains and the wisteria-covered pergolas. The wisteria vines were planted around the 1920's. They are the only original planting still left in the garden. Under the pergolas are four sculpted marble busts depicting four Greek philosophers: Socrates, Diogenes, Plato and Aristotle. These are reproductions of garden statues at Emperor Hadrian’s Villa at Tivoli, near Rome. A brick arch in the
north pergola leads to a small evergreen shade garden. The shade garden originally contained a fifth water feature—the heron fountain—which has been removed to await restoration.
Below the upper lawn is the sunken garden. On the north side of the sunken garden stands a bronze elephant which was originally a feature in the Japanese Pavilion during the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. Exposure and winter weather required the elephant to be recast in 1932. The casting was a marvel of foundry expertise and was executed by Columbus’ now closed Golden Foundry. On the south side of the sunken garden, near the Fifth Street gate stands a medieval Italian wishing well.
Just to the east of the wishing well is a small green gate leading to the formal herb garden. Originally the family‘s rose garden, this small, walled corner was repurposed in 1985 to grow over one hundred different types of herbs. On the hill above the sunken garden stands the tea house. The tea house is of Roman-Pompeian design and decoration. It has no “use” other than to serve as another vantage point from which to enjoy the gardens and to help protect the marble fountainhead of the garden’s largest water feature—the descending fountain. The trees lining the tea house slope are large-leaf Lindons which are trimmed or “knuckled” every February.
Several notable landscape architects have made helpful
contributions to the changes in planting that have taken place over the years, including Dan Kiley of Vermont, Terry Schnadelbach of New York, and Jack Curtis of Connecticut.
In late 2009, the property and furnishings were sold to Dr. Chris and Jessica Stevens of Columbus, Indiana. On Valentine’s Day in 2010, the Irwin’s ancestral home began the next phase of its history as the Inn at Irwin Gardens. Since 1911, it was the Irwin family’s custom to open the garden to visitors on the weekends without charge. During the 2008–2012 period, the sale of the house and subsequent restoration of deteriorating brick and limestone kept the gardens closed to the general public. In the summer of 2012, we were pleased to reopen the gardens during certain days of the week, though renovation work still continues on the fountains, walls and plant beds.