HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WHNT) - If the grandeur of the Queen Anne castle-style architecture of the former McCormick Estate on Kildare Street, also known as Kildare Mansion in north Huntsville wasn’t enough to make passersby on Oakwood Avenue stop in their tracks to gawk – a new feature emerged late last year, certainly contributing to the home’s wow factor.
In October 2013, the owner of the 17,000 square foot 40-room mansion finished in 1889 -- in an effort to preserve privacy – began building a massive fence around the property.
One WHNT News 19 viewer emailed calling the structure an "abomination," asking how the structure could possibly be allowed.
In July 2013, the city of Huntsville entered into a license agreement with McCormick Estate property owner Dwight Wright. The property is subject to city right-of-way down the east boundary of the property along Kildare Street. The agreement indicates Wright submitted a formal request to the city council which granted him the ability to construct a fence along the city right-of-way in order to ‘secure the property and prevent trespassing.’
Wright had the city’s blessing to construct the fence as stipulated in the survey map along the boundary of the 1.14 acre lot.
The agreement in no way stipulated a specific or acceptable height of the fence. In fact, owners say they went to great lengths to contact every city entity imaginable to ensure - before embarking on the investment for construction - that the fence was in accordance with every city building ordinance.
"Before I built the fence I went through every city department that I could think of that would have jurisdiction over fences and checked all the ordinances to make sure that what I had planned and what had been designed was indeed in compliance with city fence ordinances," Wright reminds.
However, City Engineer Shane Davis says when the city entered into a use agreement with the Mr. Wright, they assumed the structure would be more like a four-foot decorative picket fence – not a towering battlement parapet, as some have characterized the fence.
Davis said last October the city entered into a stop motion order on the project and that work would be stopped. “It will come down,” Davis said at the time.
The fence did not come down. In fact, construction continued to include a massive gate which encloses the property's entrance/driveway.
One look at the facade of the grand structure situated amid modest homes on Kildare Street in north Huntsville and it's easy to understand.
Kildare, as it was first called, rewards modern visitors with an exuberant visual display of towers, turrets, tall chimneys, projecting pavilions, porches, bays and encircling verandas.
But most of those visitors certainly do not exhibit or reciprocate the gentility and poise typical of the Victorian Era.
Owner Dwight Wright says almost as well documented as the mansion's illustrious and storied past, are the incidents of disrespect aimed toward the home and its current occupants.
"We've had people show up and throw rocks at the house, we've had people show up and throw rocks at us - they've threatened our lives," Wright laments.
Some of those rocks damage the roof's slate tile.
"Two weekends ago when it rained, we had a new leak."
Wright says he understand some want to stop just to admire the architecture. But due to the continued problems, and the serious nature of those problems, Kildare's residents say they remain on constant guard in their own home.
"We can't tell if those people are just coming by to admire it or if they're the next person to throw rocks or make a threat against us."
Hence - the fence.
After the city council unanimously approved the license agreement in 2013 granting Wright the go-ahead for construction - and following the city's subsequent qualms regarding the fence's height - council members then brought up the issue of liability.
"Peter Joffrion, the city attorney, had stated many times publicly that they were concerned about the city liability. He expressed that they were worried if a car hit it, it was so strongly constructed that it wouldn't break away and also worried that it wasn't strong enough that if we had a storm that it could blow over and injure someone on the street."
Wright then learned that he could add the city on a $500,000 liability policy - more liability insurance that the city would have actually carried - thinking that would address the issue and become part of the mutual agreement.
But the battle forges on; the Kildare fence issue was most recently continued as an agenda item at last week's city council meeting.
"Negotiations are still going on, we're still trying to work toward a solution that's going to make everyone happy and I feel like we're going to get there - it's just going to take some give and take," Wright says optimistically.
Wright says aside from constant harassment from passersby and spectators, there is much more history behind his struggle to construct a privacy fence - going all the way back to when Kildare Street itself was established in 1932.
Original city right-of-way was designed around a traffic triangle that was proposed for Kildare Street at the intersection of Swanson Drive. Though Kildare Street never saw that triangle, the right-of-way intended to allot for the feature was never amended.
Wright, who bought Kildare in 2007, has actually been attempting to build a fence in front of the property along the paved road for several years.
"Actually it started in 2009 when I learned the right-of-way was so unusual in front of this house," Wright explains. "It actually cuts a diagonal across the front yard and at the northern end of the property - the end away form the major intersection - it's actually more than 30 feet from the paved road."
Wright says the issue actually affects dozens of Kildare Street residents who technically own little to none of their own front yards per original plot lines.
"As you continue north down Kildare, people actually own less and less of most would consider to be their front yard."
That would explain the petition submitted to Mayor Tommy Battle and members of Huntsville City Council signed by 49 neighbors in support of the McCormick Estate fence.
The petition header reads:
"We, the undersigned, are citizens who urge our leaders to continue to support the construction of the fence, as it is currently designed, that surrounds the Historic McCormick House located at 2005 Kildare Street. We are supportive of the current owners' restoration efforts and believe that having a fence in the location specified in the license agreement made between the owner and the city of Huntsville is vital to saving this property. In addition to it state and national significance, this historic structure is a very important part of our neighborhood and we urge you to help protect and secure this asset. We feel having the currently designed fence in the current location helps to eliminate a multitude of problems that have affected the entire neighborhood over the past several years. We believe the current design is necessary to combat the growing problems and to protect this structure, its occupants, and the other residents in this area. The fence improves the quality of life for the entire neighborhood while creating no new problems."
Neighbor Dee Johnson has lived on Kildare Street for several years and says she has had plenty of run-ins with malicious visitors to the Kildare Estate.
"I did community watch here and had to chase not only teenagers but adults off from stopping and throwing rocks at the house."
Former neighbor Mandie Hodges and her family used to live directly across the street from the mansion. She says she's watched drivers cut donuts in the Kildare yard and that one particularly dangerous close call was the final straw. Once, Hodges says one of her girls was almost hit by a recklessly gawking driver. Due to the constant disturbances, the Hodges family decided to relocate.
"I have three little girls and it was not safe for them to play in the front yard because as people looked over they would drive into my yard. They would park in my side yard and yell obscenities over to the Kildare house."
Peggy Parker was raised in the neighborhood - the Kildare home a staple of her childhood memories. She says she hopes the petition will send a strong enough message to members of city council.
"I think it speaks for the neighbors who are really concerned," says Parker. "If you're not concerned enough to be outspoken and to speak what you feel - don't complain about it."
Many have shown up at council meetings to do just that on behalf of the estate owners.
"A big thing is realizing why this tall fence is actually needed," says Dwight Wright. "There's a real problem - the house is still being vandalized and a tall fence is needed to protect it - it's just a necessity at this point."
Last week Huntsville City Council President Mark Russell - whose district the Kildare House lies in - told WHNT News 19, "We want the two parties to negotiate; we want the administration and Dwight Wright to negotiate and come up with a reasonable solution."
The Kildare House fence debate is scheduled to be back on the city council agenda Thursday, June 26.
History of the Kildare Mansion
History by Diane Ellis and Maureen Drost of 'The History Huntsville Quarterly'
Just off Oakwood Avenue, about a block northwest of that busy thoroughfare’s intersection with Meridian Street, stands a grand 19th-century mansion considered to be one of the finest Queen Anne-style residences in Alabama. This extraordinary three-story house was built in the 1880s for northern businessman Michael O’Shaughnessy, who was moving, with his wife and five children, from Mrs. O’Shaughnessy’s family home in Nashville to pursue business ventures in Huntsville. O’Shaughnessy named his new house and the property’s 71 acres Kildare, in honor of the Irish county where he was born in 1833.
From the beginning, Kildare drew widespread interest from local newspapers and the public. In October 1886 the Huntsville Democrat reported on the building’s construction, observing that “Major O’Shaughnessy’s residence on the Meridianville Pike is progressing finely, already its proportions are beginning to show up handsomely, the walls of one story being nearly completed.” A few months later the rival Huntsville Mercury declared that “In every detail, no residence in the county will surpass [the house].”
And when the mansion was completed in 1887, a reporter for the Huntsville Independent toured O’Shaughnessy’s new house and described what he saw: “A week ago we had the pleasure of going through the summer residence built here by Mr. O’Shaughnessy, and we could not but admire the taste displayed in the furnishings. ... The parlors, dining room and bedrooms are nicely but richly furnished, and the modern conveniences prove that wealth has been scattered with a lavish hand. For miles in every direction, broad drives are being laid off.”
Three years later, The Huntsville Independent was still singing the praises of the O’Shaughnessy mansion when one of its reporters compared Kildare to an ancient castle because of its massiveness.
Perhaps as fine a home as a gentleman of culture and artistic taste could desire is the home of Major M.J. O’Shaughnessy in the suburbs of Huntsville. The floors, casements, stairways, molding, and wood finishings of the house are of native wood that the Major has picked during the past eight years, and the sawings, dressings, and molding are of his own design and under his personal supervision. In the forty rooms, each is furnished in exquisite taste in the native Alabama timber of different kind and grain.
In the basement are the breakfast rooms, pantry, kitchen boiler room, and smoking [room]. On the first floor are parlors furnished in ebony and gold; another room is a symphony in brown. The ceiling decorations of hand painting and the stained glass of special shades all unite to add pleasure to the senses. The upper floor is conveniently arranged in bedrooms, billiard rooms, and observatories.
If the newspapers of the day engaged in unabashed boosterism and were inclined to worship at the altar of wealth and power, Kildare nevertheless merited their enthusiastic approval. O’Shaughnessy’s decision to build his dream house in the Queen Anne style was a highly unusual choice for his time and place. The mansion that resulted from that decision was a unique design marvel, hardly the sort of Victorian-era residence one would have expected to see in the rural Deep South of the late 1880s,” as architecture historian Robert Gamble has observed. One can understand how interest in Kildare— and in the man who could envision and afford such a showplace—kept pace with the construction of the mansion as it took shape in late19th-century Huntsville.
“Queen Anne” as a term applied to building design in our country is something of a misnomer. Architecture historian John J. G. Blumenson, who gives the years between 1880 and 1900 as the style’s heyday, explains that the style “.. .as manifested in America has little if anything to do with the architecture of the English Queen’s time. It is the first thing that comes to many peoples’ minds when a ‘Victorian mansion’ is mentioned.”
For many people, Queen Anne architecture continues to hold a special fascination. Part of this attraction lies in the nostalgic familiarity of large Queen Anne houses that recall the settings of favorite children’s stories, especially ones set in English mansions with nannies, secret passage ways, and things that go bump in the night. At an adult level, it is the Queen Anne style’s complex harmony of varied designs and materials that engages the imagination. Intriguingly busy buildings, they nevertheless project a serious wholeness that commands respect. Reactions to Queen Anne houses may be as varied as the designs and materials of the houses themselves: amusement, astonishment, bewilderment, delight— but never indifference.
Blumenson calls the Queen Anne “...a most varied and decoratively rich style. The asymmetrical composition consists of a variety of forms, textures, materials and colors. Architectural parts include towers, turrets, tall chimneys, projecting pavilions, porches, bays and encircling verandahs. The textured wall surfaces occasionally are complemented by colored glass panels in the windows. Elements and forms from many styles are manipulated into an exuberant visual display.”
Modern visitors to Kildare are indeed rewarded with an exuberant visual display, the product of a happy marriage between stately yet spirited design and superb application of diverse building materials. Queen Anne houses, hardly the shrinking violets of the architectural styles garden, have staying power, and Kildare, a superb representative of the style’s qualities, can still inspire the kind of respect and admiration it received more than a hundred years ago.