It could have happened like this in February 1882:
Famous writer Oscar Wilde, in Cincinnati to deliver a talk downtown, exits his carriage, walks through a massive oak door and saunters into the grand central hall of Henry Probasco’s Clifton mansion.
The 27-year-old Wilde, who has come to view Probasco’s extensive fine art and book collections, doffs his fur-collared velvet cape and signature floppy hat and surveys the great hall’s Norman arches and baronial staircase.
His jaw drops.
“Brilliant! I feel as if I were back in Britain,” Wilde might have said.
Probasco’s place still has that kind of effect on people.
Built with $500,000 (about $13 mllion today) and then filled with paintings, sculpture, rare documents and books the wealthy hardware merchant collected from around the world, the house was and still is a worthy rival of England’s grand country mansions of Wilde’s time.
The 1866 estate that Probasco named Oakwood could have just as easily been named Baby Biltmore, except that George Vanderbilt didn’t build his 179,000-square-foot North Carolina home until 1895.
Probasco, best known for giving the people of Cincinnati the Tyler Davidson Fountain in 1871, hired the best men he could to create his Clifton kingdom: Irish architect William Tinsley; British-born wood carvers Henry and William Fry; New York furniture maker Herter Bros.; Italian-born fresco artist Francis Pedretti; and German landscape architect Adolph Strauch.
The long-gone grounds – including drives, stone steps, fountains, benches, lakes, trees from as far away as Japan and a 4,000-plant rosarium – were of “a degree of beauty not equaled anywhere else on the American continent if in the world,” wrote George Mortimer Roe in his 1895 book “Cincinnati: The Queen City of the West.”
With Probasco’s mansion, which has 12,047 square feet of living space, six bedrooms and 4½ bathrooms, Tinsley set the standard for country estates of Cincinnatians desiring to escape the industrial dirt and constant bustle of the city.
The Man Behind Our Fountain
Henry Probasco came to Cincinnati alone at age 15, worked hard in the hardware business, married the boss’ sister and honored his life with the Tyler Davidson Fountain.
He got the job in what was essentially a contest among other prominent architects and was the first area architect to combine rough limestone with hammered sandstone on the exterior of a residence. The strikingly textured style inspired many Cincinnati architects.
Tinsley placed the 120-foot by 70-foot Norman Revival home on the ridge of Probasco’s 29-acre property, which was bordered by the Miami-Erie Canal to the north and Lafayette Avenue to the south.
Oakwood’s grounds flowed seamlessly with the landscape beyond: the Strauch-designed Spring Grove Cemetery where Probasco served for 30 years as president.
Construction of the house started in 1860 and lasted five years. Dates carved into wood trim on the first floor and in the second floor’s octagonal rotunda plot the lengthy process.
Henry and Julia Probasco, the half-sister of his hardware business mentor and partner, Tyler Davidson, moved into Oakwood in 1866. Julia died childless in 1886.
A year later, 67-year-old Henry married the daughter of his fellow “Baron of Clifton” John Sherlock. Henry and Grace Sherlock, who was 36 years his junior, soon had a girl named Grace and a boy named Henry. They lived in Oakwood until sometime in the mid-1890s, a few years before Probasco had to sell the mansion to ward off his creditors in court.
At that time, much of Oakwood’s first floor was darker and more masculine than it is today. Gone are the vertically striped wall panels in the Normanesque great hall and the floor-to-ceiling library bookshelves in what is now the dining room.
The hand-painted red walls of the porte-cochere hallway on the house’s east side were papered over. But they have been restored to their original state based on a surviving small square of the original fresco.
The current owners, John and Sara Neyer, removed wallpaper and had most of the remaining walls painted in light tones that make the Frys’ intricately carved wood features pop dramatically.
Neyer, who is founder and CEO of Neyer Management, a commercial property management firm, and his wife of 17 years met while attending DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind. He knew the house well because a good friend had lived next door.
The Neyers purchased the 1.7-acre property (Probasco’s 29 acres were subdivided in the 20th century) and mansion – listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1971 – in June 2012. The couple is accustomed to large homes; their former house had been owned by attorney Stan Chesley.
But they’ve done their best to overcome the vastness of Oakwood, setting it up and decorating it so it feels like a family home to their two children.
As the Neyers show off the carved white oak archways and ceiling beams in the 70-foot-deep great hall, John Neyer jokes about his girls’ dream of a badminton match there.
Oscar Wilde would have approved.
Q & A with the Neyers
What inspired you to buy this particular property?
One of John’s best friends in high school (St. Xavier) lived next door, so he had known the house for 25 years. It had always captured his attention with its history and connection to Fountain Square. What inspired us, though, is when we determined that, even with all of the house’s Cincinnati history, we could make it be a joyful and fun-filled home for our family. Sara took some convincing that the house could be a warm, fun space but its history and character (and John’s excitement over the place) won her over.
What is your favorite place in the house?
John: In the daytime, it’s my office, with the huge windows and large desk that let me spread out. At night, it’s the tower where the view of the twinkling lights of the Millcreek Valley paint a surprisingly pretty landscape.
Sara: The dining room has been a favorite for me. I always envisioned a home where people gathered around a big table to eat and laugh and talk. We use the dining room at least three times a month but it isn’t generally for a full-fledged party. More typically it is family and friends with Indian takeout or a potluck or even a gaggle of loud young teens having post-sleepover bagels. We use it for game nights and homework.
What has been the biggest challenge the house has presented?
The hardest thing has been to make sure the house works as a family home. It was built as a family home, but for a different era. It can be easy to fall into the trap of letting the house be a museum of itself. We try to honor and preserve that history, but we have worked to lighten it and make it first and foremost work for our family. It’s easy to take it too seriously. While we recognize that we have a treasure, we like to think that Henry and Grace Probasco raised a young family here and so we use it for ours.
What is it like to hold a party or celebration in such a grand house?
We love that the house never feels too full. We’ve crammed a lot of people in here for various events and parties and it is absolutely a fun place to throw a party. It turns out to be pretty versatile, too! We’ve had very grand, formal events and benefit dinners for candidates or organizations we support. But we can also have a group of fifth-graders for an afternoon of Nerf darts in the foyer. ■
House tour includes Oakwood
What: Historic Houses of Lafayette Avenue, including Oakwood, Scarlet Oaks and Stonehedge
When: 1-5 p.m. May 10
Where: Will call and parking at the Cincinnati Women’s Club, 330 Lafayette Ave., Clifton
Admission: $25 for CPA members and $30 for nonmembers. Mail payments to 342 W. Fourth St., Cincinnati, OH 45202, or reserve at www.cincinnatipreservation.org. Cash, checks, Visa and MasterCard accepted.
Grandest of grand staircases
Englishman Henry Fry and his son William Henry Fry drew inspiration from the Probasco estate’s property – such as oak leaves, acorns, holly and grape vines – and carved in non-repetitive fashion.
The result is some of the finest residential trim and one of the most breath-taking staircases in America.
Legend has it the staircase, wide enough for Scarlett O’Hara to traverse with room to spare, took the Frys and their carving crew three years to complete.
It “is one of the most splendid staircases of its date in America and rivals the best English interiors of the Norman revival,” wrote Cincinnati historian Walter E. Langsam and University of Cincinnati architecture professor Patrick A. Snadon in “Cincinnati Art-carved Furniture and Interiors.”