Carthage was home to the world’s largest gray marble quarry, which provided marble for the home’s exterior, as well as the Jasper County Courthouse and the state Capitol.
By Gretchen Fuhrman
The historic Phelps House might be flawless. Strong hands and wise minds planned every detail. The crystal doorknobs, the ribbons of Italian wood that weave throughout the ceiling, the twilight skyscape painted above the ballroom, and even the original family crest painted in rich, deep colors on the library walls—all have been intact since the home’s birth in the late 1800s.
History runs deep here. It seeps from the antique walls and causes visitors who walk its halls to question what century they are in.
“This is an uncommon house,” says Judy Hill. She should know. She’s admired the home since her childhood and has been its event coordinator for twenty-five years.
More than 640 properties in Carthage are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Phelps House at 1146 South Grand Avenue is one of them, but it’s unlike the others. It was built and owned by the same family for over sixty-four years until it was sold to St. Ann’s Parish in 1959. Carthage Historic Preservation bought the home in 1979 and has owned it ever since, giving public tours and opening the venue for special events.
Pat Phelps is the grandson of the builder and its first owner, William Phelps. Pat and his wife, Carolyn, can tell you a lot about William and his home.
William, a New Yorker, journeyed west to practice law immediately after he graduated from Albany Law School in 1867. While traveling, he met a woman from Ohio named Lois Wilson. While their love blossomed, William continued his journey, eventually landing in Southwest Missouri, a developing area that needed lawyers, which was promising for his practice. After he settled down there, he returned to Ohio to marry Lois and brought her back to the region where he would build his home decades later.
In the library, intricate Italian wood designs lace throughout the ceiling. Oak, cherry, and American walnut are accompanied by windows of curved glass.
A civic-minded citizen, William served in the State House and Senate. He was also the primary attorney for the Missouri Pacific Railroad. Pat says that his grandfather was likely drawn to Carthage because it was the county seat and one of Jasper County’s first cities.
This prime location enabled William to assist the railroad with his legal expertise, which also gave him power in politics. A framed campaign poster of William still hangs in the gentlemens’ smoking room.
As his career took off, William built the home for his family in what would become the South Historic District of Carthage. His position with the railroad required him to be mobile, so his Carthage home was only one of his three residences; the other two were in St. Louis and Jefferson City.
William and Lois spent twenty-five years together and raised their three children Helene, Florence, and William Jr.—in Carthage. However in 1894, Lois was killed in a runaway carriage accident in St. Louis. She was never able to live inside the home, which was completed shortly after her death in 1895. William continued to care for his three children and, in 1905, married Bridget O’Leary, a young woman from Ireland who originally served as his secretary. They had two more sons: Cyrus and George. Together, they enjoyed entertaining guests, gave back to the community, and, on one occasion, hosted a vice president.
Although they shared many happy times, they also experienced adversities. Judy recalls that in 1899, William became very ill. The railroad leaders in St. Louis were concerned that their primary attorney would not recover, so in addition to local doctors, they also sent doctors from St. Louis to care for him. After some time, William regained his health.
Seventeen years after, while recovering from surgery at Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, he died in 1916.
Decades later, Bridget sold the property to the St. Ann’s Parish, which they used as their elementary school. Nuns served as the teachers, and children filled every room from the basement to the third-floor ballroom. The solarium served as the chapel and had an altar. The gentlemen’s smoking room was converted into an office for the principal.
Original drawing plans, a photograph of William Phelps’s son, and other memorabilia are in the gentlemens’ smoking parlor.
It was during this time that the home survived the Hercules Powder Plant blast on July 14, 1968. The town still remembers that day of panic when a manufacturing company producing dynamite and nitro exploded just outside of Carthage.
“All of a sudden, there was this huge mushroom cloud and a bang like
you had never heard before,” Judy says. “Everything was covered in dust.” The blast shattered windows on the town square, several buildings suffered major structural cracks, and one person died. National news outlets inaccurately reported that the town had been leveled to the ground, which caused relatives and friends of Carthage residents to frantically phone their loved ones. However, the Phelps House was untouched.
Apparently, the home is immune to explosions and unaffected by time. Inside, you’ll notice that the structure and details have maintained the same charm and sophistication for more than a hundred years.
Pat and Carolyn are passionate about preserving the structure and details of the home. Although William died many years before his grandson was born, Pat can recall family stories passed down from his grandmother, Bridget, which enabled him to visualize how the home might have looked during William’s time there. Pat can also remember some details about the home from his childhood. In addition to the couple’s accounts, Carthage Historic Preservation was able to gather historical information from the local library.
In the ladies’ parlor, visitors can see some of the home’s original aesthetics. The furniture in this room was purchased at a French exhibit at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis.
Judy says that during the restoration, they retouched the home to look as it did in 1895 and that, if questions arose, they could easily consult Pat and Carolyn.
Pat recalls the main challenge they faced was keeping the original elements intact during repairs. In one instance, the library’s original curved wood ceiling shipped from Europe had a lincrusta center (a pliable type of plaster) and began to show water damage. Careful repairs were made around the detailed elements.
In addition to the ceilings, you’ll see the original brass light fixtures. These could run on both gas and electric power, so the family could use gas until electricity arrived in Carthage. The home’s ten fireplaces have different combinations of tile, marble, and onyx. There’s the original claw- foot tub, the original ceiling treatments, leaded-glass bookcases, a heated cloak closet, pocket-doors to retain heat from the fireplaces, and thick, canvas-type wall-coverings on the first floor, which are made from printed paper that resembles leather.
Bridget was known to repair and care for things, rather than purchase new items to replace those that were worn or old. Judy says that’s another factor that contributes to the home’s proliferation of original aesthetics.
“It was made to last forever,” Judy says.
Preservation of the original elements can be seen from the exterior as well. When the roof required replacing, the same company that produced the original clay tiles when the home was built provided exact matches of the materials to maintain the familiar cover and appearance of the home. The Ludowici Roof Tile Company is a more than three-hundred-year-old company that started in Italy until it relocated to New Lexington, Ohio.
Bridget’s bedroom is called the White Room.
The ladies’ parlor has hand-painted canvas walls, original pastels, and whimsical brush-stroke designs on the ceiling, as well as furniture with gold leaf trim that the Phelps family purchased from the French exhibit of the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904. After Carthage Historic Preservation ran an “Adopt a Room” campaign in the early 1990s, period pieces of furniture were either donated or on-loan from local families who wanted to preserve the home’s original appearance.
On the third floor, visitors will have their head in the clouds. The ceiling was restored around ten years ago by Matt Myers, an artist and muralist within the hospitality industry. His portfolio included all types of artwork for hotels, including a major theme resort in Orlando, nightclubs, and cruise ships around the world.
Matt grew up in Kansas City, and after moving around, he relocated to Webb City. In between his larger commercial projects, Carolyn Phelps asked him to restore different elements inside the Phelps House—predominantly the ballroom ceiling.
When Matt approached the project, the ceiling was a blank white canvas. Stories that were passed down alluded that the original ballroom ceiling consisted of painted stars and constellations. However, since there was no photograph of the room, Matt developed the design and style by using past projects to envision how the original ballroom might have appeared.
The bedroom of William Phelps is decorated with furniture from the period. The bed frame has ornate carvings that echo the home’s opulence
“We wanted a real intense color with beautiful depth,” Matt says. “It gives you a sense of that sort of thrill that you have when under an actual starry sky.”
With no obstructions in the room, he was able to move around the ceiling as he blended the clouds, stars, and varying colors. He used a glossy oil paint for the sky and a matte finish for the stars, allowing them to shimmer in the glossy glow of the celestial sphere that would have floated above the lavish dances and parties that took place below.
Along the floor, dancers have etched marks into the vintage hardwood. You can imagine the music humming, laughter, and glasses clinking in the air—traces of delightful nights that once filled the ballroom.
Ten years ago, artist Matt Myers used indigo, ultramarine, cerulean, and cobalt oil paints to recreate the ballroom ceiling’s night sky. He sat and stood on a scaffold as he painted.
“People say, ‘We appreciate having access to a place like this,’” says Judy. “It’s part of our history. And people want to keep it that way. It’s by far the most original home that we have in terms of historical homes in Carthage.”
Anyone can visit the home during public tours on Wednesdays from April to November. The home can be rented for weddings, receptions, showers, family reunions, and parties.
Groups of more than twenty-five people can savor a homemade luncheon and dinner prepared by Judy Goff, a Carthage historian and passionate restorer of The Phelps House.
The home is also one of the highlights of the renowned Christmas Homes Tour that takes place every other year in Carthage.