The Lion House: one of Columbus’s most elegant homes has a complicated, often mysterious, history

On Dec. 2, as part of the Historic Tour of Homes in Columbus, Brian Luedtke welcomed some 500 guests into the Lion House, his elegant Greek Revival mansion at 1316 Third Avenue in High Uptown. These guests enjoyed the home restored, over many years and thousands of man hours by Brian, to its former glory, with some modern conveniences, and fully dressed in holiday attire, with fruit and garlands framing the doorways and a Christmas tree rising from floor nearly to ceiling in the original ballroom of the house. Lion House at Christmas is a festive sight, a harkening back to the 1840s home’s original significance. But the history of Lion House is complicated, mysterious, and the home has seen dark days.

Since its construction, which began in the early 1840s, for Dr. Thomas Hoxey and his wife, all visitors have passed between the two eponymous, cast iron Nubian lions—one awake, one asleep—who have guarded the grand home since Columbus’s days as a frontier town. Just as Dr. Hoxey and his family ascended the steps to the portico and stood amid the six Temple-of-the-Winds-style Corinthian columns, so too did Brian’s guests during the tour. 170 years after the doctor’s family and guests enjoyed the solidity of the Egyptian flare of the door frames, contemporary Columbus residents enjoyed the same experience of standing on the wide portico, under the flying balcony, and being able to gaze west across the river. But for all of the home’s beauty, its craftsmanship and elegant details, we are lucky that this architectural icon still has a roof, still stands at all. At the nadir of this stately home’s life, it very nearly fell victim to the wrecking ball.

Design and Construction

Stephen D. Button, architect of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, would, after designing several notable buildings in the south, return to his home and help organize the Philadelphia Institute of Architects, which later became the Philadelphia Chapter of the American Institute of Architects. Of his work in the south, the most well-known was the original state house in Montgomery, Alabama, which he designed in 1847, a year after the city became the state capital. The state house, with two stories rising over a rusticated raised basement and six Temple-of-the-Wind-style corinthian columns, was destroyed by fire in 1849; but these and other details Button had used a few years earlier, in the design of a stately town home, for Columbus doctor Thomas Hoxey.

One of the oldest remaining large homes in the city, one ascends the steps to the front portico between the home’s name-sake, cast iron lions, where, between the six two-store columns, we first witness the dramatic Egyptian variations on the Greek Revival style in the sloping out of the doorways. This sloping out, which contributes to the home’s impression of firmness and immovability—an impression borne out through its history, as the home stood while its neighbors fell, however precariously—is repeated in doorways throughout the home, symmetry being paramount in classical Greek design. As one acclimates to the home’s impressive totality, that sense of quietly confident importance that Button borrowed from Greek religio-civic construction, the lively embellishments begin to come into focus. The capitals atop the columns on the portico inaugurate a lotus leaf motif, which will repeat in the fluted columns that midway flank the grand hallway inside. Above the front entry and, as expected, above doorways throughout, are hand-carved designs out of Minard Lefever’s “Beauties of Modern Architecture,” which, with stunning results in homes like the Lion House, helped set the standard for antebellum high architectural style.

In the hallway today we see the original longleaf pine floors; originally, these floors would have been painted Pompeiian red, like the walls, but are now finished to elegantly show their age. Through doorways on the left we enter the two ballrooms, separated by pocket doors, rooms that Brian has converted into a formal living and dining room. Both rooms are richly appointed with antique furniture, some pieces contemporary to the home’s construction, some pre-dating. To the right of the grand hall were the original dining room and parlor. Brian, who lives in Lion House, converted the parlor into a cozy living room and the dining room into a modern kitchen. The original kitchen was a two-room building behind the home, which long ago met the fate nearly suffered by the main house. At the far end of the hall is a grand staircase that circles up to the second floor. There, the original bedrooms are still used for their intended purpose.

The Lion House was built to be lived in, yes, but also to be a show place. Three years after leading a military expedition against Creek Indians—who, unwilling to be forcefully removed west to make room for more white settlers, were moving south to join with equally independent Seminoles in Florida—Dr. Thomas Hoxey founded the Columbus Lyceum Society. Organizations of this kind, named for a temple dedicated to Apollo and most famous as the home of Aristotle’s Peripatetic school of philosophy, were common in important American communities, and would have hosted lectures on intellectual subjects, which Columbus historical records describe as “one of the most valuable societies the city ever had, by furnishing entertainment and instruction to the people.” Hoxey was a man of culture, and the Lion House would serve as an important cultural home for Columbus, including as the site for the city’s original Cotillion Club. Down the grand staircase came many a southern belle to greet her beau.

Mysteries and the Macabre

Rumor and mystery surrounds many of Columbus’s historic homes, and the Lion House boasts a trifecta of historic home mystique. Does the rubble-filled passage behind a basement door obstruct a secret tunnel; and, if so, where did the tunnel once lead? Is there a ghost, and is it of one of the Creek warriors said to be buried somewhere in the backyard? And why was there a cache of gold hidden in a window casing—when was it stashed there, and by whom?

Many of the stories told about the Lion House conflict. A 1968 story in the Ledger-Enquirer, by WC Woodall, claims that no one knows why the underground passage was built; however, there are two prominent theories advanced in the historical records, and both are probably true.

That there was a secret underground passage or tunnel doesn’t seem to be true, though; there seems almost no doubt whatsoever that the tunnel did exist, so the “secret” descriptor is misleading. Also in dispute is the terminus of the tunnel. The National Register of Historic Places Nomination form claims that the tunnel led to the Chattahoochee River. Brian believes otherwise.

Following a 1944 Ledger-Enquirer article and an historic Columbus map, Brian believes that the tunnel’s path led to the site of the old Racine Hotel, at 13th Street and First Avenue, where it “emerged on the banks of what was then a shallow lake,” according to the Ledger. The lake, as described in the article and in historical maps, did exist—as Brian explains, much of the area was swampy and had to be drained—and though exact dimensions of the lake vary, from 16th to 12th Streets seems a fair estimation. Ralph Jones, quoted in the article as “something of an historical expert about Columbus,” relates a common story about a team of mules being hidden there as Union troops approached the city in 1865.

Mrs. Ralston J. Cargill, who lived in Lion House and is also quoted in the 1944 article, says the tunnel was built because, when Columbus was first established, residents feared what she calls “attack by hostile tribes.” No doubt, though, that those Native Americans would have disputed which group of people were the aggressors. Still, the tunnel seems certainly to have been used, as the National Register of Historic Places Nomination has it, as an “escape mechanism during times of danger.” All of the records describe a doorway in the basement behind which appears to be a passage now filled with rubble.

As for the ghost at Lion House, of this legend there is less documentation. In the 1944 newspaper article, Ralph Jones is convinced that two Native Americans are buried in the backyard. Jones is quoted as saying, “this fact being known to antebellum slaves probably led to their first whisperings of the house being haunted,” a story that is cited in other sources as being attributed to a post-war cook who worked at the home, though these sources indicated that the residents of the Lion House never reported any hauntings themselves.

As for a secret cache of gold coins, this discovery is also well documented. Unfortunately, none of the sources tell us who put the gold there, or when, or for what reason.

The Decline

The Second World War, during which Fort Banning grew into one of the most important military installations in the country, dramatically changed Columbus. After the war, as the men returned home and started families, as the population of Columbus boomed, High Uptown, the site of many grand historic homes, began to turn commercial. The old families discovered that their ancient houses were more valuable as commercial property, and many of the homes were torn down and replaced with commercial buildings.

Rather than being demolished, the Lion House endured two major transformations. First, the home was converted into offices. Occupying parts of the home at different times were school district offices and a music and dance school. After the home was used for offices, it was converted into nine individual apartments, and here is where the history of the once stately home becomes the story of decay, poverty and destruction.

A 1980 Ledger-Enquirer article reads, “The grandeur of [the Lion House’s] entrance is mocked… by abandoned appliances, occasional “rent due” notices and a chandelier with only a few light bulbs.” For anyone who has visited the home, now restored by Brian, and who appreciates the beauty of the old place, reading this and other accounts from this nadir in the home’s history is difficult. “The look of strength,” reads the article, “has vanished.”

By the early 80s, the home was used as a “trick house,” where prostitutes entertained clients. One apartment door displayed a sign reading, “Don’t no women stay here,” so as to save certain visitors time as they called on various apartments in search of company. Another sign, an arrow beside a locked upstairs door, was drawn along the wall and labeled with the word “LOVE,” a not-so-subtle indicator for callers.

Police at the time were well aware of the house’s use, but doing anything about the criminal activity was difficult. The actual crime of solicitation would have occurred on the streets in Uptown. From the street, the women would have taken clients to rooms at the Lion House, which would have been rented under someone else’s name. As warrants require that police know who live in an apartment, shutting down rooms used in a “trick house” was a serious challenge to the Columbus vice unit.

Reports from this period also indicate that the house was in rough shape. Though listed on the National Register of Historic Places and therefore eligible for Federal money, local matching funds were in short supply and not nearly sufficient enough to cover necessary repairs. The staircase was ramshackle, strewn with debris and detritus. Vagrants moved in and out of the house. Finally, on a Sunday in early October of 1986, there was a fire. The roof was destroyed and the upper floor badly damaged. The outlook was bleak.

Lion House Restored

But the house stands today, looking better than it has in its entire history. By January of 1987, less than a week after Ramada City Centre donated the Lion House to the Historic Columbus Foundation, workers began replacing the roof, paid for out the foundation’s proceeds from sale of the Columbus Steeplechase. Though the fire had caused $90,000 in damage, the community rallied to preserve one of its last remaining great homes, and today we all enjoy the fruits of this communal effort.

Out of this historical record are two compelling testimonies, connecting the Lion House’s past to the present, and evincing the variety of support the fire-ravaged home received. One comes from a woman living in West Chatham, Massachusetts, who wrote to the Ledger after receiving word of the fire. She writes about her husband’s grandmother, Annie Laurie Allen, who was married in the home, and describes the Lion House as “a magnificent old mansion.” Obviously working under the assumption that the house would not be saved, she offers to take the lions; “failing that,” she writes, “I hope somebody else will take care of them.”

The other testimony comes from Clason Kyle, long-time Columbus resident who wrote for the Ledger. Clason wrote many times about the Lion House, including its 1972 ascension to the National Register of Historic Places. About a month after the fire, Clason’s headline reads “‘Lady’ Desperately Needs a Hat” and he wonders if anyone cares about the home. His concern is the rain then falling on the house; as Clason writes, “As much as it blesses, nothing damages more than rain.” His is a tender, yet urgent, call to his community: from one “ardent preservationist to another” we must save this unique monument to our shared history.

These calls would be heard. Lion House was saved. Through community cooperation, the home was kept intact and safe from the wrecking ball. Then, in February of 1995, Brian Luedtke purchased the home and embarked on the dramatic restoration project we now celebrate.

If you missed this December’s Holiday Tour of Homes, mark your calendars today. Whatever chances you have to visit this unique architectural icon, take them. The Lion House, as Brian Luedtke is proud to say, is once again a “living, breathing home.”

“She’s alive again,” says Brian, just before I leave. He has taken me on a tour of his home, recalled the history and the careful process of restoration and renovation. As we shake hands on the sidewalk, I know that Brian loves this place, just as many have adored her in the past.

Columbus once branded itself with the slogan, “What progress has preserved.” When visiting Lion House, the old slogan has never been more evocative of our community’s better nature.

Tom Ingram

Tom Ingram is the editor of The Local. He is an English literature graduate of Columbus State University and Columbus native.

%d bloggers like this: