Saturday, October 13, 2018

A tale of two houses: Clifton Hill and Clifton Place

The terrace front of Clifton Place house

This tale of two grand Davenport houses --- Clifton Hill house and Clifton Place house --- is just for fun, nothing to do with my usual geographical areas of interest. Although I am interested in old houses and the fact that Clifton Place now is on the market (for $300,000 with about three acres of land) brought back a couple of memories from another life.

I found the listing via my favorite old-house site, Old House Dreams. I've used a few of the Realtor photographs; follow the link and you'll find many more as well as additional information.

The campus of the former Marycrest College, which went belly-up as Marycrest International University in 2002, was (and the remains still are) located on the grounds of what had been the Clifton Hill estate. When I used to visit there, Clifton Hill house was known as Petersen Hall --- after the family that built it.

Clifton Hill/Petersen Hall shows up to the left in this aerial photograph, surrounded by former Marycrest buildings; Clifton Place is in the center. The Putnam Museum and Science Center is to the right. The Mississippi River is in the distance.

Bob D. and I used to visit our friend, Sister J.Q., at Marycrest --- after she had been parked there by her order, the Sisters of the Humility of Mary, to teach journalism. 

Sister J.Q. was not a happy camper at the time. At age 12, designated her family's offering to the Church, she had been sent off to Ottumwa Heights and as time passed had gone through the novitiate and eventually taken her vows. Well educated by her order, she had moved from teaching assignment to teaching assignment without complaint, but by the time the Marycrest gig began she was dissatisfied, profoundly unhappy and an odds with Mother Superior. 

Eventually, she would leave the order, find a good teaching job, learn to drive, buy a car, fall in love and marry --- all during middle age.

But that was in the future when Bob and I used to head down I-80 from Iowa City on weekends now and then to visit. We had good times in the Quad-Cities and especially enjoyed poking around in Petersen Hall --- still very grand indeed but a little shabby, transitioning from housing for nuns to another use and vacant except for one elderly renegade sister who refused to move. And yes we did trespass a little and peek through the shrubbery at Clifton Place, then still very grand indeed.


Clifton Hill house was built in 1888 on a hilltop overlooking the Mississippi River northwest of downtown Davenport for Max D. and Caroline (Runge) Petersen. He was the eldest son of the founder of Davenport's Petersen's Department Store (a forerunner of what later was known as the Petersen Harned von Maur, now just Von Maur, chain of department stores). The house was designed by Davenport architect Frederick G. Clausen, who also designed the department store's downtown flagship.

The Petersens moved into the new 17-room mansion with their three children, Walter, Max Jr. and Norma. Young Max, however, died during 1896 at the age of 15 of pneumonia.

This is what the front of the house looks like now, connected to another building and hemmed in by other structures. Once upon a time, it stood solitary on its hill and was loaded with gingerbread. As I remember it, the front hall was flanked by two big drawing rooms. The entrance hall led into a stair hall with soaring open stair, lots of stained glass and a corner fireplace with the library beyond. The dining room was to the right of the stair hall with huge pantry and relatively small kitchen beyond. The original open porches had been modified and glassed into multi-season sitting rooms.


During June of 1910, Norma Petersen married Dr. Kuno Struck in what was described as the Davenport social event of the season.

In honor of the marriage, the Tudor revival mansion known as Clifton Place house was constructed just west of Clifton Hill house that year on what previously had been part of the  Clifton Hill grounds. The architects were Rudolph J. Clausen, son of Frederick, and Walter Kruse.

Although very grand indeed, the ground floor consisted of relatively few rooms --- a rambling and very large stair hall, a huge living room, a big dining room, a marble-floored solarium linking the three public spaces, and a kitchen. There were suites of bedrooms, sitting rooms and en suite bathrooms upstairs. The house also is a little odd. A symmetrical show front faces the river view, on the opposite side of the house from the entrance. On the entrance front, the very grand front door with adjacent stair bay stands next to to the far humbler back door, leading to the back stairs and kitchen. Tudor revivals never were intended to be symmetrical, but the effect here is ungainly, especially now after landscaping has been removed and garbage cans are placed out front for pickup.

Dr. Struck was a native of Davenport and a practicing physician at the time of his marriage, but soon  suspended his practice and devoted his time to the financial interests of his father-in-law and wife. He was by all accounts a renaissance man, active in all good works that occurred in Davenport during his lifetime, generous of time and money and a devoted patron of the arts. The Strucks became the parents of one child, a daughter they named Dorothy.


Max D. Petersen died during 1915, leaving Clifton Hill House and its contents to the widow, Caroline, who carried on. Son Walter was by this time a practicing attorney with at least one failed marriage under his belt and something of a worry to his family. When sober, he was an exemplary citizen and professional; when drunk, not so much.

He married for a second time in Chicago during 1920 and six years later, it was announced that Walter and his wife, Edna, would take over Clifton Hill House and move home. He was elected to the Davenport City Council not long after his return. During 1928, however, the relationship with alcohol reached a crisis stage and Walter's wife and mother jointly petitioned the court to be made his guardians. Walter agreed to admit himself to the inebriancy program at the Mount Pleasant State Hospital. He died there unexpectedly at age 51 on October 28, 1928.

Soon thereafter, a dispute between Caroline and the widow erupted. Edna had inherited the house and its contents but not the income Walter had received from his father's estate. As a result, she put Clifton Hill house on the market and scheduled an auction of its contents. Caroline, who had moved to smaller quarters after turning the house over to her son and daughter-in-law, bought Edna out during July of 1929, thereby averting the auction, too, and resumed ownership. Edna returned to Chicago.

Caroline continued to own the Clifton Hill estate until 1938 when she deeded it for what was described as nominal consideration to the Sisters of the Humility of Mary who had been looking for a site upon which to launch and build Marycrest College. The sisters moved into the house immediately and construction of the first building on what became the Marycrest campus began soon thereafter just northeast of the mansion. Caroline died in Davenport during June of 1945 at the age of 86.


Two years after Caroline's death, on March 4, 1947, death claimed her son-in-law, Kuno Struck, too, at the age of 63, at Clifton Place House. A stroke proved fatal and his death was universally lamented in Davenport. His demise left Norma and Dorothy, two very wealthy women, living in that grand hilltop mansion with servants as companions.

The entrance hall of Clifton Place house

Dorothy then began to marry, showing preference for men who most likely were gay although such things were not discussed at the time. An artist herself, three of her four husbands were closely identified with the decorative arts or fashion; all were patrons of the Davenport arts scene.

Her first marriage, to John A. Parks, occurred on June 18, 1947, at Trinity Cathedral in Davenport.  Parks was a retail buyer for a women's clothing store, active in the Davenport arts scene. They were divorced seven years later, during March of 1954, after she agreed to make him the beneficiary of a substantial settlement including property and $15,000 in cash. He continued to live in Davenport until 1982, when he died at age 65 after giving his substantial collection of Asian art objects to the Davenport Art Gallery. There were no immediate survivors.

Two months later, during May of 1954, Dorothy married Kenneth F. Kaehler, a Chicago interior decorator. They moved into Clifton Place House with Dorothy's mother and opened Kaehler Antique Shop downtown, but had only months together. Kenneth died at the age of 37 on Dec. 30, 1955, after an extended illness. He is buried in Davenport.

During the brief interval between her second and third marriages, a Quad-City Times reporter visited Norma and Dorothy at Clifton Place house and found them still living in a manner most no longer were able to afford. Although the female servants no longer lived in the house, there still was a resident gardener and a resident chauffeur, on call to transport the women --- in uniform --- in the Lincoln limousine stabled in the garage. Limousine transport was a feature of Clifton Place life for so long as Norma lived.

Dorothy's third marriage, to William J. Mundy, also of Chicago, occurred on Aug. 16, 1958. Like his predecessors, he moved into Clifton Place House and two years later opened  downtown the William Mundy Store, featuring the latest in high fashions from top designers in New York and elsewhere. For 25 years, Mundy's was the place for aspirational Quad-City women to shop.

The living room of Clifton Place house

Bill's partner, John Hammer, who moved to Davenport to open the William Mundy Store with Bill in 1960,  moved into Clifton Place House, too. There's a wonderfully descriptive story from The Times about the lavish entertaining that transpired at Clifton Place during the years this menage a trois-plus-one shared the house, Norma Struck living upstairs in one suite, John Hammer in another suite and Bill and Dorothy in a third.

The marriage ended in divorce, too --- about 1968 --- although Dorothy, Bill and John remained good friends until her death. The men established a home of their own and they lived together until John died at age 67 during November of 1985, the year the partners retired and closed their store. Bill Mundy died at the age of 79 on Oct. 14, 1990, and his remains --- as a highly decorated veteran of World War II --- were interred at the Rock Island National Cemetery.


After a few years of living alone with her mother at Clifton Place, Dorothy decided to give marriage a fourth try and was wed to James Foster Bell during May of 1972 in Rock Island. I know nothing about Bell other than the fact that he was described as a real estate developer from Phoenix, Arizona.

The solarium of Clifton Place house, looking through into the living room

Initially, the newlyweds said they planned to live in both Arizona and at Clifton Place, but Norma Petersen Struck died on Jan. 27, 1973, at the age of 88, and plans changed. By October, Clifton Place Manor was on the market and a giant household clearance sale of antiques, fine furniture, glassware --- all the contents save keepsakes --- was held Oct. 10-13.

The Bells then moved to Arizona, where they lived until his death in 1982. After that, Dorothy moved back to the Quad-Cities where she died at age 63 on Jan. 5, 1983. Although not a Catholic, memorial services were held next door to her old home --- in the Marycrest Chapel. Over the course of the years, Norma and Dorothy had become good friends with the the Sisters of Humility. Bill Mundy, her friend and former husband, and a cousin in California were the only survivors listed in her obituary.


Clifton Place house had been sold in 1973 to a property developer who did not alter the house or a majority of the grounds, but did build an apartment complex at the base of hill upon which the house sits.

In 1978, the Sisters of Humility and Marycrest College purchased the remainder of the property and the house and the estate remained part of the campus until Marycrest International University folded during 2002 after a long and sad story of decline.

The dining room of Clifton Place house
I have no idea of what's happened to the house since, only that it remains relatively intact (other than the kitchen and related service areas), appears to be in reasonably good repair and can be yours --- for $300,000.

I'm the sole survivor of that jolly trio that once amused itself by poking into every corner of the old Clifton Hill house. Both Bob and Jeannette are dead. I doubt the old house would remember us, but my goodness --- if the walls of Clifton Hill and Clifton Place only could talk what stories they could tell.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I found this article very interesting. Thank you.