People move to new cities all the time for new jobs, to be close to family, for a better climate.
But one couple just relocated to Wichita for no other reason than a house — a very old, very famous Wichita house that over the past six months they’ve completely redone in an attempt to take it back to what it may have looked like at the turn of the century .
Ralph and June Rhodes are the new owners of the historic Wey Mansion, the 1909 Queen Anne and Victorian style home that wealthy hardware store merchant Herman Wey built at 1751 N. Park Place. It’s the Midtown Wichita house that for years was known for its over-the-top Christmas decor that included life-sized Santa enclosed in Plexiglass and waving from his perch atop the porch.
The Rhodes — she a former antique store owner with a Southern lilt and he a retired oil company worker with an Arkansas drawl — married two years ago, and Ralph quickly learned that his new wife was obsessed with old houses. She grew up in one in New Jersey that today would be 175 years old, and she also spent some of her life in Charleston, where she fell in love with its antebellum homes.
June told Ralph that she’d always dreamed of owning, decorating and furnishing an old home. The couple was living at the time in the Dallas suburb of Carrollton, Texas, but he told June he was willing to move if they found the right house.
They launched an online search and considered houses in North Carolina, Wisconsin and Tennessee. They looked and looked, taking day trips and overnight trips. But they couldn’t find just what they wanted, which was an old house that didn’t need major renovations and could serve as a blank slate for June and her decorating skills.
The couple was starting to get frustrated when one day, June came across an online listing for the Wey Mansion. Boasting five bedrooms, five bathrooms and 4,353 square feet, it was on the market for $339,000.
The couple immediately made an appointment to see the house and made the seven-hour drive to Wichita. They fell in love the minute they saw it, June said.
“It was love at first sight,” June said. “We didn’t know something like this existed outside of the South.”
The Rhodes’ made an immediate offer and started the process of moving to Wichita, a whole new city where they didn’t know a soul.
An eye for the Victorian
Herman Wey built the giant house, which cost him $20,000 in 1909, as a place he could retire. But over the next century, it became a famous Wichita landmark, a house that almost felt like it belonged to the people of the city.
It’s an eye-catcher from the street — three stories with a jutting porch, dramatic second-story balcony, Corinthian pillars, Victorian dormers and a two-story carriage house in the back.
Inside, it’s even more stunning and still has all of its original fixtures and woodwork. The house boasts several sitting parlors, four fireplaces with original tile work, a conservatory, a butler’s pantry, a maid’s staircase and an attic ballroom. It has pocket doors galore, delicate fretwork, leaded and beveled glass, and a dramatic wooden staircase that greets visitors the second they step inside.
It’s been on many historic home tours over the years, and on the few occasions when estate sales have been staged in the home, Wichitans have flooded in, perhaps more interested in seeing the home than shopping.
Its longest-term modern day owners were Harry and Mary Ann Gust, who lived in the mansion from 1981 until they moved out and put it up for sale in 2009. The Gusts were the couple who started the tradition of decorating the house for Christmas, and their collection got bigger and more famous every year. Park Place would become packed with traffic every holiday season as people drove by to get their annual look.
When the Gusts moved, they sold the lot of their Christmas decor to local light enthusiast Brad Short, who until this year has put much of the display up on the home he shares with Scott Lawrence. (The two are taking a break this year from their massive Lights on Texas display).
The most recent Wey Mansion owner was Carl Smith, a former fashion designer from California with a passion for renovating old homes in Wichita, including an 1890 home he also owned at 1235 N. Waco. Real estate photos of the interior home before the Rhodes bought it show it sparsely furnished and flooded with natural light.
But that style is June Rhodes’ basic nightmare — emphasis on basic.
“The house had been stripped of all color,” she said, describing it as “bland, bland, bland.”
June, a student of all things Victorian and a big fan of “Gone With the Wind,” set out to redesign the house in a way that would make Scarlett O’Hara proud. She has stacks and stacks of books and magazines that show how Victorian houses were decorated — with deep, rich colors, patterned wallpapers, furniture, collectibles and rugs everywhere, and plants and garlands throughout.
The Rhodes closed on the house in February, and in May, they packed up and moved to Wichita. Their first move was to fill the house with wallpaper in the type of bold patterns the Victorians preferred. They also added heavy, dramatic drapes in deep reds with tassels on the edges. They moved in June’s massive antique collection, which included capodimonte lamps, a carved hall tree, several armoires and a giant carved Victorian etagere. They changed all the light switches from modern flip back to original push-button.
They filled the house with their various collections — June’s array of Staffordshire dog figurines and vintage pipes, Ralph’s shelves full of drinking steins collected during his travels. Ralph, who wasn’t much of an antique collector before he met June, did have one major contribution to make: a 1924 Victor-Victrola radio that sits in a room off the kitchen that once served as the men’s parlor.
Everywhere the eye wanders in the home, there are 20 things to see and 20 stories about how the Rhodes came to own them. And the couple has continued acquiring more things to fill the house since they moved in. Over the past six months, they’ve become experts on Wichita’s antique store scene and have been surprised by how affordable antiques are here compared to places they’ve lived and shopped before.
“We have taken this house to a point where we feel like if somebody lived in 1909 and walked in right now, they would think that they had gone back in time,” June said. “We took it back. We didn’t take it forward, We didn’t gut it. We didn’t modernize it. We’ve taken it back to its roots.”
It’s their house now
Since moving to Wichita, the Rhodes’ say, they’ve been overwhelmed by the friendliness of the people. Though they didn’t know anyone when they arrived, they’re now friendly with many of their neighbors, and they’ve talked to dozens of people who share their enthusiasm for the house. Some have even dropped thank you notes in the mailbox, expressing their gratitude that the Rhodes are caring for the home.
They’ve done as much research as they can online about its history, they said, but their efforts to learn more have been slowed down by COVID-19 closures.
“We get a lot of word-of-mouth history, but sometimes it conflicts,” Ralph said with a laugh. “We have five people tell us five different things.”
In one of the home’s two main-floor parlors, the Rhodes have a wall dedicated to the home’s roots. A historic family photo of the Weys, which shows Herman and his grown children standing on the front porch, is included on the wall, along with a pencil sketch of the house done to promote a home tour from the past.
They’ve come to realize in a short amount of time, the Rhodes said, how much the Wey Mansion means to the people of Wichita.
“We understand that, and we take that responsibility very seriously,” June said.
The Rhodes are big outdoor decorators, too, and they’ve already done the exterior of the house up for three holidays — the Fourth of July, Memorial Day and Halloween. Ralph filled the front of the house with animatronics of a headless horseman, a witch, a grim reaper and more, and Halloween visitors loved it, they said.
They’re starting now on their outdoor Christmas decor, they said, and it will be elaborate, too. Their basement is overflowing with all the stuff June and Ralph plan to put out.
But it won’t look like it did during the Gusts’ time in the home, they said, though many people have asked them if it will.
The Wey Mansion is their home now — their forever home, the Rhodes say — and they don’t ever plan to leave. But they want people to understand that it’s theirs and they have their own vision for how they want it to look.
They’ve even come up with a new name for it, a tribute to the magnolia tree on the home’s south side and the newer one they transplanted from their home in Texas and planted on the north side.
They’re now calling the home The Sweet Magnolia Wey Manor.
“I refuse to live in any structure called a mansion,” Ralph said with a laugh. “I’m a simple man from Arkansas.”