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Feature Story

Hatton House: If these walls could talk…

1/4/2017

exterior-from-the-curb-41If these walls could talk, there’s no doubt that the Hatton House would spin splendid tales of high society while alternating sordid stories of some unsavory faces hailing from the lowest places.

During the last 130 years, the grand old dame, located at 1730 Seventh St. in Des Moines, has been a residence, a sanitarium and a flophouse. Of course, the home’s walls can’t talk — and neither can the alleged ghosts. Thankfully, the home’s current owners, Tanya Keith and Doug Jotzke, the husband and wife team who’ve undertaken the restoration project, opened its doors for a peek inside. Don’t mind the mess.

THE STRUCTURE AND ARCHITECTURE

The couple purchased the historic gem in 2011 for $90,000. It occupies Des Moines’ River Bend Neighborhood, and it is on the National Historic Registry due to its unique architecture and historical nature.

County records say the single-family residence was built in 1886 — that’s the year Coca-Cola ran its first ads, Grover Cleveland occupied the Oval Office, and the Capitol building in Des Moines was completed.

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The spacious home contains more than 3,200 square feet of finished space and about half that much more in the way of an unfinished attic that is said to have once been a grand ballroom.

It has four bedrooms, two restrooms, stained glass windows, a parlor and an architectural relic called a “grand quarter-turned three-story tower.”

HIGH SOCIETY TO CRACK DEN

“The house began as the private home of John and Anna Hatton,” Keith explains.

4410195488_f4b00462b7_oShe says John was a Civil War surgeon who eventually settled in Des Moines. He housed his medical office in the back room of the house.

That’s back when the “suburban” home was suitable for a doctor’s family while living in high society. In fact, one of the Hatton boys, Raymond, went on to become a Hollywood actor. And other famous people made appearances as well.

“It’s documented that Louis Armstrong played here,” said Keith. “And the family swears that he also stayed as a guest, but that was illegal at the time because he was African-American.”

After John passed away, Anna struggled to keep things afloat — she even took in boarders for a time — but eventually the home was foreclosed upon.

“That’s when it became the Prospect Park Sanitarium,” Keith continued. “I’m told it was like the Betty Ford Clinic of Des Moines.”

While doing research on the house for her graduate degree dissertation, the home’s previous owner, Danelle Lejeune, learned that John’s brother, Joseph, had been brutally murdered, accused by a patient’s husband of being inappropriate, Lejeune said.

Years later, the house was but a shell of its former self.

“It actually became a drug house,” said Keith. “I’ve been told it was the biggest drug house between Omaha and Chicago.”

People would come and “flop” at the house. And other things happened, too. She said that people randomly appear telling her outlandish — but true — tales.

“I had a baby in that house during the ’70s,” one passerby informed Keith.

The woman had been a pregnant 13-year-old runaway who took refuge in the sanctuary of outlaws. She pointed at the master bedroom and said, “I gave birth in that room right up there.”

“It became this house of ill repute,” said Keith, adding that drugs and prostitution were rampant. “People come here, and their stories live in this house.”

Digging up bones

After learning of its history as a hub for drug activity, Lejeune dug up something else while renovating an outdated cistern behind the home — bones.

“The contractor said, ‘We’re not sure they aren’t people bones, but they’re big enough,’ ” Lejeune said.

Experts analyzed the bones, and they turned out to be canine. The experience, however, startled her.

“This was a house for people who had been at the bottom, living in filthy, horrible conditions,” Lejeune said.

BELIEVING IN GHOSTS

Some other alleged occupants are the ghosts. Keith remembers that while purchasing the home she was duly warned, but she didn’t think much of it.

“I didn’t believe in haunted houses,” she explains. “I was like, ‘Oh. That’s an awesome marketing plan. You have this haunted house, and you tell these stories, and it’s great, I love it.’ ”

She says she received a rude awakening upon moving into the home.

4410196548_b66557724d_o“I moved in, and I saw this woman standing at the end of the dining room table,” she says, adding that the no one could have been in the house. “And I’m like, ‘Oh, that’s much more believable now.’ ”

She tried attributing the vision to stress from the busy days moving, late nights unpacking, a hectic family life and the general chaos created by a lack of sleep and overwork.

“And then the cat started howling,” she remembers. “And I said, ‘Wait, if I’m seeing something, and if the cat is also hallucinating, independent of me. Huh? I can’t reconcile that. I may have to change my opinion on what I believe is possible.’ Thus became the process of me believing in ghosts.”

Previous owners have stories of their own, and construction crews have allegedly abandoned their work forever after hearing unexplained trumpet music coming from the attic.

Lejeune says she was initially drawn to the home for its unique architecture.

“It was thrilling to be able to buy a three-story Victorian mansion at age 20, but living there wasn’t easy,” she said.

Lejeune didn’t see any ghosts herself, but she did hear them — possibly.

“I heard the trumpet playing (in the attic),” she said. “But I never saw anything. And there were some weird things that happened that everyone said were ghosts, but I have a master’s in architectural technology, and most of them are just coincidences that happen in old buildings.”

Lejeune talks about paint coming off a wall and leaving a perfect handprint or of hearing ladders being dragged across the floor. But upon returning to the room, the ladder was in a very different place.

“They seem to be trying to help,” Keith reasons. “My husband calls them the ‘friends of the Hatton house.’ ”

Blood splatters

It’s unknown whether ghosts actually occupy the abode, but it certainly is haunted with historic memories.

When the family moved into the 130-year-old Victorian home, Keith immediately began painting and refinishing the hand-carved woodwork. She marveled at how many hours must have been spent crafting, cleaning and waxing, but she couldn’t help wondering why the second-story woodwork was painted; it seemed like a shame. At least, that is, until speaking with Lejeune, who cleared things up.

“At one point the woodwork had blood splatters,” Keith said.

Lejeune found the blood spatters during her tenure refinishing the woodwork and contacted police. A shooting had once occurred there.

“So that’s why the upstairs woodwork is painted,” reasons Keith.

Saved from the bulldozers

Lejeune said she purchased the home from Teri Toye, a famous transgender model in the 1980s.

It is said that Toye had once saved the Hatton House from bulldozers. This once-impressive home of a prominent doctor had been condemned and rendered into a crack house, and as such, it was deemed a public nuisance and slated for demolition.

“The story goes that she (Toye) and her family parked a bunch of cars along the street so the bulldozers couldn’t get up on the yard,” said Lejeune. “And she tied herself to the front porch. At the same time, the lawyers were working to get a ‘stay of execution,’ is what she called it, and she got it.”

According to newspaper reports, Toye restored the nearly 50-foot tower steeple with the aid of a grant made by the State Historical Society of Iowa.

THE JOY OF HOMEOWNERSHIP

Keith remembers her thoughts and dreams when the family first stepped into the home.

the-kitchen-14“When we first moved in,” she says. “I thought the eat-in kitchen was so cute. We’d have brunch in there, and it would be a beautiful little place.”

But it hasn’t worked out that way.

“Now it’s where we strip windows,” she laughs.

Keith and Jotzke decided to keep the 48 windows they inherited, and they are finished rebuilding about half of them.

“We take them out, refinish, stain and shellac, redo the rope and pulleys and then weather stripping,” Keith says. “It’s a ton of work, but original windows are less expensive to rehab than to replace them, and you’ll actually get a better R-value (the higher the R-value, the greater the insulating capability) out of original windows with new weather stripping and forms than you will with a new window.”

Lejeune said the home’s 48 windows were mostly boarded up when she moved in. The inefficient heating led to snow drifts in the bedrooms, and it was the coldest in the kitchen.

“We started keeping the milk on the counter, and it would be just fine,” she laughs. “But then it would freeze solid, so we had to keep it in the fridge to keep it drinkable. The fridge was warmer.”

Keith and Jotzke also replaced the roof, rebuilt the foundation, and added a bathroom on the first floor.

“When we first moved in, the house only had one bathroom,” Keith laughs. “And even as a family of four, I thought we were one stomach virus from a total catastrophe.”

FAMILY TIES

The grand old Hatton Home recently put on a new addition; the family brought home a new baby girl, Iolana, 18 months ago. She has been a joy, but she has also added layers of difficulty to the rehab project.

“We had the entire house from top to bottom tested for lead,” said Keith. Most of the old lead-based paint has been abated, but some still remains. “There were parts that I was sure would have lead, and they didn’t. And there were parts that I didn’t suspect lead at all, and they did.”

Keith says she “house proofs” her kids, instead of “kid proofing” the house. She also blocks off spaces from the baby.

One of the advantages to living inside the rehab of a mansion is that you can afford to block off a few spaces and not feel cramped, she says.

THE FUTURE

Keith says the couple hosted a benefit for the Des Moines Area Religious Council (DMARC). Food Pantry and it has also been a campaign stop for local politicians. When the renovations are complete, she would like to see a portion of the space used for hosting public events including art open houses for local artists.

“First and foremost, it’s our family home,” she says.

Keith says the venue would be capable of hosting groups as large as 60 or 70 people.

“We like to host events. We’ve tried to create a space for conversation and to get people interested in what’s going on civically,” she says. “I’d love to host more community events.”

FOREVER IS A LONG TIME

Time flies when you’re having fun, and the time since the family moved in has been filled with smiles, sighs of frustration, historic preservation, having kids, raising kids and growing and cooking home-grown food (Keith does that, too) all while accumulating and then recounting ghost stories of the old house.

“My husband and I joke that we need a good-sized project,” she laughs. “We like getting into trouble and seeing if we can get out.”

Case in point: In the midst of this 4,000-square-foot remodeling project, the family has already acquired another one.

“We already bought another project house in the Drake neighborhood,” she says. “I’m meant to be the patron saint of lost causes in the city of Des Moines. But I have no intention of letting this one go.”

 

River Bend Neighborhood

mapRiver Bend is considered one of the oldest neighborhoods in Des Moines. The area is bound by Hickman Road to the north, University Avenue to the south, Second Avenue to the east, and Ninth Street to the west. The community is home to a diverse mix of families who are living in some of the oldest homes in the city. Some of these homes date back to the 1870s.

Keith and Jotzke say they have lived in other areas, and while River Bend isn’t perfect, there is one thing they definitely like.

“Most of us don’t have garages,” said Keith. “So you don’t have the option of pushing a button and rolling into your garage and not interacting with your neighbors. You get out of your car, and you see your neighbors, and you say ‘hello’ to them. I knew my neighbors better after 15 months of living here than I did after 15 years of living on the north side. The community of River Bend is great.” ♦

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