Thursday, May 2, 2019

The Old Murray-Dunn House in Mentor, Ohio

The first sight of the house on Mentor Road.

Some adventures are carefully planned; others just fall into your lap. The latter method was my introduction to the Murray-Dunn house in Mentor, Ohio. My stepmother Claudia and I were driving down Mentor Avenue, when we noticed a large, fancy and very decrepit old house behind a wall.

We stopped to take a look. Obviously no one could be living in a house in this condition, so we crept a little closer for a better inspection. Suddenly we heard a noise, the front door slowly opened, and an incredibly old man came out and asked if he could help us. We were of course nonplussed, and glad that he was not the type to shoot first and ask questions later. We told him how much we admired the architecture of his house.

He immediately became friendly, and started telling us about the history of the house and the surrounding area. Before he retired, he had a nursery business nearby, and indeed plant nurseries have always been important in Lake County, Ohio, in which Mentor is located. Mr. Dunn graciously invited us into his home to show us around and tell us more about the old days, and so we got our first glimpse of the house’s marvels.

Thus the matter stood for a while, and then Claudia noticed in the paper the sad news that Mr. Dunn had died. Since she has connections in real estate, she was able to get us permission to explore and photograph the house thoroughly.

There were three main areas to inspect: the large house, the old barn/carriage house, and the magnificent yard. Robert Murray, 1814-1896, built the original Greek Revival farmhouse on Mentor Avenue in 1847. Later, his son, William P. Murray, 1854-1918, converted this house into a summer residence in 1898, enlarging the house and grafting on a kind of Arts-and-Crafts architectural style, with a crenellated tower. Helen Murray then maintained the house and farm until the property was sold to Thomas Dunn in 1951.*

Near the house was a simple, semi-Gothic style barn or carriage house with board-and-batten siding, more in style with the original Greek Revival main house. In the carriage house was a classic car from the 1960’s, in virtually mint condition. This was Mr. Dunn’s pride and joy, and he delighted in telling us how it only had a few hundred miles on it, and he only took it out in the summer during good weather for a few short rides.

As imposing as the main house was, the most impressive feature of the Dunn estate was the generous 10-acre park-like yard, filled with magnificent specimens of often unusual trees. One of the Murrays must have been a plant collector, as some of the trees were not native to Ohio. A special part of the house was how each of the rooms was designed to feature a view of the spacious green yard with its large trees.

Here then is a tour of the Murray-Dunn property. Many of the outside shots are in black and white, although I never recall using that kind of film. Apparently there were two photographic excursions; there are small differences noticeable between the black-and-white and color shots of the same features.

The tower as seen through the front gate. The posts and wall are made of pressed stone, popular at that period.

The back of the house. The pressed stone was also used for the foundations of the added wings.

A view of the side yard, with its specimen trees.

A mature ginkgo tree with its fronds silhouetted against the barn. This may have been the oldest ginkgo tree in Ohio.

The barn or carriage house. You can just make out the vintage car inside, of which Mr. Dunn was so proud.

The working shutters on the barn and house must have been convenient when closing the house for the winter.

The tack room in the carriage house, eerily well-preserved when compared with the rest of the house.

Mysterious stairs going up to the loft.

The original Greek Revival front door, with added wrought iron gas lantern.

A better view of the Greek Revival details. Someone has "lifted" the gas lamp and door knocker! Note the contrast with the newer varnished porch ceiling.

A close-up of the tower.

The back door, a two-part Dutch door with leaded panes in the Arts-and-Crafts style. Lion's head door knocker beneath.

The intersection of old and new parts of the house, also showing damage and neglect.

This part of the enclosed front porch is something of a shambles.

A large hole in the porch ceiling, with a glimpse into that enchanting yard.

A black and white photo, but giving a better idea of the view into the front yard from the porch.

This end of the wide porch is better preserved. This must have been a cool oasis for guests on hot summer days. Your imagination must supply the wicker furniture and hanging plants.

The Arts-and-Crafts living room, the best-preserved room in the house. Note the sashes full of round bull's-eye panes.

The fireplace featured an odd slate roof, with cabinets underneath.

The bay area of the living room. Bull's-eye panels above, with normal panes that when clean looked out into the front yard.

The walls of the living room were entirely covered with tapestry. Another Arts-and-Crafts touch.

The basements in old houses always seem to be scary. This one, with its long enfilade of rooms, would make the perfect setting for a horror movie.

Houses like this were meant for entertaining large weekend parties, so lots of storage for food was needed, as evidenced in this corridor lined with iceboxes. That small window can be seen in the above photo showing the back of the house.

A walk-in refrigerator or freezer. If that horror movie had been made, I am sure those meat hooks would have played an important part! Note the flashlight needed so the camera could focus in this dark room. Even though some lights worked in the house, most did not, and the overall lighting was dim. Flashlights are the house explorer's most important tool.

Now we proceed to the second floor. Here is the walk-in linen closet, needed for all those guest rooms.

Very old houses tended not to have closets. Here a cedarwood-lined closet is provided, with ventilated shoe storage underneath.

This 1898 bathroom survived intact. There was a free-standing claw-foot tub opposite the sink.

Some rather severe damage on the interior. That television set reminds us of how long it had been since any money was poured into the house.

At first this just looks like a trick of perspective, but this really was a small door next to a large one. I am not sure if this represents the junction of the old and new areas of the house, or if the smaller door was for the use of servants.

A second-floor fireplace in the added cobblestone chimney, fitted between the dormers. That mantelpiece looks like new!

Sleeping porches were all the rage back then.

The littered upper hall.

The upper stair landing, showing the Colonial Revival staircase, an odd window in the stair wall, and a large, handsome skylight that must have been quite impressive when the house was in good condition. I do not recall into what kind of room those glass-paned doors in the hall led.

Lake County was (and is) the site of many distinctive houses. Claudia and I were lucky to have discovered the Murray-Dunn house, to meet the remarkable Thomas Dunn, and to get the chance to explore the house and take these photos. The timing was extraordinary, because shortly afterwards the house and entire property was razed. The land was sold for a car dealership which eventually closed, and now I understand it is the location of a Target store.

There are no vestiges left of the Murray’s once-grand residence, or of the expansive lifestyle they led in their ostensible castle. I think my greatest regret was to see that beautiful yard destroyed. We all enjoy restored museum properties, but buildings which stand in the way of progress will not wait forever. Visit them at the first opportunity, regardless of their condition. Did you ever visit a house or historic property that is now no longer there to appreciate? Let me know in the comments!

*This history of the house was condensed from information obtained from the Lake County Historical Society.

All photos were taken by, and are copyright of the author.


  1. Dearest Jim,
    Wow, what a coincidence for exploring this incredible architecture a bit closer and then running into the old owner...
    You were lucky in many ways, for having had that conversation and no doubt it must have lifted the old man's spirits that once more he could tell his life's stories to someone who listened and wanted to hear about it!
    Sad that short after your visit he passed away but you at least went back to make some photos.
    It is a very sad story in many ways, the incredible garden with almost ages of history on its own and the thought out construction of the home. Many guests and relatives must have enjoyed many a breakfast, lunch, tea and dinner there. Maybe even weddings were held there...
    Lots of story and then it gets all bulldozed off the earth for a 'Target' store.
    Well, over the years we both have checked out old dwellings, full of cobwebs and studying its past, trying to get a glimpse of its full life's story when it still had a soul. It is very sad when buildings disappear.
    Would you believe that on April 5, I drove from Knoxville, TN all the way to North Canton, OH to visit our friends in Amherst, OH the next day. Two nights in Canton and next to Asheville, NC. Surprising how much nature differed from the South at the time we drove there. Crocus were just showing up and daffodils still would take a while.
    At the time we lived in Shillington, PA we once went by car all the way to Jackson, OH to one of the Campbell mushroom plants. Interesting trip!
    Sending you hugs,

    1. Hello Mariette, Yes, the loss of the Murray-Dunn house is a pity. Lake County used to be a sort of playground for rich people, many from Cleveland, who built large summer homes there.

      Target was a later occupier of the site. Initially, a car dealership was built there. Car dealers and shopping centers cost the U.S. a lot of larger historic homes, because they needed the extra acreage for extensive parking lots.

      I am glad that when you lived in Pennsylvania, you managed to make a few excursions into Ohio. I know Canton well, because my grandparents lived there. You'll recall that in my Ghost Town post, I told the story of North Canton and how it got its present name. --Jim

  2. It must have once been a very grand and very large palace, and it is easy to imagine a grand lifestyle in those stunning gardens. Of all the renovations, perhaps the Arts-and-Crafts additions were the most impressive.

    But didn't Mr Dunn have children, nieces and nephews to inherit the property? Who gave permission to have the property destroyed?

    1. Hello Hels, Yes, the house was pretty large, with a confusing set of halls and rooms. Unfortunately, I did not have time to take any measurements or make a floor plan,to make sense of just what inside belonged to the original house.

      I am not sure whether there were any Dunn children, but he did have a wife who was an invalid at the time we visited, and who moved into a nursing home when her husband died.

      But even if his children inherited the property, the outlook was not good. While repairable, restoring the house would have been a big project. And Mentor Avenue, which is U.S. Route 20 in this area, had become increasingly commercial, not the kind of place where people who could afford a house that large would want to live.

      Right now there is another preservation battle concerning a pioneer stone house on Mentor Avenue. There is no question that it will go; they are just trying to raise the money to have it moved. --Jim

  3. Hello Jim - my first thoughts are that it was a sad decision to raze the Murray-Dunn House to the ground and not have it protected. I suspect that it was money that drove the final decision on this architectural gem. Car Dealerships come and go as do stores, but properties like this are few and far between. It is a great pity that it was not restored to it's former glory.
    Hopefully there is now some kind of listing of properties in the USA similar to those that we have over here which strictly oversea and protect any of our buildings that have age and/or architectural merit.

    1. Hello Rosemary, There are several systems in place to protect historic buildings, but they are not always effective. Municipalities are easily swayed by promises of jobs and taxes to issue demolition permits, and many companies will tear down a historic property without permission, pay the fine, and go on with their multi-million dollar project.

      The stone house on Mentor Avenue mentioned in the reply to Hels has an historic house plaque prominently displayed, but it seems to have counted for little. There is a plan to move the house, which is increasingly common, but there is an important value to saving buildings on their original sites, along with their original grounds.

      England should be a good example for us. Over there, much larger houses with elaborate decorations and landscaping are routinely saved. --Jim

  4. And here I was hoping this post was leading to a 'and then someone bought the house and lovingly restored it'. How utterly depressing and what a special place it was. one thinks of architecture as having a permanence but this proves how even substantial things can be ephemeral.

    1. Hello ArchitectDesign, No, there was no happy ending for the Murray-Dunn house. Although the house needed some TLC, it was definitely not that far gone. If you look closely, it is mostly the porches that were badly damaged, and they are always the first part to go anyway, being so exposed to the weather. I have seen houses in a lot worse condition than this one that were beautifully restored. --Jim

  5. PS - at least it's a Target and not a Walmart? haha

    1. I checked on Google Maps, and the Walmart is within walking distance--exactly one mile, and who knows what they tore down in order to build that! I zoomed out a little, and it appears that this once small town is now packed with some of the densest condominium-type development I have seen--all the breathing space and open land is gone. --Jim

  6. The Vintage Contessa was having trouble with the comment box, and sent this by email:

    SO, How long after you met The owner did he pass and you got back in with The CAMERA?
    What a SHAME someone did not buy and preserve!THis kind of stuff kills me!WE MUST PROTECT THE PAST!Loved the TOUR..........THANK YOU and what do you think the little storage units were for above the fireplace? That would have been HOT.......NO?

    1. Hello Contessa, I don't recall the exact sequence of dates, but it all happened pretty quickly, about the time I was in college or just after. I agree that someone could have bought the house and used it as a restaurant, inn, or even a school or professional building.

      The little cabinets I am sure were for things like vases and figurines--I have seen such cabinets before over Arts-and-Crafts fireplaces. I don't know how warm they would have been--after all, mantelpieces and the walls above them do not seem to heat up, but it is a good question to research! --Jim

  7. I felt your love to old buildings. I don't know why soon after all residents leave their house and never return, the house rapidly becomes shabby and lifeless. 物換星移幾度秋

    1. Hello rtc, You are right, often when a house is lived in, faded wallpaper and chipped cornices can seem comfortable and natural, but when the house is empty, the same features look shabby and derelict.

      Your quote about things changing with time is very true, but sometimes things acquire an added patina, or the replacements have a noble purpose, as for example in my old article about Yale tearing down certain old buildings to create its grand unified vision of a beautiful campus. However, in this case a beautiful historic house was lost for the cheapest kind of development that diminished the life of those in the area rather than enhance it. --Jim

  8. Oh dear! As I was going through the photos, I kept thinking "I hope someone with a lot of money bought the place and restored it to its former glory!" Then I got to the end and read the sad truth. A Target store! Undoubtedly surrounded by a parking lot as well. *heavy sigh*

    1. Hello Debra, I promise that I do have some old house stories with happy endings! However, the Murray-Dunn house seems to be a more typical situation. In fact, owners and developers like to point out some superficial damage and exclaim that the house is beyond repair and must be torn down and replaced by condos and chain stores! --Jim

  9. When you see how Estate Agents (as we call them in the UK) describe fairly ordinary properties as "character homes" it can be realised that there are/were real character homes.
    I was born about 150 years too late to see the great and historic Wanstead House near where I live. It's now a park with some the out buildings still there.
    CLICK HERE for Bazza’s laughingly luminous Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

    1. Hello Bazza, I just took a look at Wanstead House. What a noble structure it was, and how shortsighted to tear it down because they could not find an immediate tenant. However, I am sure that is the story with many old buildings--no immediate use, so down it goes. In the Wikipedia article, they stated that they got only 10,000 pounds for the house, but more recently, 135,000 pounds for a single footstool from it! --Jim

  10. Hi Jim: These photos are great and I can imagine how marvelous the house was years ago based on your photos. I also have a question: "In the carriage house was a classic car from the 1960’s, in virtually mint condition", what is the meaning of mint condition? Was it a metaphor or a real mint ground?

    1. Hello Dorothy, Thank you for the comment. If more people could imagine how old houses looked years ago, I am sure that more houses would be saved!

      Mint condition simply means in perfect condition. A mint is a factory to make coins, so when the coins are new they are in "mint condition." I don't think the same metaphor is used in Chinese, but you say "嶄新的" We can use "mint" for anything (books, furniture, etc.) but it is very often used to describe cars, so it is funny that the character 嶄 contains the radical 車 for vehicle. Maybe there is a relationship--you would know better than I! --Jim

  11. Hi Jim,

    Thank you for sending me the link to this post! I'm incredibly amazed at the photos that you took and back in college. I agree that the house could have been restored to its former glory. But, I'd 86 the weird roof over the fireplace. Wonder what the kitchen looked out. Love the cabinets that you posted from the closet. I imagine that the kitchen cabinets were similar? That is, unless it was remuddled at a later date.

    Thanks for sharing this historical gem. May she rest in peace. xo ~ Laurel

    1. Hello Laurel, I have seen living rooms like this in English houses, but never anything like that peculiar slate roof. The problem is that in addition to being an 'outside' element, there is no conceivable use for it indoors. At any rate, you got your wish and it is gone, only at a rather high cost, like all those stories with three wishes!

      There was a large kitchen area, which included all those iceboxes and likely some pantry-like rooms. As I stated above, I unfortunately did not have time to make a floor plan, which would have answered a lot of questions. I am pretty sure that the major food preparation area was done over, probably in a '50's style. If there were large coal stoves or impressive cabinets, I certainly would have remembered and photographed them, but as you know with historic houses, old kitchens are the first thing to go! --Jim

  12. That was such a grand home! So sad that it is gone. To think that it's now a Target :( I wonder if some of the architectural elements and fixtures were saved? Such as that beautiful pedestal sink. Thanks for sharing these photos Jim.

    1. Hello Loi, Yes, I too feel sad about the loss of this house, which linked two periods of Mentor history--the early pioneer times, and the "gentlemen's estate" grand living era. I imagine that most buildings like this sell salvage rights, except when they are in such a hurry to build the new structure that they can't be bothered.

      The piece I most would have wanted to salvage would have been the rectangular window over the original door. I should have asked about it--the house was coming down anyway! --Jim

  13. Heartbreaking to see such a wonderful house razed instead of restored. I suppose there are many old houses in this kind of state in such places as Detroit, so it is impossible to save them all. I have to say I don't agree with you that a Target store counts as "progress" .... :D ! Still, times have changed since you took the pictures, I bet. I guess that today someone might buy the house and restore it as a B&B.

    1. Hello Jenny, Mentor was a small city surrounded by semi-rural areas, which allowed estates like this to be built and to survive for a while. Big cities like Detroit and Cleveland had a different pattern--beautiful houses were built on the edges of the cities, but as the cities grew and once fashionable areas became industrial or decrepit, most of the large houses were destroyed, and the few survivors usually suffered terrible indignities.

      I suppose that there are B&B's in Ohio, but if these pioneer houses do survive, it is often because they are moved to a recreated museum-village, which collects such buildings. That is what they are now trying to do with another early surviving house on Mentor Avenue--moving it is its only hope! -Jim

  14. Target is further east. The property is a car dealership.

    1. Thank you for the update. I should have checked my facts better! --Jim

  15. I live in Mentor, and know about the Dunn mansion very well. Mr Dunn was an eccentric man. Near the end of his stay in the house he was known to hand feed raccoons and other animals that entered the house through the decay and passage of time. The property was in far worse shape then lead on here. It was razed but for a car dealership which still stands there today. As for the colonial house on Mentor Ave. they are looking into moving near to another house built at the turn of the century, on land that has been earmarked “green space” and currently being converted into a park. I would be happy if moving there preserves the house even if it is not on its original land.

    1. Hello Vtrim4u2, Thank you for your input. Yes, the house was allowed to get terribly rundown, although not beyond repair, especially considering that it was a frame house.

      I do hope they save that beautiful house still on Mentor Avenue. Now that I am in Ohio for the summer, I will have to check on it. You are right that moving the house will save it, although it is too bad that Mentor Avenue is losing most of its historical character. --Jim

  16. Stephen AppeldornJune 10, 2019 at 5:33 PM

    I believe the site of the Dunn Mansion is now Mentor Mitsubishi. Target was once the site of Ed Pike Lincoln Mercury. Prior to that, I believe it might have been the site of the old Bavarian-American restaurant. Then again, that might have been further down the road past where Dairy Queen is going east.

    1. Hello Stephen Appeldorn, Your additional information is appreciated. Mentor Avenue has changed so much that it is hard to keep track of it, and so many landmarks have disappeared that it has become disorienting.

      My source apparently was not too reliable. Still, the important fact remains that the historic Murray-Dunn house was torn down in the name of commercial development. --Jim

  17. Stephen is correct, the Murray Dunn mansion is where the current Mentor Mitsubishi resides, directly across from the Drug Mart. I didn't think the old stone Sawyer House was going to be moved- I thought it was determined that process would be too expensive and the city of Mentor certainly isn't going to pony up the money for it, they could care less about preserving local history. Local history lovers really ought to be concerned with the fate of the old Echo Hill home on Garfield Rd. The trustees of the property, who are also developers, proposed a plan to build 41 homes on the 10 acre sight and it sure did not appear to account for the presence of the amazing, historic 1860 built home. It would be a tragedy if that house is torn down- someone with a lot of money needs to offer to buy it before it's too late! It's not actually for sale, I believe, but money talks, especially for developers.

    1. I'll have to check out the Echo Hill house. Lake County is losing way too many of its historic properties. While this process has been going on a long time (remember the octagon house on Mentor Avenue?), it is getting to the point where there is little left! --Jim


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