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July 22, 2019

5/30/2019 1:12:00 PM
Old-world home for a self-made millionaire
Zwermann house holds hidden treasures of history and architecture along Robinson's Main Street.
The view from the rooftop porch outside the master bedroom made for a peaceful vision of the custom designed gardens on the east side of the Zwermann Mansion. (Tom Compton photo)
The view from the rooftop porch outside the master bedroom made for a peaceful vision of the custom designed gardens on the east side of the Zwermann Mansion. (Tom Compton photo)
Daily News

When people see a deer standing in a small woods or open field, one of the most common thoughts is, how can such a large, beautiful creature hide so well?

The same could be said for the Zwermann Mansion at 806 W. Main St. in Robinson.

At close to 4,000 square feet, the Tudor mansion resting on a full city block has gone virtually unnoticed for decades. Hiding behind a wrought-iron fence and the remnants of carefully landscaped gardens filled with exotic trees, evergreens and flowers, this combination of art, craftsmanship and design has stood unnoticed and unaffected by the world around it.

A lot of things were happening in 1926. Carl Henry Zwermann had just sold the culmination of his life's work, the Zwermann Manufacturing Co., to the W.A. Case and Son Manufacturing Co., wholesale jobbers of plumbing supplies in Buffalo, N.Y. - making him a very wealthy man.

From an early age Zwermann learned the porcelain enameling business from his father in Wehrheim Germany, where he was born. At the age of 18 he made his way to America, where he went to work for his uncle at the Baltimore Enameling Co. in Maryland. In 1901, at the age of 25 he was a master of the trade, and began the Zwermann Techical Bureau, from which he did consulting work on enameling and enameling furnaces.

He consulted and directed the erection of several enameling plants in Germany, Scotland, England, Russia and the United States. Following the completion of such a plant at West Lafayette, Ohio, he went to work for J.J. Knight at the General Gas Light Company in Kalamazoo, Mich., where they enameled gas light reflectors.

Around 1915 the slip-casting process for the manufacture of vitreous china "sanitary ware" was being developed. Zwermann and others organized and built a new plant on the outskirts of Kalamazoo, incorporating this method for the manufacture of sanitary ware. Also built in this plant were two car-tunnel kilns designed by Zwermann for the firing of the ware.

In the summer of 1918 Zwermann sold his interests in the company and devoted his time to designing and selling car tunnel kilns to ceramic industries. That summer he moved to Newark, Ohio, in order to be close to the area where he was erecting kilns. In the summer of 1919 he moved to Robinson, -where he organized and built the Zwermann Company for manufacturing vitreous china sanitary ware.

This plant was an immediate success and in less than five years it had increased in capacity 900 percent and was turning out more vitreous china - tanks and bowls - than any other plant in the world. He also served as its president and general manager.

In November 1925 the stockholders sold or exchanged their Zwermann Company stock to W.A. Case and Son Manufacturing Co. Zwermann remained as general manager of the Robinson pottery and became a director and vice-president of W.A. Case and Son until he died in Robinson on March 30, 1934.

At the age of 50, the hard-working self-made millionaire decided it was time to build a home for his family.

The old-world Tudor style appealed to the German-born industrialist. Designed by architects Byron Sutton and Lester Routt of Vincennes, it features a steeply pitched tile roof, with multiple overlapping, front-facing gables of varying heights. The majority of the exterior is brick, with accented decorative half-timbering and stucco across the front.

The windows are tall and narrow with multiple panes. Large groupings of windows provide ample light. Though often not in the center of the house, the front door is still a significant architectural feature on Tudor homes. They typically have a round arch at the top and tend to be bordered by a contrasting stone that stands out against the brick walls. The iconic Zwermann Z is still adorns the entrance of the home framed by a tile clad gable.

Many people unfamiliar with the history of the Zwermann family and pottery often confuse Carl Henry Sr. with his son Carl Henry Jr., who was also involved in the pottery business as well as serving the City of Robinson as mayor for three terms, and the Robinson school board as secretary and president.

Carl Jr. returned to Robinson in 1948 after earning his Ph.D. and serving in the military during World War II. He married Maxine Perry in 1952. She was then the director of speech and dramatic activities and English teacher at Robinson High School. Carl and Maxine lived in the house together until Carl Jr.'s death in 1989. Maxine continued to live in the house until 2013, when it was sold to Glenn Lattz and Linda Shidler.

Carl Zwermann Sr. built the mansion to be a home. The many rooms are average size for the time, adequate for raising a family with domestic help, rather than lavish entertaining.

Entering the front door you find yourself in a foyer facing a hardwood staircase with a decorative, but simple, hexagonal newel post. To the left of the staircase is a small nook where the a telephone was located. Directly to the left was Zwermann's home office-library complete with what is now called a half bath, stool and sink water closet. The fixtures have been replaced, but the leaded glass cabinets are original.

To the right is a formal living room. The east end still features the green glazed tile fireplace surround and built in cabinets. It was also common in nicer homes to wallpaper the ceilings and install crown molding of wood or plaster.

Beyond the fireplace is a screened-in porch that allowed viewing of the east garden and water features. The porch was accessed from a small setting room on the backside of the house. Across the back side of the house was a family dinning room, breakfast nook with a butler pantry which leads into the kitchen. The kitchen has been upgrade with modern appliances and cabinets, but a few details still remain. A glass fronted box above the servant staircase indicates whether the front or back door bell is being rung. Glenn Lattz said the two sounded alike.

Another item from long ago is an incinerator hatch that would have allowed items to be dropped into the coal burning furnace. The boiler that supplies hot water to the radiators around the house has long since been changed from coal to natural gas, but is still the main heat source.

Off of the back of the kitchen is another room that serves as an office, but could have been used for any number of purposes back in the day. A hallway and exit out the back placed you near the garage and leads into the back yard and gardens.

The main staircase at the front of the house was used by the family. A narrower and steeper staircase went from the kitchen up to the second and third floor. The second floor was somewhat divided in to the front and back of the house. An imaginary line behind the main staircase marked how far servants were to go when not directly working in the front of the house.

A long hall runs east and west across the front of the house. Starting on the west end is a bathroom with many of the original fixtures and tile. There are also three bedrooms in the back west corner. Another bedroom was located in the front west corner, but has been incorporated into a new master bath.

On the east end of the house are two large bedrooms. The front master bedroom has door that walks out on to a copper floored patio that overlooks the east garden. The connecting bathroom has been extensively remodeled to include a bathtub, shower, vanities and additional closet space. The access doorway from the hallway has been removed and covered over.

The south east bedroom is large but ordinary with large windows. At the time of construction wooden boxes were custom made to over the tops of the windows providing a decorative cover. Two of the original covers were found in the basement by Shidler, who had them painted and reinstalled.

The third floor was designed as servant quarters. In 1926 it would not be unusually for a family like the Zwermanns to have three or more servants. These would be single women of varying age and a male gardener/handyman/chauffeur. The Zwermann servant quarters included a private room with a bath, and two smaller rooms with a shared bath. The smaller rooms could have slept one or two people.

The remainder of the third floor is attic space, though it was kept clean and tidy. Built in closets made of cedar wood were used to store furs and other seasonal clothing safe from moths and damage. A laundry chute goes from the second floor to the basement where the laundry was done.

The basement was built as a foundation to hold the large brick house and was constructed of thick poured concrete walls. Internal walls divide up the space and help to support the large structure. Lattz noted that since they have lived in the house there has never been any water in the basement nor signs of leakage. He credits the quality of construction and the well designed copper gutters and drainage system around the house.

The basement does hold two interesting features, a functioning bathroom and a somewhat hidden room. The bathroom still has the original Zwermann toilet. The inside of the tank lid has the Zwermann "Z" and is date stamped 1926. Based on research from the Crawford County Historical Society Museum it was learned that Carl Sr. and his wife Helene held the patient on that particular toilet as well as several others.

In a small workroom the trained eye would notice the depth of the room is off compared to the rest of the basement. A shelving unit that looks like something that would fill a doorway is in fact a door. The latch is neatly hidden under one of the shelves. Behind the shelves is a small room about six or eight feet square. Two sides of the room are lined with adjustable shelving. Keeping in mind the house was built during the height of prohibition, a secret cool dry room could be handy for storing lots of things that a wealthy industrialist might need from time to time.

A staircase out the back of the basement leads to the back yard where Zwermann left the world of industry to enjoy his gardens and dogs.

Both Carl Sr. and Carl Jr. had an affinity for plants and flowers. Carl Sr. even had a greenhouse built behind the garage. Though long since gone Shidler reports the ground is still very fertile and great for vegetable gardening.

A chain link fences surrounds the back exterior of the property. A dog kennel-run was incorporated into the fencing around the back side of the garage. Carl Sr. is reported to have raised top quality dogs, but the exact breed is not known. It has been suggested they were top quality bird hunting dogs.

The exterior of the house is divided into two sections the front and back. A brick wall divides the property evenly with the back wall of the house. The entire property was specially designed with ponds, gardens and fountains. Many trees, flowers and shrubbery were imported to create the old world gardens. There is also a three car garage with small workshop and living quarters for the gardener.

The living quarters were a simple room with a toilet, sink and shower. For those keeping count that is seven bathrooms at a time when most people were still using outhouses, and many hand pumps for water.

Lattz said the original plans for the house and gardens still exist for the house. The gardens were designed by Gardencraft Nurseries or Chicago Heights, Ill.

The design plans include a shrub and rose garden with a center pool and fountain directly east of the house. The brick path lead to a larger sunken garden that may have been at one time a large pool with a center fountain. Special trees, flower, shrubs and rocks lined the exterior of the sunken area while an urn style fountain with the story of Dionysis, the Greek God of Wine relief molded into it rests in the center. Lattz said there are water spigots and underground plumbing all through the gardens.

The clusters of large trees and shrubs that now partially hide the house, were all specially designed and placed. Over 90 years of growth has seen a change in size of many of the small decorative trees. In the back yard a Ginkgo Biloba tree now towers over the house and reaches far over the back yard. The rest of the back yard still holds a small pond and the remnants of perennial flowers that would have been the mainstay of elaborate flower gardens.

Over the years it is very likely that several very important visitors called or stayed at the house. As mentioned Carl Sr. was a world leading industrialist, and it has been recorded that Carl Jr. and Maxine were both heavily involved in business, government, civic and recreational organizations on the local, state and national level. Actress Joan Crawford is known to have stayed there while her then husband visited the Heath bottling plant for Pepsi. Maxine was involved with theater, and was a leader in organizing the Professional Golf Tournaments held at Quail Creek Country Club.

After six years of owning the hidden treasure, making some needed upgrades and repairs, Lattz and Shidler have put the house up for sale. So if the idea of living in an old world estate of historical significance appeals to you might take a closer look at this hidden beauty.

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