Salt Lake City

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This is the story of a decades long relationship between myself, and an old mansion in the city. It is about the way in which things converge between worlds, or of how time and its histories and futures intermingle. It begins where I once was and the knowing of a place before I ever saw it. A place I dreamed of as a young girl, weaving myself into the fabric of this building and its various histories without the least bit of understanding. In my dreams I wandered there, picking up pieces of various lives and events, never knowing why I did, nor that many of these events were quite real. I thought self-centeredly that I had created these things, which does not surprise me, as my own cultural experience up to that point had taught me that the world was a place to be analyzed, scrutinized and accepted only for what one could touch, see, and explain rationally. It wasn’t until I saw it for the first time that I realized that not only was it a real place but one that I had placed in the wrong city. It was instead, right in Salt Lake City where I grew up.

The McCune mansion is a shingle style “bungalow” as the McCunes called it, with red roof tiles imported from Holland and a really dark red brick on a heavy brownstone base. The trim for the house was made from Nugget Sandstone that was quarried either in the Red Butte Canyon area or in Emigration Canyon. The color was very unusual for the period. The brick is a darker red than most, because an iron oxide or mineral rust cements the sand grains together, and also, the more the hematite, the darker the color. The mansion really stands out on a hill in the Marmalade District, as it was once called, near the Utah State Capitol building. The mansion is three stories high with 21 rooms, a conical turret and oval portico with many wrought iron ornaments. It was built in 1901 and designed by C.S. Dallas. It was the first million-dollar home in Utah. The building is on the National Register of Historic places and is a replica of a house Alfred and Elizabeth Ann McCune saw while driving on Riverside Drive in New York City.

Some interesting and unusual things happened even when the McCunes lived in their mansion. A granddaughter remembered an armed robbery while she was staying there. Her grandmother told her to stay in bed because gunshots could be heard downstairs. The robbers got away with some silverware but were apprehended later. One time Alfred McCune was sitting down to his breakfast, when a shot penetrated the east window of the room. The bullet missed Mr. McCune and lodged itself in the dark mahogany wallboard of the breakfast room. The assailant missed his target by quite a wide margin. In July of 1917, Lizzie’s closest friends were invited to a weekend retreat, which became an annual event after that. Husbands were only allowed to enter the house once during the weekend and this was for the Fourth of July dinner. When all the female guests arrived, they were presented with a simple gingham gown, which was what they were to wear for the entire weekend. Not even the married children of the host were let in the house that weekend. Guests were allowed to select their own bedroom and bathroom. One of the guests even wrote a poem about “the house that Elizabeth built.” (Ibid, p.98.)

While the McCunes lived there they had a special small room constructed inside the grand staircase, which a few musicians could enter from a tiny door and sit within to play for the guests. In this way, beautiful music could be heard all over the house but none of the guests could figure out just from where it was coming. It was a bit uncomfortable for the musicians but they were richly compensated for their discomfort. However, it was reported on more than one occasion that music could be heard coming from the staircase when no musicians were in the room. Years after the McCunes had moved away, people in the building would still report hearing live drawing-room music coming from the house when no one was in it. There was also an organ inside the home that could be heard playing when no one was around. When the mansion was the McCune School of Music and Art, quite a few live musicians could probably be heard practicing.

Doors have locked that don’t have locks on them and lights have flickered. There are several cold spots about the place and once the elevator was installed it began running by itself with no one in it and no one pushing any buttons. Wedding arrangements laid out the night before would be re-arranged the next morning when employees returned. The couple renovating the house to live in heard voices in the home and doors would open without anyone coming in. On more than one occasion they would drive away late at night having securely locked the place and turned off all the lights. They would look in their rearview mirror and see lights coming on and going off all over the mansion. “Through the years, there have been a few stories of unexplained events, voices and unfamiliar people that suddenly appear and then vanish.” A man in a black cape has been seen watching various people when they are alone there. Doors and windows left either locked or unlocked are opened or locked the next morning. (“New Look for Landmark,” by Hilary Groutage Smith, THE SALT LAKE TRIBUNE, Thursday, November 15, 2000, D.)

My first experience with the McCune Mansion was when I went with my friend to check it out as a possible site for her wedding reception. I was twenty-one. We were given the grand tour and I was able to stay behind in the ballroom on the third floor for quite some time while my friend went on the tour alone. When I first saw it, I just couldn’t leave it, for it was the very ballroom from my dreams as a child. When I was in the ballroom initially, I had plenty of time and just sat there enjoying its splendor, totally unaware of my intuitive ability. Huge mirrors, balconies and alcoves of the most exquisite woods and little pillars surrounded by seats and mirrors surrounded me. I had a strong feeling of having been there before and at the same time I was aware of a presence in the room. I didn’t see her, but in my mind’s eye I could have described her perfectly. Long medium brown hair, slender build, above average height, gliding gracefully from mirror to mirror, dressed in a long white nightgown that seemed to propel her from mirror to mirror.

The mysteries of this house became just that, unsolved mysteries. Had a few other things not come my way, I would just have filed these mysteries in my “fool’s file” of experiences that are never answered. This McCune Mansion wedding experience was like the time I stepped over an old foundation at Fort Hays in Kansas, not realizing that it was the old hospital. I became very ill all of a sudden. Two young men appeared in beds lying side by side. One was writing his sweetheart in St. Louis and the other was dying. Soon they were both dead, having died of one of the fort’s epidemics. The two men told me that they had been separated and that the one young man’s letters still existed in his sweetheart’s attic. The curator asked me to drive over and check out the old cemetery by the fort on my way out. We went there and I felt nothing at all. As we drove away, I finally had time to read the pamphlet on the history of the fort and found that about 60 years after the fort had been abandoned, all the graves had been moved to another cemetery in another town. At that moment, I knew why the two had been separated. They had been buried side by side in the old cemetery but when they were moved, they were buried far away from each other. The information was of no use to anyone, yet it was a confirmation to be put into my own private file.

I expected the mansion’s mysteries to remain so. I was working on these books, doing my research and ran across Jack Goodman’s book, AS YOU PASS BY, which is a collection of his various columns in THE SALT LAKE TRIBUNE on architecture and history. The McCune Mansion was in it, and it was here for the first time that I learned of the Virginia Tanner Modern Dance School, which was conducted in the ballroom for many years. Others knew this from firsthand experience having taken dance from her, but I knew nothing about it. The sentence that caught my eye, however, was the one that mentioned how Virginia Tanner had insisted that her little girls all wear something called Ginny gowns, which were long white nightgowns much like Wendy’s in Peter Pan. Many of her students had gone on to dance for famous companies or to teach modern dance at local universities. Friends asked me why I didn’t research this some more. Perhaps they thought I would find out about a particular woman or student and be able to identify my ghost. Having done intuitive readings for a while, I now know that what I think of as minimal, or remain somewhat “Pollyanna” about, almost inevitably turns out to be much more important than I had thought when talking to the person. I would rather not know the tragedies, if I can help it. With the loss of so many children and other tragedies that occurred in the mansion, it is better to let the ghosts have their say.

What is imagined and what is real now? I can never know, though pieces of the puzzle continue to emerge regarding the mysteries of this mansion and the land upon which it was built. I only know that I have some sort of affinity to this house and the ballroom within it. I now expect more rendezvous to come while thinking of what Elizabeth McCune’s architect had to say about the house itself, and especially the ballroom. “The chambers are dreams of beauty. The principal one belonging to Mrs. McCune is furnished in a white enamel and is pink brocade and white lace. Mr. McCune’s room is oval and designed for a den as for a chamber of rest….There are six other private and guest rooms on this floor and it would be difficult to decide which is of the greater merit.” “Going up to the ballroom one enters at once into the vision of a fairyland. There are four great alcoves, while the mirrored walls on every side reflect vistas innumerable. The artificial marble called sageola, which forms most of the furnishings of this ballroom, required importation of a German from his fatherland, and he was eight months in making this, practically unknown composition.” (WORTH THEIR SALT, Ibid, p.95-98.)

© Copyright 2003 by Linda Dunning. All Rights Reserved.

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