Tuesday, May 7, 1996
A last, guilty, wistful look at old money

BY LAURA PULFER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

It's just a house, really.

Most places on the way to the Fleischmann estate are flashier - omigod vaulted ceilings and two-story foyers and jacuzzis and media rooms. The hedges are trimmed and the big dogs wear little shock boxes on their collars, especially on the new "estates" of five acres.

In Indian Hill, huge houses squat where, sometimes, a nice house was bulldozed to make way for nouveau Palladian windows and stables that will never smell of horses or hay.

Teardowns, they're called.

This is an old one - finished in 1927 - and I surely hope nobody tears it down. It began on 2ï square miles, the grounds whittled away over time to its present 343 acres. The farm grew fruits and vegetables, and award-winning carnations and varieties of chrysanthemums bloomed in the greenhouse.

The massive stone house was built from honest Ordovician limestone, quarried on the grounds.

Nobody's home

Now, grass makes its inevitable way through the cobblestones in the courtyard, and the windows are dusty in the chauffeur's rest, a clubhouse opposite the front door so the driver would be instantly available. But somewhat comfortable.

A fountain, which once cascaded downhill to the moat below, is still. A morel mushroom, rare and expensive, grows on the path to the teahouse.

Nobody lives here now.

Julius Fleischmann died in 1968, and his wife, Dorette, died two years ago. From 6-9 p.m. Friday and 8-10 p.m. Saturday, people from all over the country will be bidding on the last of the furnishings. Only the house is left intact.

My new friend, C. Wesley Cowan, auctioneer, anthropologist and thoroughly nice person, says he imagines parties. I look around and see myself hanging out with the 37 full-time servants.

Julius Fleischmann was only 23 years old when he built Winding Creek Farm with a small portion of the family fortune made from yeast, margarine and gin.

"I think Junkie - that's what we called him - was already retired by then," says a neighbor, E.J. Mack. "It's a beautiful place, but it isn't flashy in the least. Neither was he."

A stone and slate history lesson

This is quintessential old Cincinnati money. Solid underpinnings, tasteful, cultured, understated. Money was lavished on parts of the house visitors would never see: the furnace room, climate-controlled housing for pipe organ chimes. Gutters and downspouts are solid cast lead, and the slates on the roof are an inch thick.

Did I mention the indoor pool? It was used both winter and summer with large glass doors opening out onto the lawn. All tile. Rookwood, I believe. There's a ballroom next to the pool and a wine cellar down the hall. Exquisite rugs covered the walnut plank floors. Furniture was museum quality.

"Mr. Fleischmann had a well-developed eye and understood decorative arts," says Edward Mongenas, the other auctioneer. But then, his enthusiasm overcoming his company manners, he adds, "We're like kids in a candy shop."

"It is just a lovely place," Wes Cowan agrees, "and we see something new to admire every time we come here."

There's some talk of making it a country club. But the world apparently doesn't need any more of them. A museum? Too cramped. A place for wedding receptions? Or corporate retreats? Possibly.

But, as I say, it's just a house, where a privileged and wealthy family lived. They built fires in Regency fireplaces and discreetly toed buzzers in the floor of the dining room to signal the help to clear. They dined on plates and with utensils that were then placed in a bank-worthy safe in the kitchen.

I suppose now is the time I should notice that we still need a cure for cancer and a way to get drugs off the streets, but I don't care. This house is lovely and civilized and curiously understated in a world that often is none of these things. I'm glad Mr. Fleischmann had the money and the taste to build such a place.

And I'm grateful for the chance to press my nose against the window. Even if it's only once.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in The Enquirer Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax to 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU-FM (91.7 MHz) and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.