Time Machine

Time Machine: The history of Belmont Hill mansion in Cedar Rapids

Belmont Hill, the northwest Cedar Rapids home of Ken and Shelley Sullens, is seen in 2017 from the second floor guest ro
Belmont Hill, the northwest Cedar Rapids home of Ken and Shelley Sullens, is seen in 2017 from the second floor guest room of the carriage house they restored and turned into a bed-and-breakfast. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
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The story behind the Belmont Hill mansion in northwest Cedar Rapids goes back to 1882, when Philip Andrew Wolff bought 45 acres west of the city limits that, he determined, had an abundance of “excellent clay for the manufacture of first-class brick.”

Wolff had been a brickmaker in Maquoketa for 28 years, where the “finest buildings there are his handiwork,” the Cedar Rapids Times reported.

He bought the Cedar Rapids land in July from George Douglas Sr., who had acquired it from its original owner, Robert Ellis, in 1868.

Wolff started his brickmaking business on the property along Vinton Road (now E Avenue NW). He began using his plant’s bricks to build his family’s mansion atop a knoll that some say is shaped like a bell.

Brick roots

The Wolff family, whose trade had always been masonry and brickmaking, traced its American roots to a 1714 land grant in Virginia from Queen Anne. As abolitionists, the family moved to Ohio, where Philip Wolff learned his family’s brickmaking skills as well as beekeeping and winemaking.

He lived in Oklahoma in 1839 before moving to Illinois, where he met and married Rosina Yerker.

The California Gold Rush and the Mexican War occupied Wolff for a while until he and his wife moved to Maquoketa in 1853, where he made bricks and also led a group of vigilantes who hunted down horse thieves.

Wolff was in his 60s when the family moved to Cedar Rapids in 1883.

The mansion

The Belmont Hill mansion took three years to build.

Wolff first dug a deep wine cellar that, when finished, held two tiers of 63-gallon hogsheads (large wine casks). The Wolffs planted a 3-acre vineyard to supply their winery.

The 2.5-story home, with thick brick walls, was built atop the cellar.

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The Wolffs spent their evenings watching the flying squirrels take off from their home’s attic and land in their butternut and hickory trees, presumably while sipping a glass of the wine they’d made.

They added a carriage house to the grounds in 1898.

Philip Wolff Jr. was a partner in the brickyard with his father, working as a foreman in the plant.

By October 1900, the brick plant was able to run an in The Evening Gazette, offering for sale “one million five hundred thousand bricks.”

Plant, house sold

In 1908, Wolff, by then around 90, was ready to finally retire and sell his “old, established and successful brick plant.”

Wolff had been selling off parts of his 45-acre plot since 1906, when he advertised a “level square piece of land on the west side, containing 50 lots, also streets and alleys; bounded on the north by E Avenue, on west by the Amusement park (later Roosevelt school), on the south by C Avenue and on the east by 10th Street.”

He kept the vineyard and the house.

Wolff died in 1914 at age 96, leaving his estate to his wife and six children. It was not a peaceful transfer. One son sued to force his mother, Rosina, to leave the home. A jury, on May 17, 1915, ruled she was of unsound mind. She died eight months later.

The house was sold to Wolff’s daughter, Mary Wolff Truax, and his son, Philip Jr., for $18,125 — around $453,000 in today’s dollars. The siblings, in turn, sold the mansion to Leonard Heisel, an Illinois widower with five children.

Heisel raised champion Chester white boars and draft horses on the property, which was still outside the city limits in 1917. The Heisel family lived in the mansion until 1968, when the youngest daughter, Margaret, died, leaving it to Trinity Lutheran Church in her will.

Land around the house was sold off and developed into a residential subdivision, Belmont Hill, in 1954. The address until then had been 1500 E Ave. NW. Belmont Hill was assigned the address 1420 Seminole Ave. NW.

Restoration

By 1972, only 8 acres were left. The mansion, which still had no plumbing or electricity, sat empty for six years, becoming the target of vandals. A fire swept through the carriage house in 1970, destroying a buggy left in there by the Heisels.

In 1981, less than 2 acres remained of the original estate when Michael Nelson and William J. Scott bought it and began restoring and updating the mansion. The property was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on Oct. 7, 1982.

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Wayne and Eileen Woods owned Belmont Hill from 1983 until 1996, when Ken and Shelley Sullens moved there from Chicago. After 18 months, the Sullenses had restored the carriage house and turned it into a popular bed-and-breakfast. Soon after, the property’s address changed to 1525 Cherokee Drive NW.

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