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Bass home built on industries

from the archives of The News-Sentinel

Just north of Lindenwood Cemetery and west of the Nebraska neighborhood is "Brookside," once the home of the powerful family of John and Laura Bass. Today, affectionately known as "The Castle," it is the library and centerpiece of Saint Francis College, 2701 Spring St.

Built in 1902-1903, under the direction of Fort Wayne architects John Wing and Marshall Mahurin , the 33-room Romanesque mansion was a paragon of late Victorian opulence - the grandest home in Fort Wayne. The 15-foot ceilings spanning the huge rooms, opened by 127 plate-glass windows and 11 large stained-glass pieces, give some sense of the grandeur in which the Bass family lived.

Closely modeled after European rooms that impressed the Basses on their tours of the Continent, the parlor greets (or overawes, as was intended) the visitor with its rich Louis XIV style. The lace window shades came from Austria and the silk wall coverings found in almost all rooms were imported from Italy. The coffered wooden ceiling and the lavish woodwork are a mixture of a light and dark maple, and the gas fireplace is a lush Italian marble.

Nearby, filled with overstuffed furniture, is the great hall that served as the family room; in its center stood a huge carved table under a beaded Tiffany lamp. Next to this was the formal dining room, 40 feet long. Here, a great mural completely encircled the room showing a medieval hunt, it was inspired by the "Boar Hunt" mural the Basses had seen in Kensington Palace, in England. But, offended by the raging old boar, the Basses instead had a more romantic stag painted as the object of the hunt.

On the second floor, there were several bedrooms furnished in period styles. One, the Louis XVI Room, still has the silk wall coverings. The Napoleon Room, done in a golden tapestry, had a portrait of the Emperor himself hanging watchfully over the canopied bed, and the Louis XIV Room, colored in rose, has a fireplace that is a celebration in fine woodworking. There also was the grand ballroom, with a domed skylight and Colonial American decor, the Billiard Room noted for its African woodworking and "Dutch" style murals; a striking Blue Room, and the brocade-covered walls of the spiraled staircases.

Among the notable fixtures of the mansion were the burglar alarms and the automatic lighting systems. In each of the bedrooms, the closets were fashioned so that, like today's refrigerator, the light would come on when the door was opened and go off when it closed. All the windows were wired, and if one was broken, an alarm would sound in the nearest police station. This magnificent estate was not the first to occupy the site; the original "Brookside" was built in 1887. But in 1902, a fire broke out when a gas line ruptured and the building was gutted.

The man responsible for Brookside was John H. Bass, Fort Wayne's leading industrialist.

Born in Salem, Ky., in 1835, John Bass was the son of Ohio valley settlers from Virginia and North Carolina who had strong sympathies for the South. In 1852, at age 17, Bass followed his older brother, Sion, to Fort Wayne, and worked as a bookkeeper in Samuel Edsall's grocery store. With his brother, in 1853, he became a partner in a modest machine works of Jones, Bass and Co. at the site of the present-day main post office.

In the years between 1853 and 1857, John Bass used his small amount of capital ($3,700) from the machine shop to buy and sell land on the Iowa frontier. When he returned to Fort Wayne, he had $15,000 in cash and land holdings worth more than $50,000. Jones, Bass and Co. was sold to the railroad, marking the beginning of the huge Pennsy Shops. With the profits, the Bass brothers, this time with Sam Hanna, started yet another foundry and machine business.

But when the Civil War broke out in 1861, Sion Bass volunteered to fight for the North, forming in Fort Wayne the Thirtieth Indiana Regiment. Sion led his regiment in the opening battles of the war, and on the second day of the Battle of Shiloh, in April 1862, he was mortally wounded.

That same year, 1862, John Bass purchased his partners' interests in the company and founded the Bass Foundry and Machine Works, locating the first plant on the southern side of the Pittsburgh, Fort Wayne and Chicago Railroad tracks (the Pennsy Line). This company at first specialized in the manufacture of railroad axles and wheels, which were used across the tracks in the construction of cars and locomotives at the Pennsy Shops.

Because of the war, huge profits came to the Bass Foundry, and within 10 years the company and its affiliates had become the world's largest manufacturer of rolling equipment for trains.

Soon after the Civil War ended in 1865, John Bass married into the good old southern family of Lightfoot, just as his mother had wished. Laura Lightfoot was the descendant of 17th century settlers of Virginia and she was closely related to the family of Robert E. Lee, the great Confederate general.

The family fortunes of Laura and John Bass rose to the top of Fort Wayne society in the four decades after the Civil War. John founded the St. Louis Car Wheel Co. in 1869. By 1875, he also owned high grade iron ore mines in Alabama and Tennessee, and he established a major ironworks in Chicago in 1873.

Beyond foundries, machine shops and mines, John Bass also was one of the organizers of the Fort Wayne Organ Co. (later the Packard Piano Co.) and the Citizens Street Railway Co., the first trolley company in Fort Wayne. For 30 years, from 1887 to 1917, Bass was president of the First Federal Bank of Fort Wayne (later the First and Hamilton), a precursor of today's Fort Wayne National Bank.

--Aug. 1, 1994