When Wilbur T. and Rhoda Stephens Johnson built their elegant residence at 821 Main Street in 1895, it was at the southern edge of a group of fine homes that abutted the business district. They could not have forseen that in less than 100 years, in the march of commercial "progress," most of their neighboring dwellings would have disappeared, leaving their home the "last of the Main Street mansions." Judged by any standards, it was not the least in this impressive group.
A book of Boonville views, printed in 1900 under the title, The Vine Clad City, a Souvenir of Boonville, MO., shows the structure essentially as it is today. An early post card does as well. A postcard gives it the name "Roslyn Heights." Completing the triad of Johnson residences shown on the same page were those of W.M. Johnson and W. Morris Johnson, Jr., father and brother of Wilbur T. Johnson. The former still stands at 720 Sixth Street.
The Boonville Weekly Advertiser of June 15, 1894, under the heading of Boonville's Imrpovements, refers to the house:
"One of the handsomest homes in Boonville will be the new residence of Mr. and Mrs. Wilbur T. Johnson, now under construction on South Main Street. It will be three stories high, beside basement, of pressed brick, trimmed in Warrensburg stone and will be distinctly modern in all its appointments. The entire building will be lighted by both gas and electricity and will be heated throughout by steam. The foundation for this residence is now nearly completed. There will be 12 rooms, which are expected to be ready for occupancy next October. Matthew and Sanders, of Kansas City, are the Architects."
It is also noteworthy that the house immediately north of the Johnson residence was built about the same time by J.A. Wettendorf and was referred to as a "stylish and attractive cottage." It is still standing.
Some months after the Johnson home was completed the Boonville Weekly Advertiser of February 15, 1895, again mentions it, quoting a contemporary Boonville publication, The Western Christian Union, published by E. W. Pfaffenberger:
"Boonville has a large number of substantial and comfortable residences, but the palatial dwelling recently erected on Main Street, by Mr. Wilbur Johnson, is undoubtedly the finest in the city. From basement to garret and from parlor to pantry, the arrangement is the most perfect model of modern convenience. The elegant mantels, the handsome chandeliers, and the many artistic designs in finish, are largely due to the good taste of Mrs. Wilbur Johnson."
From the beginning the home was the focal point of much social activity. The Johnson and Stephens families were two of the most prominent in the area. Mrs. Johnson's brother, Lon Vest Stephens, also a Boonville native, served as Governor of Missouri 1897-1901, after having served as State Treasurer since 1890, when he filled an unexpired term. When the fidelity bond for Treasurer Stephens was approved in 1895, members of the Johnson family were cosigners, along with over 60 other area citizens. The required figure of $500,000 was almost quadrupled.
Newspapers of the period indicated that the sumptuous entertaining that became a hallmark of the Stephens gubernatorial era in Jefferson City was typical of the Boonville scene, as well. The Gay Nineties period was one of "gracious living" and the front page of the periodicals reported of the accounts of the affluent and their activities. They conjure up images of beautiful and charming ladies, modishly attired, handsome escorts, lavish repasts, and a variety of entertainment, from meetings of the Chocolate Club to "hops" as dances were often called. The Johnsons played a prominent part in the area social activities, moving comfortably in the same circles as Governor and Mrs. Stephens and their associates.
On August 23, 1983, through the initiative of Mrs. Joseph W. Towle, State Regent, Roslyn Heights was purchased by the Missouri State Society, Daughters of the American Revolution. It is elegantly and appropriately furnished and decorated, most of the items acquired from other DAR-owned properties and from friends who have a special interest in this architectural and historical treasure. None of the furnishings is original to the house, nor connected with the Johnson family.
Roslyn Heights provides centrally located facilities for members of the state DAR organization, and is open to the public for meetings, luncheons, receptions, and other special events. It is a popular tour site, especially during the Christmas Open House period and in the spring, when classes from area schools come in large numbers to learn firsthand about a fascinating facet of life in an historic Missouri town, and its relationship to a much larger scene.
Architecturally the house is described as "Queen Anne with Romanesque Revival affinities." Of primary importance are the Indiana limestone foundation, tower and buttresses and porte-cochere. Romanesque Revival structures are noted for the semi-circular arched openings and massiveness in proportion and are built of masonry, brick, and stone. The Queen Anne style is distinguished mostly by its irregularity in plan, massing, color, texture, and materials (stone, brick, wood shingles, and wood trim). Towers, turrets, projecting bays and porches are other characteristics, along with elements of cut, carved, molding and turned ornamentation. Paneled and decorated chimneys are often dominant.
Roslyn Heights is on the National Register of Historic Places, one of over 400 properties in Boonville so listed.
The exterior of the house is described in official terms:
"Gable parapeted wall dormers accent the roof on each facade; several have three-part windows with an arcaded header. A circular tower at the northeast corner ends with a conical roof with gable dormers and an iron finial. The wall surface is a smooth red brick embellished with white stone belt course and lintels and terra cotta panels. The primary facade has a one-story hip roofed porch with a pediment over the double leaf entrance and transom. To the North is an oriel window with a corbelled brick base and a one-story polygonal bay. The south facade has a large chimney, bay windows, and a secondary entrance which is afforded protection by a hip rooted porte-cochere."
The porte-cochere has segmental arches with Moorish decorative elements which appear elsewhere in both the exterior and interior of the house. The gasoliers on the front porch and porte-cochere and the brick sidewalk on the south side of the house are original.
Another original feature of the exterior is the paneled front doors which open from the front porch into a room-sized reception hall. The storm doors have etched glass panes with the initials "W.T.J." on each. The entrance hall has its original floor tile, and the oak grained wall treatment that stimulates paneled walls. Much of the woodwork throughout the house is handgrained.
A spindle frieze canopy highlights the reception hall above the circular tower base. The room also contains an oak fireplace with unusual rope columns and an ornate mantel shelf. An embossed lion's head is behind the swinging coal basket, the only one of this type in the house.
The stairway is of geometric design both handsome and functional, and staircase motifs illustrate the use of machinery during the Industrial Revolution. The original stained glass windows, built-in seat on the landing, and spindle frieze canopy above the windows are typical of the period.
The dado, or lower wall, of the reception hall and staircase is covered with "Lincristo Walden," a brand name for pressed leather or layers of pressed or embossed paper that became known as a style of reference.
Other original features of the interior include "pocket" (or sliding) doors, solid wood doors with hinges of sculptered brass, and eight mantels that set the decorative theme for the rooms in which they are located.
One particular point of interest in the parlor is the hand painted ceiling with its garland of flowers. This is the work of a guest artist who came and lived in the house for three weeks and painted not only the parlor but all four downstairs rooms. The fireplace mantel is of mahogany and the wallpaper is a pink brocade picking up the colors in the decorative tile of the fireplace. The elegance of the Victorian era is especially evident in the furnishings of this room. The fireplace has an embossed floral brass panel in back of the fire grate.
DAR chapters, the Roslyn Heights Building and Grounds Committee and other groups use the dining room for meetings. The highlight of this room is the spindle bentwood canopy framing the bay windows. Louvered shutters (not original) are used throughout the house except for the third floor ballroom. The walnut fireplace has brown embossed tile with ornate wood carvings.
The second parlor or library has polygonal bay windows and a fireplace mantel of elaborately embossed blue tile. The chandelier is original.
The kitchen has been modernized. Originally there was a door opening out on a large back porch, but this part of the house was damaged by fire and never replaced.
The second floor has five rooms and two baths. The tower room with its ornate lattice type canopy was originally Mr. and Mrs. Johnson's bedroom with the adjoining room Mrs. Johnson's sitting room. The fireplace mantel is bird's eye maple with decorative pink embossed tile in the fireplace.
The third room is the Regent's bedroom. It has a fine white oak fireplace with wheat colored embossed tile. The light fixture is original. The fourth room, known as the "Red Room," has a bright red embossed leaf design tile in the cheery firepllace, setting the tone of the room. The chandelier is an elegant antique fixture with etched red shade and crystal tear drop trim. All the rooms have appropriate wallpaper of the Victorian era. The fifth bedroom has a white and pastel color scheme, but no fireplace.
The third floor ballroom was considered the height of elegance for that period, but it was not unique among comparable Boonville homes. It now houses valuable doll and shoe collections as well as two pianos. One, believed to be the first piano brought to Missouri, is of mahogany and has beautifully carved trim. The other is a rosewood grand, a magnificent example of the Victorian era. The fireplace is of cast iron and while it is gas optional, it has never been connected.
The Joseph W. Towle HODAR room, library, gift shop, board room, and an auxiliary kitchen area are located in the lower level. The house has 18 rooms, eight of which have fireplaces.
Most recent additions to the property include a brick wall and cedar fence, and a three-car garage where a carriage house might once have stood. A handsome ornamental iron fence was recently installed to the north of th house as a gift from Mrs. Towle in honor of Loree Mabel Brown Janes (Mrs. Clyde P.), whose service to Roslyn Heights and other DAR causes was legendary.
In 1923 the Johnsons moved to Kansas City and sold Roslyn Heights to two sisters of German descent, Anna and Amanda Berndt, who crafted elegant garments for Boonville's elite. The sisters owned the house until the death of Amanda in 1961. Although the lifestyles of subsequent owners and tenants varied greatly from that of the Johnsons, it is a tribute to all of them that the integrity of the building has been maintained through the years.
Tours can be arranged by calling Roslyn Heights for an appointment.
Annual Christmas Open House
First Week in December
821 Main Street -- PO Box 297
Boonville, MO 65233-0297
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