Community October 22, 2010

Reviving the Rockwell House

A Victorian mansion with a history is restored to its former charm and beauty.

When the present owners of the Rockwell House purchased it in 1991, the imposing old mansion had been so trashed, stripped, and abused by the previous occupants, a Bible camp, that renovation seemed an impossible task.They bought it for the property: approximately sixty acres of meadow and woods, surrounded on three sides by water. Looking for a place near Sun Valley where the whole family could gather, not just now but for generations to come, they saw the grand old house resting serenely at the end of a long, tree-lined drive and fell in love with it.

The property was in escrow to developers who wanted to break it up into small lots and build a subdivision, but that deal fell through and the family made an offer, which was accepted. Then began the monstrous job of renovation, which has been ongoing ever since. It was only after they started to clean the house up that they realized its historical importance to the Wood River Valley.

Irvin E. Rockwell, who built and lived in the house, was already a man to be reckoned with when he arrived in Bellevue in 1901, as the new owner of the famous Minnie Moore Mine. Born in 1862 on a farm near the tiny town of Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, he went through the local public grade school, and then completed his formal education at the nearby Marshall Academy. After working for three years as a journalist with his elder brother’s newspaper, the Minneapolis Journal, and other stenographic jobs, he moved to Chicago where he established first an accounting firm and later a company engaged in manufacturing activities.

The long, severe economic depression near the end of the century offered investment opportunities to the budding entrepreneur. Among these was the purchase of the Minnie Moore Mine in Bellevue, Idaho–and, later, other mineral properties, the sole ownership of the Wood River Power Company, and the Blaine County National Bank. The Minnie Moore was a bargain, as the previous owners, having taken out a fortune in silver and lead ore, considered the property “mined out.” [Henry E. Miller–who built the Minnie Moore Mine House, which was profiled in the Home 2000 issue of Sun Valley Magazine–was one of the owners who sold the mine to the British company.] They sold the mine to British interests, who offered it for sale to Irvin Rockwell. Taking advantage of much improved mining methods, Rockwell extracted at least a million dollars more.

Earlier, in 1884, when Rockwell was working in Chicago, he had married Mary Searing, who bore him two sons. Apparently Mary suffered from mental problems, as she was institutionalized twice. For whatever reasons, Irvin’s affection for her waned.

At his office, a beautiful and extremely capable Iowa Quaker farm girl, Lallah Rookh White, had been hired. (Her unusual name was taken from a poem by the Irish poet Thomas Moore.) She was quickly promoted to be Rockwell’s personal secretary, and soon he was madly in love with her. Irvin saw Rookh as a woman “transfigured by a light of unutterable beauty.”

Rockwell continues to relate the experience in a little book written over forty years later.

Across my clouded sky flashed the lightning of irresistible passion. . . . I was torn by emotion, a fierce desire to possess and protect the vision. . . . To escape the delirium I fled. Without returning to my desk, I boarded a train, westward bound, hoping in distant work and new surroundings to bear my disappointing lot. Arriving in Idaho, my brain would not function. For days I tried to overcome the strange obsession. . . . Everywhere I went, everywhere I looked . . . I beheld Rookh’s face. . . . At last, in desperation, I wrote her, pouring out my love. Impatiently I waited, almost hopeless, for her response. . . . Her answer came. . . . direct, sparing of words, unclouded by doubts or fears. . . . She said simply, ‘All right with me.’

There followed a relationship of more than forty years, until Rookh’s death in 1940. Rockwell gave her credit for revitalizing his life and being of immense help in his business activities. “Every day’s problems have been solved and tempered by her wise counsel and companionship, understanding and love.” Irvin married Rookh in 1914. They had two sons,who died at an early age in a water accident and are buried in the rose garden, beneath tall evergreens, directly below the tower room.

Irvin said, “Rookh was the architect of our home. She chose the site and designed the building, equipping it completely from basement to roof. Her artistry was reflected in it and its beautiful surroundings.” Rockwell gave her effusive credit for her knowledge and skill in gardening: “ . . . in gorgeous flowers, running waters, and velvet lawns, as well as garden fruits and vegetables.” (This vision was completely destroyed in the Bible Camp days. Not a single flower or shrub existed when the present owner took over and re-created, restored, and added gardens and landscaping with flowers, flowers everywhere.)

The Rockwells’ home became a mecca for important visitors: statesmen, world travelers, business executives, musicians, writers, distinguished men and women. Remember, this was pre-Sun Valley Lodge and pre-Sun Valley itself. Ketchum, a dusty little town, was known mainly for sheep shipping. Hailey was nondescript. But Bellevue, with the largest population, was booming, partly because of Rockwell’s Minnie Moore Mine. A likely candidate for a Blaine County seat, or even the state capital, Bellevue was the destination for visitors–and the only place to entertain them was the Rockwell mansion, with Rookh in a key role as hostess. She enchanted them all. Senator William Borah once said to her, “Rookh, your home is the only place in the world where I can find complete rest,” and his wife, Mary Borah, added, “If God ever loosed a human angel on this earth, it was Lallah Rookh.”

In 1914 Rockwell was elected to the Idaho State Senate, a position he held for 14 years. Ever afterward, he was customarily addressed as “Senator,” and referred to in the third person as “the Senator.” In 1920, he won appointment to the Board of Regents of the University of Idaho, and simultaneously became a member of the Idaho State Board of Education. His greatest public achievement, in his own eyes at least, was to lead the battle to construct the American Falls Dam, a task that took seven years, from 1921 to 1927.

After “the Senator” passed away in 1952 at the age of 90, his heirs sold the property to the Bible Camp, ushering in a 38-year period of deterioration and abuse of the house and grounds. “They killed the soul of the place,” declares the present owner. The house was a mess. Moldings and hand-carved woodwork had been stripped off and taken away, the priceless oak floors were covered with linoleum or shag carpeting, the bathrooms were all plastic. There were no fireplaces. The kitchen was under a covering of grease and dirt.

It is different today. The Victorian house, set well back from the road, is approached by a long, tree-lined drive. (Irvin liked to brag to visitors that he had planted the trees himself.) To the right, a vast, manicured lawn stretches away to the Wood River; to the left, the ground slopes down to the White Slough. The wide, balustraded porch wears a lush belt of thick, green shrubs and colorful flowers. At the rear of the house, both the parlor and the dining room access a large, square deck furnished for entertaining. Along the floors of the porch and the deck stretch planter boxes ablaze with flowers.

“Our grounds are virtually a game preserve and bird sanctuary,” says the owner. “In the woods are families of deer and a moose with two babies–not to mention rabbits, foxes, and skunks. In the bird department, we have geese, ducks, a couple of cranes, even a bald eagle.”
To plan the remodel, the owners hired Don Brandenburger, who has designed numerous homes here and maintains offices in San Francisco. The basic plan and feel of the Rockwell house has been preserved, with only an expansion toward the rear for a mud room, a utility room, and more kitchen space.

The front door with its massive brass knocker, opens into a vestibule. To the left is the parlor, opening through white columns into a second living room. Behind the parlor, a wide doorway leads into the dining room, and behind that is a completely renovated and modernized kitchen. During the remodel, some windows were changed into French doors. Others were doubled in size. Inside partitions were removed to let in more light, a major objective.

A double fireplace was added between the parlor and the dining room. The facing is slate, topped with carved wood mantel pieces from the owner’s great-great-grandmother’s house in Virginia.

To the right of the vestibule, original stairs with wainscoting lead to the upper floor. The painted wood panels that adorned the underside of the stairway had been vandalized and removed by the Bible camp; each new panel had to be meticulously painted. Italian art graces the stair walls; the stair knob is a globe of Venetian Murano glass.

On the second floor, the main bedroom is suitably large and light, having been made out of three smaller bedrooms. An unusual and gracious bedroom/sitting room fills the tower space, opening through French doors onto a balustraded upper deck. Other bedrooms throughout the house provide sleeping space for the large family. All bathrooms have been remodeled and modernized.

To suitably furnish and decorate this Victorian masterpiece, the owners filled it with antique pieces. The early American dining table is from her grandmother’s home in California. The Victorian loveseat in the parlor has three ornately embroidered and bejeweled pillows from Burma. A few feet away sits a black-and-gold lacquered Thai cabinet from the Bangkok period. To its right hangs, floor-to-ceiling, a ladder of 24-inch gold leaf rectangles on which, in Burmese lettering, is inscribed the entire holy scripture of the Theravada school of Buddhism. It can be folded accordion-wise and stowed in a carved, waist-high, manuscript chest to preserve it.

As might be surmised, the owners’ hobby is collecting art and art objects from Indonesia, Thailand, Burma, Turkey, and other Asian lands. The fruits of this hobby are evident all over the Rockwell house: hand-loomed rugs, wooden furniture, magnificent urns and vases.

Having restored the Rockwell house to its original character with paint and careful reconstruction, the next step was to fill it with people, as it had been during its mining-era heyday. Now, when family groups gather–parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, children, and grandchildren–the great house is truly in its glory.




This article appears in the Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.