Bloomington’s Ballantine Mansion rescued and restored by Udelhofen

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Pictured below is the formal dining room and parlor of the mansion. Time appropriate furniture was purchased by Udelhofen to go along with items that were found in the house. Above is James Ballantine’s office, which was the focus area of his own private bank. Today, it houses many novels that were found in the home, along with Ballantine’s original safe.

The Ballantine Mansion is pictured prior to Rick Udelhofen’s work to restore it. (Submitted photo)

By Rachel Mergen

 

When Rick Udelhofen was 16, he met one of the loves of his life, the Ballantine Mansion. Udelhofen, originally from Lancaster, and his friend snuck into the house, like many mischievous kids in the village of Bloomington did at some point while it was vacant. Instead of simply leaving without any souvenirs though, Udelhofen took home an appreciation and adoration for the old, supposedly haunted house. 

He noted about his original experience running around the house, “The house was like crack cocaine. I had to have it.”

Many Bloomington-raised children recognize the house as the one to be terrified of during Halloween. The building, located at 720 Fourth Street, is three stories, red brick and a High Victorian Italianate style. It was built by James Ballantine in 1876 and was home to his wife, Abigail, who was approximately 40 years younger than him, and their five children. 

The first floor of the house features a front porch adorned with two large double doors, a front entrance that sparks awe in visitors, an office cluttered with many aged novels and a ballroom that houses a bay window, along with a parlor, bath, formal dining room, kitchen and pantry. 

In the two floors above there are four bedrooms and an attic. In the attic, there is an access point to the roof, which reveals a magnificent view of Bloomington. 

The house contains 32 windows and many stunning chandeliers. All of the woodwork in the house is hand-painted, simulated graining, which was shipped from Dubuque to Bridgeport before being brought to the house. In addition, the house is also home to the oldest known Mosler’s safe with paperwork. Inside, Udelhofen found many documents belonging to the Ballantine family, which went along with the receipts discovered detailing all the purchases made to build the house. The receipts revealed that the house was built for about $10,000, equaling approximately $219,400 today.

The house was the first home in the town to receive electric lights. 

James Ballantine was one of the richest men in southwestern Wisconsin. He was known as a cattle baron, land speculator and a private banker. Customers of his would pay their fees through a side door directly located inside his office. 

Ballantine had an artificial limb, which likely limited his ability to use the higher floors of his mansion. His collection of wooden legs was found in the attic.

In 1895, Ballantine died at the age of 92. His wife lived until 1937, when she was 95, and occupied the house until five years prior to her passing. The house was left vacant for almost 43 years.

Udelhofen purchased the house in 1975, on Labor Day. The house and lot were owned by D. Duncan Ballantine, grandson of James Ballantine, and sold to Udelhofen for only $6,500, under the suspicion that it would have cost D. Duncan Ballantine more to demolish it. 

Udelhofen’s purchase was not simply an empty house and some land, though. Occupying the house were many treasures, a foot of water in the basement and the fecal matter of many animals. Also included in the price was a small animal zoo, it seemed, with raccoons, a cat and her three kittens, birds, bats, mice, rats and a variety of insects. 

“Everything you are and everything you have goes into restoring it,” Udelhofen stated as he described all the work that had to be done. Originally, he suspected it would only take him 10 years to perfect the place, but still today, he finds his mind focusing on many different projects related to the house’s restoration.  

According to a 1976 article by Dave Patterson headlined “Ballantine mansion being restored,” “The Ballantine mansion was built with a central heating-cooling system which was a real innovation at that time. Spring water was piped into a six by eight foot brick room where a furnace was stationed. The water was allowed to seep around quarried stone, thus cooling the rocks. Air was then drawn into the furnace room through a ventilation shaft on the west side of the house. As the air passed over rocks it cooled, and was then allowed to rise through the house.”

This innovative design benefited the Ballantine family, but caused more of a struggle for Udelhofen. The water seeped into the building, which led to a multitude of problems, including foundation damage. Some of the walls, which had sunk multiple inches during the building’s vacancy, had to be restored to their old position so the mansion could be rescued. This was the first task Udelhofen had to face before moving into the home. 

Since this first step, Udelhofen has worked on many jobs and sacrificed many things to try to restore the mansion to its prior beauty. Today, the house is designed similar to how it was when the Ballantines lived there. Many pieces of furniture and other objects have been purchased that resemble what could have been found in the home in the 19th century. 

Udelhofen believes it would kill him to have to leave the house one day. He understands he is aging, though, and projects in the home are becoming more difficult for him. He stated there is still a ways to go with the mansion, but he’ll allow the next owner to deal with it. 

“For Christ’s sake, kid, when will you grow up,” Udelhofen’s father had said when the house was bought. Udelhofen impressed him, though, with the work put in and ended up saving one of the greatest treasures in Bloomington. Without him, the home may now be simply a building lost to time, never to be enjoyed by the next generations.  

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