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Will third time prove the charm for efforts to save colorfully historic house?

Creighton Avenue house was once home to canal captain, world-famous dwarfs

Tuesday, April 16, 2013 - 12:01 am

If the third time is indeed the charm, there may yet be better days ahead for one of Fort Wayne's most historically colorful – but chronically endangered – buildings.

Built by the Wabash and Erie Canal's first boat master and later home to two internationally famous vaudeville dwarfs, the 155-year-old Fairfield Nestel house at 815 W. Creighton Ave. was supposed to have been rescued from ARCH's list of endangered structures back in 2007, when the historic preservation group announced plans to donate the Italianate structure to a San Francisco contractor who previously lived in Fort Wayne.

Then the real estate market crashed – and so did the contractor's ability to restore the stately but badly deteriorated building. A subsequent attempt by a Fort Wayne resident was equally unsuccessful, and the house ended up in last year's sale of tax-delinquent properties.

And that might have meant the end for the hilltop house that once dominated a 240-acre estate on what was then the edge of town and first made ARCH's “endangered” list in 2006 and was targeted by city building-safety officials for demolition a year or so later.

But now, thanks to ARCH, the Allen County Community Development Corp. and contractor-turned-motorcycle salesman Ben Roney, work could begin in just a matter of weeks. If the city's Board of Zoning Appeals gives its blessing later this week, that is. In other words, Roney can't restore crumbling buildings that have existed for more than a century to their original condition unless a bevy of bureaucrats approves.

He wants to tear down the carriage house and rebuild it on the original foundation, living there until he can complete the main house. But current zoning doesn't allow two residential units on the same property or for a building to be within three feet of the side or rear property line.

Roney's plan to recreate the house's original tower is problematic, too, since it would exceed the maximum allowable height for buildings in areas zoned for single-family homes.

But despite all that – and the fact that the project could consume three to five years and $100,000, Roney can't wait to get started.

“My biggest motivation is to show my kids the value of hard work,” said the 35-year old, who plans to do most of the work himself with the help of friend Maggie Dye. A former contractor who now works for River City Harley-Davidson, Roney said his experience with other homes and as a set designer and builder for local theatrical productions has prepared him for the ordeal ahead.

Although the circular staircase, pocket doors and brick fireplace remain, “(the house) is pretty gutted on the inside, down to the studs, but we're collecting old photos (in an effort to duplicate some of its original features,” he said.

The Community Development Corp., which works to find responsible owners for tax-delinquent properties, will transfer the house to Dye at little or no cost. And there are other reasons to hope Roney can succeed where at least two others have failed, ARCH Executive Mike Galbraith said.

“He's doing most of the work and he's going to live there,” Galbraith said. “The other guys either lived out of town or were going to have other people do the work. This could be a catalyst for (other improvements in) the neighborhood. There are probably fewer than 10 homes like this left in Fort Wayne.”

But however significant the house's architecture, its history may be even more noteworthy.

After coming to Fort Wayne from Maine in the mid 1800s with $30,000 – an unprecedented fortune for Fort Wayne at the time, according to historian Charles Poinsatte – canal boat captain Asa Fairfield bought his estate and in 1858 built the house on its highest spot.

But it was the children of the next owner who made the home's story truly unique.

Nursery owner Daniel Nestel, who bought the house in 1880, was father to two perfectly proportioned but very short offspring, each less than four feet tall. Known professionally as “Commodore Foote” and “The Fairy Queen,” Charles and Eliza Nestel toured the world, and in 1886 were feted as the “greatest attraction in London.”

One day, with a lot of hard work, money and maybe some luck, the house in which they lived may reclaim its place as one of the grandest homes in Fort Wayne.

But, having been named a self-contained local historic district in 1998, that can't happen until yet another city board approves Roney's choice of paint color, landscaping and almost any other changes visible from the street.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at, or call him at 461-8355.