I received a call from an attorney for whom I had done consulting and expert witnessing over the years. There was a sense of urgency in her voice – she wanted an inspection and completed report on a 100 year old, 10,000 square foot home with detached three car garage – and she needed it the next day! I didn’t ask any questions. Only after I agreed to rearrange my schedule, did she disclose that the house was the Wright Brother’s mansion. I learned later that the inspection was in conjunction with a “hush-hush” title transfer that was not yet ready for public release.
The estate, called Hawthorne Hill, sits atop a hill in the affluent Dayton suburb of Oakwood. It was built between 1912 and 1915 by the famous fathers of powered flight, Orville and Wilbur Wright.
I’d often heard stories circulated about them in Dayton, where I was born and raised; I even graduated from Wilbur Wright High School. Little did I suspect that one day I would be privileged to inspect the national historic treasure I’d ridden by on my bike so many times as a kid.
Given the size and complexity of the structure, I knew it would be a very long day. I had recently inspected another nearby mansion of similar size and vintage which took me two 10-hour days. So to save time, Ruth came along to take notes for the report. As we drove up the long drive to the mansion, Ruth and I were both excited and apprehensive — there would be so much to look at and so little time! We started our inspection at 7am.
Fortunately, the full-time, on-site maintenance man met us and offered to guide us through the mansion and lend a hand wherever he could. We were also accompanied by a professional engineer who represented a client in the transaction, and we were asked to discuss our findings with him as we made our way through the property. He too, was willing to help and I put him to work whenever I found an opportunity. With this unexpected help, we were able to finish the site work by 7 PM, and deliver our report to the attorney’s officejust before midnight.
The mansion is a masonry structure with stately porches and massive columns. The front and rear elevations are identical, and we learned later that Orville had designed the house so that each of the two brothers should have his own “front door.” This symbolized the fact that they would share the house equally. Sadly, Wilbur died prior to its completion
We learned almost as much about Orville and Wilbur that day as we did about the house. Midday, Amanda Wright Lane, great-grandniece of the Wright Brothers, came by to introduce herself and check on our progress. The house was being donated to the National Park Service and she wanted it transferred in pristine condition. Because our interest in the history of the house was so obvious, she related several stories she had been told by her father about the house, family get-togethers and visits by famous people such as Charles Lindbergh, Thomas Edison and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. What a gracious and charming lady! And what a wonderful, unexpected reward her visit was!
As you know, I can’t divulge any contents of the report. But I can tell you that the house was far ahead of its time in terms of construction features and systems. After all, these men were inventors! I can also tell you that the property had been meticulously maintained over the years.
It was almost like inspecting a museum. The original furnishings and decorations were still in place. As we conducted our inspection room-by-room, we could visualize Orville sitting in his favorite chair in the library, tinkering in his workshop in the basement or using the circular shower he had designed to help soothe his arthritis pain, a reminder of his flying-related injuries.
Usually I concentrate on the structure and systems and don’t notice much else but this day was different. I have a vivid recall of every inch of that house and its features.
Incidentally, the engineer who accompanied us through the house commended us for the thoroughness and quality of our work.
This story is excerpted from my book, The Diary of An Intrepid Home Inspector, available on Amazon.com.