THE CIRCUS HOUSE
Written by Amelia Jeffers
Photography by James Henthorn
Though he had barely settled into his beloved German Village manse, Weston Wolfe found himself entertaining an unexpected offer that proved too hard to resist. At the urging of an experienced Columbus developer, Wolfe accepted the offer and immediately identified his next chapter: caretaking the Sells Mansion at Goodale Park. Otherwise known as “The Circus House,” the elegant (if eccentric) residence has an illustrious history beginning with the original owner, Peter Sells - whose fame and fortune can be attributed to his family’s business, the Sells Brothers’ Circus.
Arguably one of the country’s best studies in entrepreneurial success, the Sells Brothers’ Circus was the brainchild of Peter Sells’ three older brothers, who recruited him from the fledgling Ohio State Journal to assist with marketing and promotion of the company in 1871. Having all served in the Civil War (a fifth brother died a POW at Andersonville Prison), the Sells brothers had learned of the growing interest in carnivals and the circus while traveling across the country as auctioneers and made one failed attempt at running their own show before adding Peter to the team. Re-investing all profits, as well as their entire savings, back into the company each year, the Sells Brothers’ Circus became the second largest circus in the United States within just 20 years. Evidence and artifacts of the impressive run remain all around the city, with historians documenting the unique influence the company made on the community. Though animal rights activists may cringe at the thought of the circus, many have credited the Sells circus for bringing incredible diversity to the city of Columbus.
On roughly 1,000 acres west of the Olentangy and north of Fifth Avenue sat the winter home of the circus animals and employees, known locally as Sellsville and described as a fully integrated community at a time of deep-seated segregation. Remarkable and sensational accounts of the circus city filled the news, but from April until November of each year, Sellsville became a near ghost-town as the Sells Brothers’ Circus travelled worldwide, performing for millions and earning record profits.
By the mid-1890s, the Sells brothers were ready to enjoy a bit of their hard-earned income and each built an impressive home nearby their circus city. Peter Sells’ mansion was designed by renowned 19th Century architect Frank Packard and built at a cost of $40,000 according to historical records. Obvious nods to the Sells’ family business include sweeping rooflines that mimic the big top, and bold geometric brickwork inspired by whimsical circus designs.
Of the Sells’ homes that remain, none has received the attention and reverence as that of Peter Sells - particularly in recent years. As with many large, Victorian homes, the Circus House was converted to a number of different uses beginning just before the Great Depression. However, since Bill and Parry Lohr purchased the home in the 1960s, the structure has been returned to service as a private residence, with each subsequent owner leaving their individual mark on the home’s appearance and legacy. A stint of living at the Circus House seems a bit like an entry on a resume: “Dutiful Historian: 1961 - 1994,” “Purposeful Interior Designer: 2009 - 2016,” and perhaps for every owner: “Thoughtful Steward.”
For Wes Wolfe, the call to curate the Circus House has become a personal journey of developing awareness of self, space, and image. A self-described 21st Century Gatsby at times, Wolfe has grown to understand, appreciate, and pay homage to the home as a living, breathing entity, only after experiencing the incredible and sometimes intense interest from the community. The first 18 months of his residency may have been marked by a string of extravagantly presented parties, but Wolfe seems to be settling into a more intimate understanding of not only what the home is about, but who he is in reference to it. It is hard to deny the connections shared by Wolfe and the Circus House, odd as it may sound. Wolfe runs his own insurance company and is a 32nd Degree Master Mason; Sells was also an entrepreneur and a 32nd Degree Master Mason. Across its history, the home served as offices to an insurance company and hosted temple ceremonies for the Masonic Lodge.
Wolfe has developed, like many others before him, a deeply personal relationship with the Circus House. It has become a canvas on which to express himself without fear of judgement, as any change is inevitably scrutinized by those familiar with the residence and its history; and a fortitude to withstand criticism is a necessary byproduct of one’s term as ringmaster. Wolfe’s additions include an opulent pool, a cool and sophisticated music room complete with player piano, and bold gold trim exaggerating the sense of luxury and prosperity that Packard and Sells must have been pursuing so long ago. Though a certain amount of ego is necessary to take on the weight of a landmark property like the Circus House, as Wolfe says, “if the ego gets out of control, the house has a way of pulling you back super fast.”