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(Credit: Megan Leigh Barnard)


The Greatest Show on Goodale

By Morgan Landis

Published February 1, 2013
(Credit: Megan Leigh Barnard)
(Credit: Megan Leigh Barnard)

Ashining red roof, like the big top of a circus, stands on the corner of Goodale Park. And just like the circus, this house invites wonder and delight, excitement and laughter, intrigue and mystery, to those who walk by – and even more for those who get to enter into the main event.

Fritz Harding, a history buff and interior designer, knew that the mansion used to belong to Peter Sells – the owner of the famous Sells Brothers Circus that called Columbus home. Harding also knew that he had to have it – and its little carriage house, too.

“Seeing it on the corner, with the lights on, made it appear like a beacon – that made the possibility of owning it real. The next morning I said to my wife, ‘The Circus House is still for sale.’ She looked at me like, ‘So what does that mean to me?’” said Harding. It ended up meaning a yearlong journey of negotiations and repairs until he turned his dream into a real-life fantasy.

Much like the Wizard of Oz himself, there are many rumors about what Peter Sells did behind these castle-like walls.

“There’s one about elephants, and baby elephants, in the basement and in the carriage house,” said Harding’s 12-year-old daughter Genevieve. Although that rumor has been mostly debunked, Harding plays up the mystique by hiding elephant “Easter eggs” in each room.

If any member of the Sells family were to be reanimated and placed in their old home, they’d see a structure strangely familiar, yet magically transformed in homage to the past.

Upon landing in the grand entrance, the front door is sandwiched between two rooms. On the right, a study filled with books and sofas. On the left, a room with tapestry hung like a circus tent, with tassels matching those in the Sells Brothers Circus posters hanging in gold frames on the wall. Following the tassels from room to room, one finds allusions to the circus beasts of past: sconces with peacock feathers, a snakeskin rug, a bear hide, and, of course, the elephants.

Instead of heading to the kitchen, eyes are drawn to the intricately detailed circular staircase leading to the stained glass window with Peter Sells’ initials shining in emerald shades.

On the second floor is the master suite. Designed as two separate his/hers rooms, a common arrangement for well-to-do Victorian families, it now is the domicile of Harding’s son and daughter. Architectural plans says the third floor was a ballroom, although only the rear stair serves that level – meaning visitors did not have easy access. Another piece of Sells House lore says it held a carousel for Sells’ daughter Florence, but for now it is used as a full guest apartment (including kitchen and bath).

After giving tribute to the circus past, it was time to be realistic if the family was going to make it their home.

“The first major change was to re-locate the kitchen from the rear to what had originally been the dining room, and really more where the heart of the home is,” said Harding. “We wondered when we first moved in if we could do it modern – have this kind of juxtaposition of really contemporary in a historic shell – but it was almost like this house rejected it.”

Instead, they matched new wooden cabinets with the original window casings and a wooden mantle over the fireplace.

Their biggest investment was in acquiring the adjacent lot. There, they satisfied their modern desires, digging six 300-foot wells used for a comprehensive geothermal heating and cooling system. In the excavation, they found empty booze bottles, likely a remnant from the house’s stint in the ’50s as the House of Hope for Alcoholics. This same lot was also used by a former daycare as a playground and parking lot. Now it houses a six-car garage and a large fireplace with Gothic brickwork matching the main house.  

Behind the home is the former carriage house, but instead of housing horses and hay, they’ve transformed it into a one-tenant rental.

Although that’s all the Hardings really need, as many people like coming to the Circus.

“It’s really fun, my friends like coming over,” said Genevieve. “My friends are like ‘Oh my gosh, this is so different.’”

For her, there’s no place like home.