Short North home has a storied history

If you're a longtime Columbus resident, chances are you've heard of the Circus House, built in 1895 by Peter Sells of the famed Sells Brothers Circus. You've probably driven by, walked by or taken the SegAway Tour. Maybe you were one of the 9,000 folks who trudged through the 7,400-square-foot, 12-room, Romanesque-style home as part of the Short North Tour of Homes & Gardens last month.

If you've read one of the countless articles, you know the home was designed by Frank Packard, and includes an adjacent carriage house, which current owner Weston Wolfe is renting through Airbnb. You've heard about the house's former lives as a Fraternal Order of Police lodge, the House of Hope for Alcoholics and a nursery school before it was converted back into a residence.

But what hasn't been explored in depth is each owner's personal relationship with the home.

“I'm super-connected to it emotionally [and] spiritually now,” said Wolfe during a recent tour of the home. “A lot of rooms [in Columbus] I can't even get in because I'm not old money. I didn't play football at Ohio State. And this house is a presumption of wealth, and intriguing, and it'll put me in the rooms where I can be myself. … It was the biggest gamble I've ever taken in my life.”

It appears to be paying off. Wolfe has turned the mansion into an event space, making it available for potential film, video and photo shoots. But more importantly, the house has helped him find peace, check his ego, ward off bad energy — “the house protects me,” he said — and bring its history to the forefront.

During our interview, Wolfe passionately discussed the Sells family's former community, known as Sellsville, between West Fifth and King Avenues. He pointed to their contributions to diversity through the integrated "Polkadot School" and black baseball team, the Sellsville Sluggers.

Peter Sells' presence is honored on the property through initials on the gate to the pool and in the original stained glass window above the staircase. Peter Sells' travel chest, full of rare circus posters and handwritten letters, is a popular holdover from previous owners.

While Wolfe has kept areas like the Tent Room, designed by former owner Fritz Harding, mostly intact, he has put his stamp on the home, painting woodwork here, adding an auto-play piano there — but always “listening” to the home.

For example, he discovered that a bedroom once belonging to Peter Sells' wife, Mary, didn't have the right energy as an office. “You can't sit still for five minutes,” he said. And upon learning of previous fires on and around the property, he no longer feels comfortable swimming in the pool. “I feel like it's almost like a burial ground,” he said.

Harding, an interior designer whom Wolfe called “brilliant in some ways,” seemed less affected by energy and potential spirits.

“We lived there nine years and never experienced anything,” Harding said. And he was familiar with the spiritual realm, given that his former home in Clintonville had paranormal activity marked by “cackling monkeys and rushes of air,” he said.

By contrast, Wolfe once had a guest who claimed to see a ghost of a black panther gallop into the kitchen. According to Wolfe, the animals were once kept in the basement with tigers, lions and baby elephants. The wide outside door to the basement, along with rooms resembling animal enclosures, suggests it's at least possible.

Though it'll likely always be known to the city as the Circus House, Wolfe is promoting the space as the “Sells Mansion.”

“I just feel like the real name is Sells,” he said. “He's bigger than the circus.”

And while Wolfe moved in thinking the mansion would be a “forever home,” he said he'll willingly leave if the house signals him to do so.

“I'm just a caretaker,” he said. “I'm passing through, and whatever I can do to impact people's lives in a good way, that's what matters.”

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