The Circus House's Newest Owners Have Lovingly Restored this Victorian Village Gem

A noted Victorian Village residence is saved by new owners who have a passion for its history.

Nancy Richison
Paige and Jason Henry, owners of of the Victorian Village mansion

In the summer of 2020, Paige and Jason Henry were in the market for a house with a pool. The real estate market was heating up, and it limited their options. There was one house, however, that caught their eye: the iconic Circus House in Victorian Village overlooking Goodale Park.

The Henrys had toured the home a few years before when they attended the preview party for the Short North Tour of Homes & Gardens. But they never thought they’d soon become its owners.

“It never would have occurred to me that we could own a house like this,” says Jason. The couple was already enjoying the Victorian Village neighborhood while living nearby. Paige is president and owner of Dayton-based Riegel Financial, a financial planning company founded by her late father Farald Riegel. Jason retired early and fills his time serving as a guardian ad litem for Court Appointed Special Advocates, volunteering for SICSA Pet Adoption & Wellness Center, as well as being a board member for Friends of Goodale Park.

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The 127-year-old Circus House is a renowned Victorian Village mansion that overlooks Goodale Park.

Right around the time they began looking for their pool house, the Henrys discovered that the Circus House was up for auction and bids had failed to meet the minimum price. The once majestic property had suffered extensive damage both inside and out. It was scheduled for a second auction, and that’s when the Henrys placed the winning bid.

They quickly embarked on what would become a 14-month restoration project to bring the property back to its grandeur. “To think that we own it is still pretty bizarre,” Jason says.

Adds Paige, “We paid [almost] $880,000 for a fixer-upper.”

In its 127-year history, the house has been transformed multiple times after being built for circus impresario Peter Sells and his wife, Mary. Sells, with his brothers, owned the Sells Brothers Circus. It is likely no mistake that the home’s swooping rooflines somewhat resemble a Big Top. Noted Columbus architects Yost & Packard were its designers.

While Peter Sells traveled with the circus, Mary is said to have kept company at the home with William Bott, who owned Bott Brothers Billiards and Saloon—today the site of Elevator Brewery & Draught Haus. Their scandalous affair led to the Sells’ divorce, which made headlines in newspapers across the country.

After Peter Sells’ death in 1904, the home had various incarnations, once serving as House of Hope for Alcoholics and then as a lodge for the Fraternal Order of Police. United Commercial Travelers ran a society for traveling salesmen out of the house, and it operated for more than 30 years as a daycare center.

In 1997, the Brownstein family purchased the home and set about restoring it as a prominent residence. When they moved on, they passed the baton to the Harding family who bought the home and added elegant, yet whimsical, circus touches before selling the home in 2016 to Weston Wolfe. The pool was added by Wolfe before he tried to sell the home in 2019. Under Wolfe’s ownership, the home was vandalized, and then fell into disrepair before going into foreclosure.

By the time the Henrys took ownership in mid-2020, a slew of permits was needed, starting with repairing the electrical feeder wires and conduit from the meter to the house, and replacing the plumbing. Because of its historical nature, renovation and repair plans have been shared with the Victorian Village Commission.

On a walk-through of the home soon after the Henrys purchased it, Paige lamented: “We’re going to restore what we can.”

Certainly, there was a lot that needed to be done.

The 7,414-square-foot property includes five bedrooms, five full baths and two half-baths. “One of the biggest jobs—most expensive jobs—will be restoring the brickwork,” she said back then. Since starting the project, the couple has overseen the replacement of ornamental pieces that had endured water damage, the tuckpointing of brick at the front of the house and the rebuilding of the front wall. A master mason was hired to redo the brick archwork in the same manner it was installed in 1895.

“We were most concerned with the brickwork before we got into winter,” Paige says.

Joel Walter, owner and president of NJW Construction, says the Victorian Village Commission has been helpful in keeping a watchful eye on the project. “The initial surprise was seeing all the damage that had been done,” he says. “It was pretty surprising, so we redid the electrical service and wiring in the home.”

NJW also repaired a large portion of the plumbing and gas lines, as well as replacing the geothermal unit, which operates by using heat from the ground. Walter says it’s a more economical way to heat and cool the home. “That’s the beauty of it,” he says. “By default, the home is inefficient because it is all brick. A large majority [of its rooms] is not insulated.”

Under their ownership, the Hardings installed the geothermal system and a rainwater catchment cistern to water the gardens. The Henrys have since added solar panels over the garage to provide energy to the Circus House, hoping to save on the previous electric bills, which totaled $600 a month, according to Jason.

To assist with decorating, the Henrys consulted Michael Nielsen, president and CEO of Phoenix-based Nielsen Design Studios, who Paige describes as her lifeline. “My favorite project—what I specialize in—is repurposing, taking a building and giving it new life,” says Nielsen.

As a friend of the couple, he says it helps to know how they live and what is important to them. “They do a tremendous amount of entertaining,” he says. “That purpose has to be kept in mind. She has a good eye. They both do. I just absorb and I figure it out—how to implement it.”

The Circus House's dining room was updated to incorporate a new chandelier and a custom dining table by Pathway Tables, which features two live-edge maple cuts with an epoxy river in teal, matching the fireplace surround.

Beyond the home’s electrical and plumbing, there was a lot of detailed restoration. Included was a project involving the turquoise-colored tile surrounding the fireplace in the dining room. Tiles were removed, cleaned and replaced—bringing back their grandeur as a focal point when guests enter the home from its porte-cochère.

Nielsen took the Henrys to the Las Vegas home furnishings market in January 2021 to select items for their home. They purchased a 500-pound handmade glass chandelier for the grand stairway. A hoist designed to hold up to 750 pounds was installed in the attic so that chandelier can be raised and lowered for cleaning.

The designer now says his favorite feature of the house is the main hall and its adjoining rooms. “That is the wow factor,” he says.

Paige describes the design elements she has selected for the home as “tasteful circus.” The couple has kept a diamond pattern on the refrigerator and freezer added by the Hardings to carry out the circus theme. Paige suggested that the diamond shapes be repeated on the cabinet hardware and on the glass inserts in a couple of built-in cabinets in the kitchen. The gray cabinets contrast well with the others in the room, which are navy.

Coincidentally, the name of the paint color in the media room is Sherwin-Williams’ Elephant Ear. In another nod to its circus theme, the couple at one time had admired bronze elephant heads on the kitchen island’s footrails that were installed by the Hardings. Only one remained in the house when they purchased it, so the Henrys bought new ones and situated them in the smaller kitchen area installed on the third floor.

An elephant atop an onyx newell post at the Circus House

The theme extends to colorful, modern harlequin wallpaper on the third floor, a bronze elephant balancing on an onyx ball on the newel post, a side table with a circus performer forged on its base, and Italian wallpaper featuring a tightrope walker by the back staircase. Paige found the image while searching the web. To obtain the wallpaper, she had to wire euros to Italy before it could be shipped.

One of the most unique design statements is a mural at the end of the main hallway from the front entrance. There, the Henrys commissioned local artist Mandi “Miss Birdy” Caskey to paint an original mural, which serves as the backdrop for a sculpture of an acrobat. “It’s the largest oil painting I’ve ever done,” says Caskey, who was adding finishing touches in mid-January.

Other striking artwork featuring bold colors is seen throughout the house—several selected specifically for the home and other pieces that the couple has collected over the years. Playful, beaded bunny heads by artist Nancy Josephson float above a small side table in the dining room.

The update of this home goes much deeper than its aesthetics, though. During the renovation process, Greg Bope, construction foreman for NJW Construction, learned much about how the house was originally built in 1895. In the kitchen ceiling he discovered two steel support beams measuring

2 feet tall, 12 inches wide and 31 feet long.

“It would have taken a team of horses, I would think,” Bope says imagining how the beams were transported.

Bope also discovered the name of a carpenter who signed the back of each piece of trim in red crayon: “H.C. Margerum, Columbus, Ohio.”

He calls the project a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. “I’m glad I got a chance to take it on,” he says.

The staircase was Bope’s labor of love and is the centerpiece of the grand hall. He removed each tread, created new matching balusters to replace those that had been destroyed and rebuilt the newel post based on pictures.

NJW also refinished all the floors and milled new doors to replace pocket doors. (The firm also rebuilt the mechanicals inside the pocket doors.)

“We rebuilt and replaced one of the exterior doors to match, including using the same species and cut of wood,” Walter says, adding that it was an oak rift cut. “We made the trims to match the trims that had been removed. The most challenging task was trying to replicate the original aspects of the house. The main staircase is a major part of that.”

Guest bedroom in the Circus House

All the fireplaces, except one in a guest room, are now functioning, including one in the owners’ bedroom, which was uncovered during the restoration process. This bedroom had once served as a card room in the FOP lodge. The fireplace is visible in photos shared with the Henrys.

Previous owners Erica Brownstein and Fritz Harding provided historical information about the house, which they still cherish as former caretakers. Brownstein, in fact, offered sage advice soon after the Henrys purchased the home: “When you’re finding people to [renovate] this house, find people who have a passion.’”

The couple feels as though they’ve done that. From all appearances, it’s the owners’ dedication to the project as well as the unique touch of various craftsmen that has brought the Circus House back to life.

Throughout the restoration process, the couple tried to salvage as much of the home as they could. The stained glass in the grand staircase is original to the Sells era of the home.

The previously existing kitchen granite was moved outside for use with the outdoor kitchen. “Anything we can salvage, we will. Even if we don’t use it in this house,” Jason says. “We’re not going to throw anything away.”

Where materials couldn’t be salvaged, the Henrys are reusing pieces from other historical homes. An art deco fireplace mantel from a house in Wooster was found for Jason’s second-floor office.

A home office in the Circus House

The natural beauty of wood lends form and function to the dining room table and desks for both Jason and Paige’s offices and were custom by Pathway Tables in Powell. “[Architect] Frank Packard put different wood species throughout the house,” Paige says, adding that a birds-eye maple door was salvaged and used to create Jason’s desk. Across from the desk now is a George Washington lamp that he’s had since he was a young boy. A new shade gave the piece new life for this renovated home.

Paige’s desk was created from one of the home’s original pocket doors. “So, the original doors will still be in the office,” she says. Accents in the office reflect her family, including photos and other memorabilia such as a unique vase her grandfather created out of cigar labels.

For the dining room table, Paige selected two live-edge maple cuts and added a turquoise epoxy river, which complements the fireplace tile. She designed the gold, geometric base, which Pathway Tables built so that no guests would be hindered by table legs.

On the second floor, a gathering space has been created in the sizable hallway. Twin gray velvet sofas are surrounded by gold gingko sconces mounted on the walls. On the East side of the home, Paige selected floral elements, including a bold floral wallpaper in the two guestrooms which overlook Goodale Park. The flowers featured on the wallpaper have given the rooms their names: the Tulip Room and the Peony Room.

A home office in the Circus House

The owners’ bedroom had once been the bedroom of Florence Sells, Peter and Mary’s daughter. Connected via a bathroom, what was once the room of young Florence’s nanny has now been converted to the Henrys’ closet and laundry room.

A floating stone patio was added to the balcony at the front of the home, where the Henrys plan to entertain while observing events such as ComFest and others in the nearby park. In the adjacent bathroom, Paige chose teal tile for the shower, coordinating it with the hallway’s teal walls.

When they began the renovation, part of the home’s basement still had its original dirt floor. Cement was poured and two new furnaces were installed. What once looked like a dungeon now houses the mechanicals, storage areas and a workout room.

Early on, the plan for the third floor was to open the ceiling and increase the room’s height to the architectural pitch of the house. But roof tiles proved too heavy without supports. Instead, NJW reworked the framing to increase the ceiling height by 1 1/2 feet in the main room. This space will be used for entertaining family and friends. The third floor also includes a kitchen, a bedroom and a full bath with its original, clawfoot tub. With a separate entrance from the outside, the couple may occasionally rent the space to others.

For the Henrys, the house they never imagined owning is now becoming home. Paige says each floor represents unique parts of their lives—from tributes to family members to fun and whimsical features.

“This house allowed us to do different levels of us,” she says. “I love how it turned out.”

A few months after buying the main house, the couple purchased its original carriage house from the bank that held the mortgage for it. Over the coming months, the 1,656-square-foot building, which has two bedrooms and two-and-a-half baths, will take on a new purpose. Meanwhile, this winter, renovation was beginning just as work wrapped up on the main house.

Circus House owners buy local

While selecting furnishings for the Circus House, a friend told owners Paige and Jason Henry that they should check out American Signature Brands’ new furniture line, Designer Looks. That friend happened to be Alejandro Alvarez-Correa, chief marketing officer for Columbus-based American Signature Brands.

“When I went to the store, I was so impressed,” Paige says. Among the choices the couple finalized were a Nest sectional that fills the media room. The option to choose the perfect color appealed to Paige, and the couple chose a hue called triton cement for the large sectional.

Alvarez-Correa says one of the selling features of the line is that it comes in more than 40 colors. That number will nearly double when an eco-friendly fabric line made from recycled bottles is introduced this summer.

Another piece of furniture the Henrys chose for the third floor of their home is a gray, top-grain leather sectional from The Happy Collection. It features two power reclining seats, complete with USB ports.

Bronze bookcases and gold étagères were selected to showcase items in Jason Henry’s second floor office and for the turreted room on the first floor.

Other American Signatures’ choices for the Henrys are the kitchen’s green velvet bar stools with gold accents placed at the center island.

The relatively new Designer Looks brand is noted for its solid wood frames, memory foam, real feathers and fabric selection. And, the line has a lower price point than those that have similar furniture designs. The Nest nine-piece section has a base price of around $3,000, according to ASB’s website.

Furniture is made at ASB’s North Carolina factory. Alvarez-Correa says the company launched the Designer Looks category three years ago. Two Designer Looks stores have opened in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, and Dateland, Florida. The collections also are on display at Value City and American Signature furniture stores.

This story is from the Spring/Summer 2022 issue of Home & Garden.