The story of Huntsville’s Kildare-McCormick Mansion and its notorious owners

The story of Huntsville’s Kildare-McCormick Mansion and its notorious owners

HUNTSVILLE, AL (WAFF) - Located in downtown Huntsville, the 132-year-old estate and its owners have a storied past.

The Kildare is Built

The ornate, three-story, Queen-Anne style mansion was built in 1886 -1887 by wealthy, industrialist Michael O’Schaughnessy who moved to Huntsville from Nashville in 1881 with his brother to open a cottonseed oil factory. O’Schaunghnessy named the mansion and 71 acre estate- Kildare, after the Irish county where he was born in 1833.

From the beginning, Kildare drew widespread interest from local newspapers and the public.

In October 1886, the Huntsville Democrat reported on the building’s construction, “Major O’Schaughnessy’s residence on the Meridianville Pike is progressing finely, already its proportions are beginning to show up handsomely, the walls of one story being nearly completed.”

A few months later Huntsville Mercury declared, “In every detail, no residence in the county will surpass [the house].”

The 40-room, 17,000 square foot home was completed in 1867. It cost O’Shaughnessy $65,000 which is equivalent to $1,724,251.58 in today’s money.

The builder of such a house in the 1880′s had to have been a man with big ideas and a checkbook to match. Michael O’Schaughnessy was such a man.

Michael O'Schaughnessy photographed in downtown Huntsville.
Michael O'Schaughnessy photographed in downtown Huntsville. (Source: Huntsville Mercury)

When O’Shaughnessy came to Huntsville, then a small town of 5,000 people, he and his brother leased four aces of land that included the site of machine shops for the Memphis and Charleston Railway. They built the Huntsville Cotton Oil Mill on this property.

In 1867, the O’Schaughnessy brothers, along with a group of wealthy Huntsville businessmen, organized the North Alabama Improvement Company. The company was formed with the purpose to improve and develop the material resources of North Alabama.

The company was one of the main backers of the Dallas Mill. When the mill opened, it contained 25,000 spindles, 704 looms, and employed 516 workers, making it one of the South’s largest cotton mills.

When Dallas Mill opened, it contained 25,000 spindles, 704 looms, and employed 516 workers making it one of the South's largest mills.
When Dallas Mill opened, it contained 25,000 spindles, 704 looms, and employed 516 workers making it one of the South's largest mills. (Source: Huntsville Historical)

The O’Schaughnessy brothers played a major role in the Huntsville’s economic life by securing investment capital for a number of Huntsville enterprises. They were largely responsible for renovating Huntsville Hotel and building the Monte Sano Hotel.

O’Schaughnessy sells Kildare:

A combination of health problems and financial woes eventually forced Michael O’Schaughnessy to return to Nashville.

In 1900, Kildare was sold for $36,000 a trust fund established by Cyrus McCormick, investor of the mechanical reaper. McCormick purchased the estate to use as one of several residences for his handicapped daughter, Mary Virginia. Mary Virginia suffered from emotional and mental instability that left her incapable of administering her own affairs. She was taken care of by a caring companion named Grace Walker.

Mary Virginia McCormick pictured on the lawn of the Kildare McCormick Estate.
Mary Virginia McCormick pictured on the lawn of the Kildare McCormick Estate. (Source: Appalachian History)

For over 30 years, Virginia McCormick spent the winter months in Huntsville, where she and Grace entertained like royalty, hosting elaborate Christmas parties, Easter egg hunts, socials and an annual Maypole celebration to mark Virginia’s birthday.

A large crowd is gathered on the lawn in front of the house, possibly as part of a birthday celebration for Mary Virginia.
A large crowd is gathered on the lawn in front of the house, possibly as part of a birthday celebration for Mary Virginia. (Source: Wisconsin Historic)
Children performed a Maypole dance at the Kildare during McCormick's time at the home.
Children performed a Maypole dance at the Kildare during McCormick's time at the home. (Source: Alabama Yesterdays)

McCormick and Walker contributed greatly to the Huntsville community through numerous and varied efforts. Social service and civic organizations in Huntsville benefited from the McCormick years as did educational institutions and economic groups that might have been overlooked by other sources of support.

Huntsville’s mill communities and YMCAs in the city were two of McCormick’s special philanthropies.

She coerced mill directors into providing better health care and recreation facilities for the operatives by offering matching funds for settlement houses and YMCAs.

McCormick money and Walker inspiration sparked the development of the West Huntsville (“McCormick”) YMCA. The McCormick YMCA which was located at 8th Avenue S.W. and Triana Boulevard served the families of the textile mills community including Lowe and Dallas Mills. She is also credited with funding the YMCA on the corner of Greene and Randolph Street.

The 1915 McCormick YMCA was auctioned in 1983 for use as commercial property. Currently, it houses Huntsville Restaurant Equipment.
The 1915 McCormick YMCA was auctioned in 1983 for use as commercial property. Currently, it houses Huntsville Restaurant Equipment. (Source: Huntsville/Madison County Public Library)
Huntsville Restaurant Supply is housed in the old McCormick YMCA.
Huntsville Restaurant Supply is housed in the old McCormick YMCA. (Source: Google Maps)

McCormick’s philanthropic efforts sprang from Grace Walker’s lifelong support of the YMCA organization.

Through Grace’s work with one of Huntsville’s YMCAs her name became attached to the Grace Club.

The Grace Club began in 1914 when a group of young women from Huntsville’s downtown churches formed the “Young Ladies Auxiliary" to raise money for the Y and increase interest in the organization.

As time went on, the women expanded their service to other areas of the city and eventually adopted the name Grace Club in honor of Grace Walker. The club grew to include a Junior Grace Club for high school girls and later an auxiliary club for charter members of the original group. The Grace Club eventually becane Huntsville’s Junior League.

McCormick’s charity extended to the city’s African Americans.

She donated generously to what is now Alabama A&M University, financing the construction of a campus hospital and funding the school’s economics building.

A number of philanthropic deeds were attributed to McCormick after her death.

McCormick ended her seasonal residency in Huntsville in 1931 and moved to California where she kept several homes. She resided in California for the next ten years until her death in 1941.

The Kildare-McCormick mansion takes a turn for the worst:

The Kildare-McCormick mansion reached its zenith during the tenure of Virginia McCormick.

When Virginia and Grace’s winter stays in Huntsville came to an end, the fortunes of Kildare-McCormick House and its magnificent grounds took a turn for the worse. The McCormicks no longer used the residence, and family members overseeing the trust petitioned the circuit court of Madison County for permission to sell the estate.

The court decided to divide the property and sell if off as individual lots. The selling off of individual lots marked the end of the estate’s large lawn and verdure landscape that Mr. O’Shaugnessy planted and Virginia McCormick nurtured.

The parceling of the estate ushered in nearly 40 years of misuse and abuse to the home.

The home traded hands no fewer than ten times and was re-purposed into interesting assortment of businesses including a brothel, a hotel, a boarding house, a health spa and an antique shop.

After years of neglect, the house was purchased by James Reeves, who spent the next 20 years trying restoring the house to its original grandeur. Reeves ran out of money and decided to sell the Kildare.

The current owner, Dwight Wright purchased the home in 2007, stirring up controversy after he erected a 15-foot high fence surrounding the perimeter of the property, in an attempt to keep curious teenage kids and onlookers away from the home.

Wright said teenagers would trespass on the grounds at night and taunt him. He said the teenagers were also destructive to the historic home.

However, teenagers and some locals tell a different story, claiming that Wright has acted violently, throwing rocks and spraying a hose towards at people simply walking by the house.

YouTube videos document both sides of the story.

Wright said he procured permission from City Council to build the fence, but City Attorney Peter Joffrion disputed Wright’s claim.

“Everyone was quite clear in their communications with Mr. Wright that we were all talking about a small decorative fence,” said Joffrion in an interview with AL.com.

Wright threatened to tear the historic house down and sell it off piece by historic piece if the city made him tear the fence down.

After months of heated debate, Wright triumphed- and the fence was left standing.

Today, a manifold of lores and legends surround the mansion and its unusual residents over the years. Several online forums and articles report multiple murders were carried out in the basement of the dwellings while others say the house haunted by Mary McCormick and her mental illness.

However, the condition behind the creeky, colored walls of the Kildare Mansion and its rumored spirits still remain a mystery.

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