The story behind the Pella Victorian Villa is captivating. John Voorhees built this majestic home for his family in 1871. It is recognized as an Iowa historic site and is also listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
John Voorhees (1829-1898) was of Dutch ancestry. In 1853 he moved from Ohio to Mahaska County, Iowa, and in 1854 he was married to Margaret Canine. They had five sons and three daughters, two of whom died early in life. From the diary of John K. Voorhees (one of his sons) we know that on March 8, 1870, when the mercury stood at 5 degrees below zero, Mr. Voorhees left for Illinois to see a man about building the house. A March 26, 1870 entry tells that after returning from the trip to Illinois, Mr. Voorhees hired a man to chop wood for the brick kiln, which would be used in the summer. All of the bricks were made in that kiln on the Voorhees’ property with clay from local clay-pits. Bricks from this kiln were also used in the construction of other houses being built in Pella at the same time. The mortar used in the construction of the villa was the same color as the bricks, and so white lines were painted on the mortar between each brick. The bricks and mortar have remained in excellent condition to this day. The thick walls of the villa are made of two double layers of brick with air space in between for insulation.
Mr. Voorhees’ livelihood in Iowa involved investments in real estate and developing one of the largest farms in the area. His grain and livestock farm included Black Angus cattle, horses and hogs. At the time he built the villa he owned about 400 acres. Mr. Voorhees would pay transportation for Dutch men who wanted to immigrate to Iowa. They would work on his large farm in order to repay him for their transportation. They would stay in the rooms that are above what is now the current kitchen.
The cost of the home at the time it was built has been estimated at anywhere from 10 to 13 thousand dollars, which is twice as much as Mr. Voorhees intended to pay.
The curve in Highway 163 is an example of Mr. Voorhees’ influence as a leader in the community, as he asked the county supervisors to bring the road nearer to his home, which they agreed to do.
The home is a striking example of Victorian architecture known as the Italianate style. The numbers 1871 can be seen in the house’s slate roof. This Mansard roof style, with its steep sides, solved an architectural problem, providing enough headroom to make top floors and attics habitable. Victorian architectural styles became preferred over the Gothic architecture that had been common throughout the early and mid 1800s.
The main two floors of the house have 3,529 square feet of space and a spacious veranda. Throughout the home there are 11-foot ceilings, and the rooms receive ample light by the 70 windows and 35 doors. The oval windows on the third floor contribute to the villa’s unique appearance. There are 44 decorative brackets (corbels) that enhance the home’s exterior. It was originally built with three kitchens (now there is one). The grand stairway from the first to second floor rises twelve feet and is composed of alternating oak and black walnut. There are two other stairways in the home that lead from the first to the second floor.
Mr. Voorhees’ widow, Margaret, sold the home to Antonie Vermeer in 1900, and it remained in the Vermeer family until 1979 when it was sold to Glen and Lila Turnbull. Necessary improvements and remodeling have been made over the years to maintain the historic villa’s integrity and style. It is currently owned by Stan and Alma Vermeer who purchased it in 2011. They desire that this landmark home be preserved and reflect the rich historical heritage of the Pella community. The home is adorned with typical period furnishings. Dr. and Mrs. Majors, who live in the villa as caretakers, appreciate the beauty of this exceptional home and the opportunities it gives to reflect Christian hospitality and provide an enjoyable experience for all who visit.
Several legends concerning the house and its history have been circulated over the years. One unfounded rumor, which explains why some refer to this house as a “Spite House,” relates to a supposed rivalry between Mr. Voorhees and his neighbor, Mr. Smith. In 1869 Mr. Smith had built a 14-room mansion on property near Mr. Voorhees. This house has since been moved. Supposedly Mr. Voorhees had tried to “outdo” Mr. Smith.
Another story involved the myth that a long tunnel existed between the two houses which was used to hide runaway slaves during Civil War days. Of course, since both homes were built after the Civil War, that myth is easily debunked.
Check back for the truth about these and other legends and for more information about the villa’s rich past and current characteristics.