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Nathan Baker

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Community Heritage

Spectacular Shelbridge

March 3rd, 2014 4:41 pm by Nathan Baker

Spectacular Shelbridge

Shelbridge was built in 1921 by Roswell Spears. it is located at North Roan Street and 11th Avenue.Contributed ETSU

Originally farmland on the north side of a small train-stop town, the 6,000-square-foot mansion now known as Shelbridge has been home to industrialists and university presidents, but most importantly, families.
Shelbridge was built in 1921 by wholesale lumber dealer Roswell Spears on six acres of land he purchased at North Roan Street and 11th Avenue.
The three-story home, designed by local architect D.R. Beeson in the then-popular Colonial Revival style, included seven bedrooms and bathrooms, sunroom wings and a now-converted rollerskating rink on the third floor.
It was surrounded by lush grounds, which included a clay tennis court, vegetable and rose gardens, fruit trees and a barn housing a cow and a pony.
Henry P. Bridges, a Baltimore-area lawyer and industrialist, bought the mansion in 1928 for the princely sum of $42,500, and promptly moved into the home with his wife, Shelby.
Shelby Bridges, a native of Big Stone Gap, Va., and a former resident of Johnson City, became the inspiration for the house’s moniker, Shelbridge, which is an amalgam of her first and last names.
After taking up residence, the Bridges set to making the property their own, installing a swimming pool, bath house and a summer house where they retired to escape the heat of warmer days.
Through their 44-year ownership, the Bridges bought a few neighboring parcels of land when they became available, including the parsonage of Munsey Memorial Methodist Church, which became a guest house.
David Bridges, grandson to Henry and Shelby by way of son Powell, was born after Henry’s death in 1957, but visited his grandmother in Johnson City nearly every summer from 1963 to 1972, when the home was sold to the state.
“I recall a lot of wonderful times,” he said. “Grandmother Shelby was a fine Southern lady from Virginia, and I learned a lot about being a Virginian and Southerner from her.”
Bridges, born and raised in Chicago, said Shelbridge and the sprawling grounds surrounding it had a plantation feel, and provided many opportunities for mischief for young boys visiting for the summer.
“The interior was very finely decorated, with oriental rugs, big mirrors and fine furniture, but the third floor was a favorite of mine,” he said. “It was filled with toys, old steamrollers and trains and milk wagons. My uncle, Shelby’s brother, stayed up in the third floor, and we had wonderful times playing up there.”
The gardens also provided plenty of activities for children, Bridges said, recalling an instance when he and his younger brother set out to dig to China under the shade trees, and learning to swim in the pool, where his father’s and uncle’s handprints are preserved in concrete near the diving board ladder.
The lazy summers in Tennessee, away from the busy life of the city, awakened a yearning in him passed down from his grandmother.
“Chicago is a fine place to grow up, I lived there 18 years, but I spent the rest of my life in Kentucky, Georgia and Virginia,” he said. “I have an affinity for the South, and I really enjoy my time and living in the South.”
Bridges, an author, has written frequently using Southern settings, including family histories and historical novels centered on his ancestors.
He will visit Shelbridge again, his last since a Bridges family reunion hosted at the mansion in 2005, this week to sign his latest work, “The Broken Circle,” a novel based on his great-great-uncle, Civil War physician James Breathed.
In 1972, Shelby Bridges-White, who had re-married and lost husband Hal White, died.
Henry Bridges Jr. and Powell Bridges, David’s father, sold the home to the state for $100,000 to be used as the home of ETSU’s presidents.
After the sale, Henry Bridges told local media “We wanted our home to go to some institution, where it would be well maintained, kept intact and where it would have as much public use as possible. We are happy that it will be used as a residence for the president of East Tennessee State University.”
Jean (Culp) Flanigan, daughter of ETSU’s fourth president Delos Poe Culp, was a member of the college’s first First Family to take up residence in the stately mansion in the fall of 1973.
She called Shelbridge home until 1977, when D.P. retired from his position at the helm of the university.
Flanigan remembers fondly the towering elm trees that once lined 11th Avenue, now gone after succumbing to Dutch elm disease, and the home’s gardens resplendent with the flower beds that her mother, Martha Culp, carefully tended.
“My mother did a lot of work on the grounds,” she said. “She was already famous for planting daylilies all over campus, and she planted them there, too. There was a bank in front of the house that she filled with daffodil bulbs, and in the spring they would bloom and look just gorgeous.”
The Culps were an animal-friendly household, and the halls of Shelbridge often echoed with the sounds of paws, wings and more.
A boa constrictor, cared for by Flanigan’s brother John until he went off to medical school in Alabama, gave the family more than a couple of scares after escaping its aquarium.
Seeking attention after John shipped out, the tropical snake was once discovered by a less-than-enthusiastic maid in a laundry hamper and later found coiled in the paterfamilias’ shower.
After the shower incident, D.P. built a sturdier habitat for the freedom-seeking reptile made with acrylic plastic and a heavy-duty piano hinge, and moved the housing to a downstairs den, where it served as an end table.
Despite the high standing the Culp family enjoyed in Johnson City, Flanigan said ordinary life unfolded at Shelbridge much like it did in homes anywhere else, but some of the mundane tasks may have surprised those who knew her father as a college president.
The college hired groundskeepers to maintain Shelbridge’s acres of land, but President Culp, who Flanigan said even she thought was born in a coat and tie, insisted on mowing the lawn himself.
“Dad loved to mow the lawn,” she said. “He would wear coveralls and a pith helmet and ride the lawnmower all around Shelbridge with my son, who loved to ride on the mower with him.
“People used to seeing my dad all spiffy in a suit were always amazed when they saw him out there in that outfit, mowing the lawn,” she added with a chuckle.
Since the Culps, six presidents and their families have made their homes under Shelbridge’s roof.
Brian Noland, installed in 2011 as the university’s 10th president, has underlined that the mansion is publicly owned. Like many of his predecessors, he, along with wife Donna, has held school functions there.

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