La SALLE, Ill. - The outside of the house is amazing.

And as you stand in front, gazing at its multiple stories and the huge, horseshoe-shaped staircase that curves to the main entrance, you may wonder what kind of family built this place, what they did and how they lived.

These are good questions because a tour of the place is as much about the German immigrants who lived here and their contributions to industry and culture as it is about the architecture and furnishings.

Called the Hegeler Carus Mansion, the architectural masterpiece is located about 90 miles east of the Quad-Cities off Interstate 80, making it a good day trip destination for those interested in old houses and history.

Don't expect the interior to look as polished as the outside, though.

Built in 1874 by Edward Hegeler, the home was occupied until 2004 by his grandson, Alwin Carus, who preferred to spend his millions on education rather than keeping up the home.

As a result, the elaborately painted ceilings are faded and, in some cases, missing plaster, the floors and furnishings have lost their luster and the rooms appear dark.

But forget that and appreciate the fact that this house appears much as it did 100 years ago, with few alterations and with its original furnishings still in place.

A tour begins with a guide explaining that the home was designed by W.W. Boyington, the same architect who designed Chicago's Water Tower and Iowa's Terrace Hill governor's mansion. August Fiedler created the interior, designing a unique parquet floor and hand-painted ceiling for each public room.

The family

Hegeler was a graduate of the Freiberg, Germany, School of Mines. In 1856, he and classmate Frederick Matthiessen came to America, eventually landing in La Salle, where they founded the Matthiessen & Hegeler Zinc Co. Between 1880 and 1910, the company was the largest zinc producer in the world, a manufacturing empire on the Illinois prairie.

Today, the original factory site is mostly gone or in ruins, but next to it is the Carus Co., founded by a Hegeler grandson, which is the world's largest producer of potassium permanganate, a disinfectant and water purifier.

Your first stop in the home is the library, which Hegeler used as his office. Like John Deere in Moline and other early industrialists, Hegeler built his home next to his factory so he could keep an eye on things.

In addition to his interest in mining, Hegeler was a thinker who was especially interested in the relationship between science and religion.

To provide a forum for the discussion of philosophy, science and religion, Hegeler founded Open Court Publishing. The business was housed on the ground floor of the mansion for more than 80 years and continues today in Chicago.

The Carus name became associated with the mansion in 1886 when Hegeler invited German scholar Paul Carus to become the managing editor of Open Court. Two years later, Carus married Hegeler's daughter.

Carus wrote 75 books and nearly 1,500 articles. He also corresponded with such notables as lawyer Clarence Darrow, inventor Alexander Graham Bell and authors Upton Sinclair and Ezra Pound.

"The mansion and its collection are a direct link to that which made Illinois a world cultural center in the later 19th century," Rolf Achilles, an art historian and professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, says in the mansion's promotional literature.

"The treasures of the mansion show it to be the most important survivor of German heritage of its time," he adds.

The house

The mansion was crumbling by the time a nonprofit foundation was formed in 1995 to take over its maintenance. More than $4 million has been spent to replace the roof and rebuild the wraparound porch and horseshoe staircase that had deteriorated to the point that they were gone.

Restoration continues, as does a cataloging of all the items in the home.

Among the highlights on a tour:

* The children's play room where there is an inlaid bookcase designed by William LaBaron Jenney, an architect and engineer often called the "Father of the American Skyscraper." He also designed the Deere-Wiman House and Riverside Cemetery in Moline.

* The dining room. This is an impressive, 40-foot-long space, but what's most interesting is the embossed wallpaper. Although it now appears a dark brownish-green, caretakers recently discovered that it originally was a shiny gold. When the west sun shone in the room's windows, "this room must have been incredible," guide Tricia Kelly says.

* The gym in the basement which, dating to 1874, may be the nation's oldest such facility inside a private home. Among the equipment: a climbing pole, a pommel horse and parallel bars.

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