Renovating with love: former orphanage off Wells Street shining again – and there are tunnels

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FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) – Rich history can be found throughout Fort Wayne, Indiana. Unique landmarks filled with stories, making the city what it is today. A property at 2000 N. Wells Street has played a key role in shaping greater Fort Wayne into a community that cares for one another.

According to the National Register of Historic Places, the first orphanage building on the 25 acre campus, directly north of downtown and south of State Boulevard, was constructed in 1886 and was called the St. Vincent’s Orphan Asylum. At this point the orphanage primarily served young girls.

Original building built in 1886.

“This building was founded to stretch people’s understanding of how orphans were cared for,” Connie Haas Zuber, Executive Director at Architecture and Community Heritage (ARCH) says.

The history

The architect, Alvin M. Strauss was known for his work throughout the area. As the president of A.M. Strauss and Associates Inc., he was responsible for the design of many well known buildings throughout Fort Wayne such as the Embassy and Clyde Theaters, Lincoln Tower, the Indiana Hotel, as well as Central Catholic High School. The buildings are made of a rough textured brick, decorated with intricate limestone detailing, wooden windows and trim, and red tile roofs. All seven buildings, aside for some minor additions are still in original condition.

Photos courtesy of ARCH, Embassy Theatre and Clyde Theatre.

In 1932, the main building burned down and construction began on the new building, containing schoolrooms, the auditorium and gymnasium, and chapel. Additional cottages were also constructed to accommodate young men who were moving in after an orphanage closed in Lafayette. The cottages housed 24 children to a floor.

At this time the words “orphan” and “asylum” were dropped from the name and the new title became St. Vincent Villa. At the building dedication in 1932, it was stated that the name “Villa” was chosen because it connoted a “second home.”

Former orphan reflects on underground tunnels

Over 300 feet of tunnels underground connect the buildings to one another. Nuns, who cared for the children at the orphanage, would use the tunnels when the weather was bad so they did not have to walk across campus in the elements. Some tunnels are large enough to walk around in, and some too small to stand up. Orphans would spend time playing here as well as hiding from the nuns. An article written by the Journal Gazette in 2005 states that maintenance crews who explored the tunnels in 1991 found a bag of old marbles and toy cars in some of spaces underground.

Melvin Claymiller, a resident at St. Vincent Villas from 1936 to 1947 recalls what it was like to play in the tunnels. “We used to play downstairs in the basement and we’d always go down there to escape from the nuns. They would come down there and try to find us. Of course the other side of the story is we would turn all the lights off or unscrew the bulbs so it didn’t do them any good. We used to raid the nuns rooms where they stored their beer and stuff like that ’cause they did drink beer,” Claymiller recalls.

The main tunnel below ground on campus.

24 boys or girls would live on each floor of the cottages. They were each given a small cubicle to store all that they owned. “Most of the time our treasures consist of stuff at Christmas time,” Claymiller says.

An estimated 3,650 young boys and girls made the Villa their home from 1886 to 1971.

Claymiller, now 90 years old, still resides in Fort Wayne with his wife not far from the North Wells Street campus and reflecting back is thankful for the time that was spend at St. Vincent Villas. “I had a different attitude than what most people did out there. My mother had died and my father couldn’t take care of us so we ended up out there at the Villa. I always felt that we had it better out there than I did if I was home or someplace else,” Claymiller says.

The Young Women’s Christian Association of Fort Wayne purchased the property from the diocese in 1978 and owned it for many years. Imagine Master Academy utilized the campus for a few years before putting it up for sale.

Headwaters Church has big plans for the campus

In February of 2019, Headwaters Church, currently located off of Wallen Road, purchased the property. Since then, $4 million and at least 50,000 volunteers hours have been spent restoring the campus back to its original glory. Treasures have been uncovered all throughout the campus, like small tiles laid in the front lobby decades ago that were made in Italy. Just one of them could be worth, “up to a thousand dollars, these little squares. I’m not a tile expert but that’s what the expert told us,” John Suciu, Pastor at Headwaters Church said.

“For us, this was a way to say we love our neighbor, we can’t believe we own this place. We had a photograph of the chapel from 1953 that we used as we restored the room,” Suciu says.

Chapel in 1953 vs. restored chapel in 2021

“All we want is places like this to continue to be cared for and honored and respected,” Haas Zuber says.

Headwaters Church is committed to sharing the campus with the community. Many buildings and office spaces have been renovated with others in mind. Some of the smaller buildings are going to be utilized by local organizations to have office space.

“Everyone says ‘if walls could talk,’ just imagine the kinds of caring stories this place could tell. And now Headwaters Church is working so they can tell more stories in the future,” Haas Zuber says.

“I’ve described it as a hub for Christian compassion in Fort Wayne, and so as you drive into Fort Wayne down Wells Street or Clinton, you’re going to see our campus and we want you to know that God’s love is there and He’s real,” Suciu says.

The church’s office staff will begin working at the campus in March and the church hopes to be completely moved in some time in April.

“Fort Wayne is a vital and healthy city because every place has needs, every place has people who need help, but the vital and healthy places have people who step up and say I’m going to do something about it,” Haas Zuber says.

“We are still planning, thinking, looking for new ways to use this property and to have it be an effective way to love our neighbor in the community. We have a lot of work to do,” Suciu says.

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