Echoes of the Past
A History of the Covington Public School System
Published May 2002
144 Pages 64 Illustrations
By Betty Lee Nordheim
DANIEL HENRY HOLMES
Daniel Holmes was born near Point Pleasant, Ohio, on Sunday, April 28, 1816, with Granny Clingman officiating. He was the great grandson of an Irish immigrant who moved into Pennsylvania in 1770 and then on into Ohio, and he was the youngest son of Daniel Holmes (1780 - 1818) and Mary Henry Holmes (1782 - 1818). He was christened only Daniel, but he later added the Henry to his name from his mother's maiden name. Both of his parents died in 1818 when Daniel was only two years old. An uncle, Samuel Holmes, took the baby into his family and raised him. Samuel Holmes lived just east of Cincinnati in an area known at the time as Columbia, the present location of Eastern Avenue and Columbia Parkway.
The Holmes family and the family of Eugene Levassor were neighbors, and young Daniel Henry played with the Levassor children. Since the Levassors had come to this country from France in the early 1800's, they still spoke French. Daniel Henry learned to speak the language from them. Young Daniel Henry was probably permitted to attend school for a few years. Then Samuel took him out of school and put him to work in the dry goods store owned by Eugene Levassor. When Daniel Henry was 17, Samuel sent him to New York City to work for the Lord and Taylor Department Store. Shortly after, Lord and Taylor decided to open a branch in New Orleans, Louisiana. In those years French was the primary language in this city. A man who could speak French as well as English and who was experienced in retailing was needed. D. H. Holmes met all those qualifications. He was sent to New Orleans where he opened the successful branch store. He was then just 20 years old. After six years Holmes decided to open his own department store. He rented a building for $2,000 for a year, and in April 1842, he opened the D. H. Holmes Department Store on Charles Street. Seven years later he moved to larger quarters on Canal Street. The main branch of the business remained in the location until it closed in 1988. Holmes employed only men as clerks. In his journal he stated that he was going to have to hire a boy to make deliveries, because "delivering these packages is a bore". He found a boy and paid him $4.00 per month. During the Civil War when the men were away fighting, Holmes was forced to employ women to work in the store. They worked so well that he kept them on after the War was over and the men had returned to resume their jobs. Before and during the Civil War, Mr. Holmes invested heavily in cotton, which he warehoused. At the end of the War when Confederate currency had no value, his fortune was secure. He simply sold off his stored cotton for U. S. Government bonds. As in most businesses, there were times when trade was not all that good.
During the frequent yellow fever epidemics people were afraid to venture out of their houses. The streets were practically deserted, and, of course, very few shoppers went into the store to make purchases. One reason that the D. H. Holmes Department Store was such a success was Mr. Holmes' business philosophy: "Give the best product and the best service for the lowest price". He also felt that only cash should be used for transactions stating that "credit would be the ruination of the economy". The business finally expanded to several branches and employed over seven hundred people. Because of Mr. Holmes' business acumen, his generosity, and his wealth, he became known as the "King of New Orleans". At the time of his death in 1898, he was a millionaire.
The store was then controlled by the D. H. Holmes Company, Ltd. in which the employees were the largest block of stockholders. Daniel Henry Holmes married Eliza Maria Kerrison (1827 - 1884) of New Orleans in 1847. They had four children: Georgine (1848 - 1943), Lillie Jane (1849 - 1851), Daniel Henry, Jr. (1851 - 1908), and Mary Eliza, fondly known as Polly, (1853 - 1883). Mr. Holmes did not wish to keep his family in New Orleans in the summer because the weather was very hot and humid, and there were yellow fever epidemics each year. He decided to return to the Cincinnati area and build a summer home. Also a home in this area would provide a convenient stopping place for him and his family on the frequent trips to and from New York and Europe.
He chose a location in an undeveloped area south of Covington, Kentucky, which at that time ended at Twelfth Street. Eugene Levassor had moved from Cincinnati to Northern Kentucky in the 1850's and had built a large home on Eugene Street. The street was originally named for Eugene Levassor, but was later changed to Levassor Place. That house is still standing. Mr. Holmes wished to be near his childhood friends again, so, in 1853, he put together an estate of seventeen acres by purchasing land from several owners. He called his estate "Holmesdale". The boundaries were approximately Madison Avenue, the Licking River, Levassor Place, and 25th Street. At the time of the Civil War, Mr. Holmes wanted his wife to take the children to Europe for safety. Mrs. Holmes chose not to go and remained in a house on the property in Northern Kentucky with her two daughters. Mr. Holmes took his son, Daniel Henry, Jr., to France where he stayed and was educated.
The original house on the property was neither large enough nor grand enough for Mr. Holmes. Construction of what became known as the "Holmes Castle" was begun in 1866. Accounts of the design of the Castle vary. One states that it was based on a building in a Paris Exposition; another that it was copied from a small castle that Mr. Holmes had seen in Siena, Italy. The basic style was English-Gothic. The Holmes Castle was a thirty-two-room red brick mansion. It was situated so that the back of the building was almost to Levassor Place, (or Eugene Street), and front faced a gradual downward slope to a small stream which ran along what is now 25th Street.
Small reception rooms flanked the entryway inside the double front doors. An eight-foot long, high backed, solid oak hand carved bench with differing ends, now located in the Nordheim Gallery at Holmes High School, is thought to have been in one of the reception rooms. A large foyer, which was used as a ballroom, took up a great deal of the ground floor. The walls were covered with tapestries, and paintings hung between the floor to ceiling mirrors. At the east end of the room was a Carrara marble fireplace, ten feet wide, capped by a cowl of carved wood. Marble sculptures decorated the rooms. One of these, a bust of William Shakespeare, has been preserved and is also kept in the Nordheim Gallery. Parquet wood floors extended throughout the ground floor with different patterns used in the various rooms. Small areas of this parquet were removed by the Holmes family when the building was sold. They were intended to be used on end tables, but were lost in subsequent moves. A parlor, a formal family dining room, a servants' dining room, a kitchen, a billiards room, a library, and a music room completed the first level Georgine Holmes was an accomplished pianist. She and Louis Levassor, the son of the neighboring Levassor family, often played together. Musicians who came to the Cincinnati area visited the Holmes Castle and performed in the music room. Mr. Holmes commissioned the Baldwin Piano Company of Cincinnati to build a piano for his family. It was built in 1897, the thirteenth grand piano made by Baldwin, and was of mahogany in a very simple style. The instrument was found in a junk sale by a piano restorer in Cincinnati in the 1980's and was returned to its original prime condition. It was purchased for Holmes High School by the Covington Board of Education at a cost of $10,000. The grand piano, which may be the oldest Baldwin now in existence, is now kept at the school in a secure location and is used for special music performances.
Daniel Henry was very proud of his library. It contained a great many fine books written, not only in English, but in other languages as well. Mr. Holmes may have lacked a formal education as we know it, but he kept on learning after being taken out of school, and was proficient in several languages. Across the foyer from the front doors a wide stairway carved from bird's-eye maple went up half a flight, then split and continued to the right and left on up to the second floor, joining with a balcony that surrounded the foyer. The original cost of this stairway was estimated to be $40,000.
A stained glass window was located at the landing, and a leaded glass skylight was installed in the roof of the foyer. Nine bedrooms for the family and guests opened off the balcony. Each bedroom had its own bathroom with a marble tub and basin. They were supplied with hot and cold running water. Large vats were installed on the roof, and water was either collected from rainfall or was pumped up by the servants. One vat was heated. Gravity flow brought the water down through pipes, but no mention is made of sewage disposal. Each bedroom and bathroom was decorated in a different color scheme. An aviary and a chapel completed the second floor. Servants' quarters and large, cedar lined walk-in closets occupied the third floor. A dairy and an extensive wine cellar were located in the basement. A hexagonal tower rose two more floors above the main roof. Entrance to the tower was from the third floor where a circular iron stairway went on up to the top. It was estimated that one could see for a distance of five miles from the top of the tower. A light was kept burning in the tower whenever that the family was in residence.
This tower was not a part of the original building but was added later by Daniel Henry, Jr., at the request of his wife. It is possible that the enclosed veranda was also added at the same time. There was a fireplace in each room although the house did have a furnace for central heating. Cost for coal to heat the huge house was over $800 per year in the late 1800's. It also had a form of natural "air-conditioning". Breezes in that neighborhood blew from the hills in the west down toward the Licking River. There was a large central hallway paralleling this natural flow of air. By opening the doors, the breeze could be made to flow through the house. Stables, a carriage house, a caretaker's house, a cow house, green houses, and a laundry all stood east of the main house where there were also flower gardens and kitchen gardens.
There were four large cisterns located around the house in which to store water for fire protection and for the gardens. A drive extended from Madison Avenue, then known as Banklick Pike, past the front of the house and then out to Eugene Street. Two large stone pillars stood at the entrance to the drive where there was a carved plaque stating, "North, South, East, or West -- Home is best". The streetcar company scheduled a special stop at the entrance when the family was there so their friends would have easy access when visiting. The grounds were very well landscaped with lovely flowering shrubs and trees, which Mr. Holmes had brought back from his travels abroad.
A small stream running along what is now 25th Street was dammed, and a lake was created. The lake bed is now the site of the football field, the Tom Ellis Stadium, at the high school. Many of the old trees survived into the 1900's but were destroyed by a tornado in 1915.
Entertainment at the Castle was lavish. Many formal parties were given, and famous people attended. Alice Roosevelt, daughter of the president, was a dinner guest in 1905 and may have met her husband-to-be, Nicholas Longworth, there at Holmesdale. As well as the Castle, Daniel Henry Holmes maintained a residence in New Orleans, an apartment in New York City, and a home in Tours, France, because the family traveled a great deal. The Castle served as their summer home, a stopping place between New Orleans and New York, and a place in which to celebrate special occasions such as birthdays and weddings. A full staff of servants was kept at the Castle at all times
Daniel Henry Holmes, Jr., married Rachel Susanna Gaff (1858 - 1937) in 1883 and had three children: Rachel Conwell Holmes (1885 - 1953), Eliza Kerrison Holmes (1886 - 1938), and Mary Gaff Holmes (1888 - 1910). Although the Holmes surname ended with Daniel Henry, Jr., the family continued and descendants lived on in Cincinnati, Ohio, Louisville, Kentucky, and Hot Springs, Virginia. Mary Eliza Holmes married Charles L. Mitchell in 1879 and had one son, Daniel Holmes Mitchell (1882 - 1909). She died two months after his birth, and the child was raised by members of the Holmes family. He went to the western part of the country when he was older and worked with the Native Americans. He never married and died at the young age of twenty-seven. Georgine Holmes married C. H. Thomas when she was older. They had no children. The fourth Holmes child, Lillie Jane, had died in infancy. In 1884 Eliza Maria Kerrison Holmes passed away. Daniel Henry, Jr., then brought his bride to the Castle, and they resided there. Georgine Holmes remained there, too, to care for their father. Daniel Henry Holmes, Sr., continued on in the business and kept up his travels.
In the early 1890's he turned over partial management of the business to two associates, Samuel Geoghegan and James T. Walker. This gave him more leisure time, which he used for study and travel. He was in his apartment in New York when he died on July 3, 1898. His body was returned to the Castle for visitation and was then taken to New Orleans for burial. The body was supposedly interred in the family crypt in Metarie, Louisiana, but it disappeared. Apparently it was moved to a cemetery near his son's summer home in Connecticut.
The estate was divided between the two surviving children. Daniel Henry, Jr., was given the Holmesdale estate which included the Castle. Georgine was given money. Daniel Henry, Jr., did not seem to have taken much interest in the business, although he was named on the board of directors after his father's death. He studied law and wrote poetry. Two volumes of his poetry, "A Pedlar's Pack" and "Under a Fool's Cap", can be found in the reference section of the Kenton County Public Library. In the 1890's he became a prominent attorney in Northern Kentucky. After the death of her husband, Daniel Henry Holmes, Jr., in 1908, Rachel Susanna Gaff Holmes and her three daughters went back to New Orleans. During the next seven years the family returned to the castle only a few times.
In 1915 she sold the house and thirteen acres to the Covington Board of Education for $50,538.36. She and the children removed all the possessions and decorations from the house that they wanted. Any furniture, paintings, or decorative items that were left were included in the sale to the School Board and remained in the Castle. The need for a new high school building was the reason for the Board's purchase of the land.
Construction of the senior high school building, east of the Castle, was begun in 1916. The school opened on January 6, 1919. Soon after a junior high school building was built west of the Castle, and it opened in 1926. There was no provision for a cafeteria in either building, so a lunchroom was located in the first floor of the Castle. The old kitchen was used for food preparation, and the students ate in the huge foyer with the tapestried walls, the floor to ceiling mirrors, and the parquet floors.
In order for the students to walk from the senior building to the Castle in bad weather without going outside, a tunnel was constructed from the basement of one building to the basement of the other. However, in just a few years, the tunnel began leaking so badly that the students were almost as wet in the tunnel as they would have been going outside. To solve this problem an overhead passage was built. An arcade reaching from the junior building to the Castle served the same purpose for the younger students.
The official name of the school was Covington High School. However, since it was located on the estate of Daniel Henry Holmes next door to the Holmes Castle and in an area known as Holmesdale, the students started calling it Holmes High. Now the official name is Covington Holmes High School. In 1936
it was decided that a new cafeteria and more office and classroom space was needed. The spot chosen for the new building to house these facilities was the one occupied by the Castle. The decision to demolish the Castle was made. In November of 1936, the senior class was given a tour of the Castle.
An auction was held, and anything that could be removed was put up for sale. Any furnishings that remained were taken down to the football field and burned. Over the Thanksgiving holidays, the wreckers moved in, and the Castle was razed. The D. H. Holmes Department Store which Daniel Henry, Sr. opened in 1842 closed in 1989.
The building in New Orleans was sold is now the Chateau Sonesta Hotel. A plaque in the lobby of the hotel reads Site of the D. H. HOLMES DEPARTMENT STORE 1849 - 1989 reopened as CHATEAU SONESTA HOTEL 1995 Another plaque located in the bar of the hotel reads THE CLOCK BAR Meet me under the clock...... In 1842 Daniel H. Holmes opened the first department store in the Gulf South on Chartres Street in the French Quarter. In 1849, he moved the store to Canal Street, where it operated for almost 150 years, becoming one of the city's finest historical landmarks. In 1995, the site was restored and converted into the Chateau Sonesta Hotel.
The department store was so well known that its clock, hanging above the Canal Street entrance became a popular gathering place for locals. "Meet me under the Clock at Holmes" was popular slogan in those days. D. H. Holmes - known across the South for its revolutionary ideas concerning customer relations - even placed a book called the Register at the site where friends and family could leave messages for one another in case someone was delayed. The section of the writing on Daniel Henry Holmes is dedicated to Suzanne Mooney Warrington, wife of the late John Wesley Warrington who was the great-grandson of Daniel Henry Holmes, and her family with many thanks for their invaluable assistance.