December 17 1857
By Ken Zurski
In 1848 a mansion went up in the scenic countryside of Connecticut that looked oddly out of place for its location. Not only was it very large, occupying 17 acres of land, but the building itself with its exotic Indian influenced architecture looked like something you might spot in far off Mumbai or New Dehli, not Fairfield, near Bridgeport, Connecticut’s largest city.
All this was the creation of one man who commissioned the building of the mansion as a “permanent residence” for his family. His name was Phineas Taylor Barnum, better known as P.T. Barnum.
Barnum called his new home the Iranistan.
Barnum’s inspiration for Iranistan was the Royal Pavilion in Brighton, England, a place he visited while doing a tour of Europe with his star attraction at the time, the 25-inch tall man known as Tom Thumb. Unlike others, Barnum was greatly pleased by what he saw. “It was the only specimen of oriental architecture in England, and had not been introduced into America,” he wrote.
Barnum hired a New York architect named Leopold Eidlitz to design it with the stipulation that he hold nothing back in terms of style and decorative elements. “The whole was finally completed to my satisfaction,” Barnum expressed, and on November 14, 1848, he held a house warming party for “a thousand guests.”
The invitees found a casual but garish palace to explore. Outside there was a circular carriage way , a fountain, urns and a decorative facade that was filled with symmetrically placed arched openings and numerous decks and porches. Topping the building were onion-shaped domes and minarets.
Inside, there was a circular divan under the dome, a large library adorned in Asian landscapes on its walls and elaborate stained glass windows that filled the rooms with colorful light. The grand ballroom sported a shiny wood floor with an inscription, “Love God and be Merry,” words Barnum used often.
“Elegant and appropriate furniture was made expressly for every room in the house,” Barnum would later write. “The stables, conservatories and out-buildings were perfect in their kind. There was a profusion of trees set out on the grounds. The whole was built and established literally ‘regardless of expense,’ for I had no desire even to ascertain the entire cost.”
In addition to the design, Barnum filled his home with animals of all kinds, as he did at his popular American Museum in New York City. Roaming the grounds of Iranistan were mandarin ducks, silver peasants, a cow named Bessie, and a pig named Prince Albert.
The biggest attraction was Iranistan’s largest resident, an unnamed bull elephant. This, of course, was all by design. Barnum felt the addition of the animals, especially the elephant was good promotion for the museum. “When entertaining the public, it is best to have an elephant,” Barnum would later explain. It all started at his home.
But it wouldn’t last.
Late on December 17, 1857, only nine years after it was built, the Iranistan was gone. Barnum, who was refurnishing the mansion at the time got the news the next morning by telegram while staying at the Astor House in New York. The building caught fire, he was told. It was a total loss.
The papers were consoling, but skeptical. Barnum’s good fortunes had recently taken a turn for the worse. It all started when Barnum sought to create a “perfect”town in Connecticut that he would call East Bridgeport. He convinced a large business, the Jerome Clock Company, to move their factory there in the hopes of bringing more people and jobs. The clock company agreed to relocate but first needed help to pay down a debt of $100,000 . Barnum loaned them the money, but was tricked into signing more cash notes. Soon he was responsible for a half million dollars in debt. Barnum was forced to go into bankruptcy and lost a fortune.
Many of his friends supported his plight with sympathy, loans and gifts, but others reveled in his misfortune. To his detractors, Barnum’s latest predicament – more like a humiliation – was subject to ridicule. “Here is a terrible illustration of where the practice of humbug will lead,” proclaimed the New York Herald.
The Chicago Tribune’s headline was even more biting.: “The deceiver is duped,” it read.
In the midst of all this turmoil, Barnum lost his beloved Iranistan.
Initially, no cause of the fire was given. “It is supposed to have been set on fire,” was one newspaper dispatch, not mincing words, but refusing to elaborate. Later, it was suspected a construction worker dropped a lighted pipe. Barnum had recently moved some of the more expense furniture out of the Iransitan during the renovation and claimed he would soon return. His insurance money was far less then the initial cost of $150,000. “My beautiful Iranistan is gone,” Barnum would write in his autobiography.
Barnum recovered financially after going on another successful tour of Europe with Tom Thumb. Upon his return he set out to build another home, again in Fairfield, called Lindencroft, that in its design was spacious, but far less extravagant than the Iranistan. “All the taste that money can could do was fairly lavished upon Lindencroft so that when all was finished it was not only a complete house in all respects, but a perfect home.” Barnum wrote his memoirs.
The biggest disappointment, however, was for the riders on a train line that would pass by the Iranistan grounds everyday. Not only was the impressive building gone, but they missed seeing the elephant, roaming the yard, helping plow the fields, and giving them all a thrill by raising its trunk and bobbing its head in a friendly gesture.
(Sources” The Great and Only Barnum by Candace Fleming; P.T. Barnum: The Legend and the Man by A.H. Saxon; various internet sites)