Birdsell Mansion Offers Visitors a Bit of History – and Perhaps a Bit of the Haunted
Writer / Amy Lant-Wenger
Photographer / Ali Snyder
Their written chronicles abound, and the landscape of social media is rife with their images. Beautiful but somewhat forlorn, palatial old homes, crown jewels of opulence from another place in history. Magnificence in architecture, and very much a source of pride for generations of families who once called them home. Sadly enough, however, many of those houses have since fallen into disrepair, weathered by circumstances and time.
The Birdsell Mansion near downtown South Bend initially seems like one such example, but visitors will likely discover that it is anything but. The exterior reveals glimpses of its former glory, and the structure was recently designated as one of the state’s 10 most endangered buildings by Indiana Landmarks. And while the mansion may look abandoned, certain folks have come away believing that the house is neither forgotten, nor uninhabited.
Just ask Corbyn Bentley. A native of Elkhart, he is rapidly ascending to national prominence with his paranormal investigative adventures. He is a social media phenom with an active podcast following, and is well-versed in topics related to the spirit world. On a recent ghost-hunting expedition that he coordinated at the Birdsell Mansion, Bentley said that the house was one of the most haunted places he’s ever witnessed.
The Birdsell Mansion was built in 1898 for Joseph Benjamin “Ben” Birdsell and his wife, Olive. Birdsell was an industrial mogul, the son of another entrepreneur who was a pioneer in agricultural machinery. The elder Birdsell, John C., had moved to South Bend from New York in 1864 to market a new innovation in the threshing and hulling of clover, considered a leading crop of that era.
With the success of the Birdsell family enterprise, Ben Birdsell wanted to create a luxurious living space that would rival the nearby homes of Clem Studebaker’s Tippecanoe Place and J.D. Oliver’s Copshaholm. The design, crafted by the architectural firm of Parker and Austin, features numerous marble-accented fireplaces, ornate lighting and woodwork, multiple staircases, hardwood flooring, and a third-floor ballroom, all with the intent to dazzle the highest echelon of South Bend society.
The house was last lived in by members of the Birdsell family back in 1927, and since then, there have been a handful of businesses that have converted the space into office suites. Nowadays, Bentley has special clearance to use the mansion for hosting various supernatural excursions. Taking a trip through the mansion under the veil of darkness might convince even the most hardened skeptics that although physical life forms no longer reside there, presences are very much present.
Bentley is a spirited fellow in more ways than one. His lively, humorous manner meshes well with the eerie undercurrents of the house. During a recent visit to Birdsell Mansion, Bentley spent some time in the majestic front parlor, answering questions and explaining the particulars of the tour. He employs various tools of the trade to attempt communication with spirits, such as an ultra-sensitive flashlight that flickers on command when questions are asked. Bentley also uses a spirit box, which captures radio frequencies believed to pick up sounds not distinguishable to the naked ear.
While leading groups along tours, Bentley’s steps are tentative, yet he provides a riveting narrative of the various experiences in the maze of rooms. He speaks about portals, defined as places in the mansion that are allegedly active – a vast basement library with dusty vintage volumes, and dark, dank hallways where shadows linger. A boarded-up entryway to a network of underground tunnels is supposedly also a buzzy spot.
The most ideal way to stay apprised of upcoming events at the Birdsell Mansion is to visit the home’s Facebook page, located under “Haunted Birdsell Mansion.” The page features information on future plans, photos and videos, and a messaging feature to make inquiries. To view the house in its historic South Bend neighborhood, head to 511 West Colfax Avenue.