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Keeper of the Castle

Mary Neff's Prairie Avenue mansion doesn't look like much from the outside, but inside it's a polished gem. Now that she's dead, her heirs hold the key to the house's survival.

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When Mary Neff first saw the William Reid mansion in the mid-60s, all of the Prairie Avenue millionaires were long gone. The near-south neighborhood had become a red-light district, though it was starting to turn around as R.R. Donnelley & Sons expanded, buying up vacant lots for its factories. Neff, a lawyer for the communications giant, often handled its real estate transactions.

The gorgeous 14-room, nine-fireplace building at 2013 S. Prairie was the only mansion left on the street that had always been a private residence. It was built by LeRoy Beers in 1894 for William Henry Reid, who'd made a fortune running supplies on the Mississippi during the Civil War and had later become one of the founders of the Bank of America. Several owners had followed, the last being Jerrold Nedwick, a bookseller who'd stacked his volumes from floor to ceiling and never shown much interest in upkeep.

When Nedwick died in 1966 the mansion went on the market as a teardown. Charles Haffner III, a member of the Donnelley family and the supervisor of the firm's land acquisitions, thought the property could be used to expand the company's parking lot, but he wanted to tour the sagging relic first. He took Neff along.

"When Mr. Haffner and I walked into the foyer we looked at the mahogany wainscoting, the subdued and artistic stained glass, and the flawless 1890s style tile mosaic floor," Neff wrote in her history of the house. "After a pause, Mr. Haffner said, 'It would be a shame to tear this down.' At the same instant I said, 'I would like to live here.'"

Two years later she did. She'd had to fight with the administrator of Nedwick's estate, but she had the backing of R.R. Donnelley, which was keen to revitalize the neighborhood. The company even surprised her with a gift of $10,000 for repairs.

The mansion needed a fair amount of work, and Neff did most of it herself. "I have resided continuously in the Reid Mansion for 35 years, never altering its interior or exterior, but carefully and lovingly fixing the leaks, breaks, failures to operate, and dangerous conditions," she wrote in the history. "I have joined the small company of those who value art and history beyond their own financial interests."

"She made a point of not sprucing up the outside--she didn't want it to be a target," says Peter Wyble, a renovator who was Neff's friend for 20 years. "Five years ago, while there weren't exactly crack houses down here, it was kind of like tumbleweed rolling down Prairie Avenue--although I think Mary preferred that to the current yuppie infestation."

"She got mugged," says Haffner, "but she wasn't going to leave that neighborhood, come hell or high water."

Mary Vaughan Neff, who was born in 1913, grew up in Wichita, Kansas. After graduating with honors from Wichita State University in 1934, she wrote in her diary, "I don't know what the future will hold for me, but I feel it will be generous. Also, though not good-looking, I am well set-up and am not repulsive. I have a consuming curiosity about all kinds of things...and have learned to talk persuasively and to the point."

Neff, who never married, moved to Chicago, where she got an MBA from Northwestern University and a law degree from John Marshall. Stenography paid the bills until 1943, when she was named an assistant attorney general. Later she joined a private law firm in the Loop and moved out of an apartment on North Pine Grove and into a house with a yard in Des Plaines. In 1955 she was elected to the local city council--its only female member--and served six years. In 1957 she and a partner started their own law firm, and soon she was doing work for R.R. Donnelley.

After rehabbing the Reid mansion for a decade, Neff started looking around for other buildings to buy and fix up, scaling back her legal work to devote more time to saving gems in run-down neighborhoods. In 1981 she heard about Wyble and asked if he would rehab a two-flat in Lincoln Park that she'd just bought. "She showed up, this short little old lady in a mink hat," recalls Wyble. "She took me into this scene of destruction, and we saw what looked like a wire hanging from the dropped ceiling." It turned out to be the tail of a dead rat. "I was expecting she'd let me get up there, but Mary persisted in climbing up a ladder and getting rid of it herself. She was pretty plucky."

Neff hired Wyble and seemed pleased with his work when they toured the building a few weeks later. Then they saw that a stove had been stolen. Neff told Wyble not to worry, that she'd do guard duty until he could install a new lock. "I guess I didn't know how tough Mary was because I'd only just met her," Wyble says. "But she got her sleeping bag and stayed overnight in that building with a gun."

Lisa Baldassari met Neff in the late 80s, when she was hired to do painting at the mansion, and she, like Wyble, gradually became Neff's friend. "She liked to read my palm when I came over," says Baldassari, now a library archivist. "Sometimes we'd go out to dinner or to the symphony. We always went to see Yo-Yo Ma. She loved talking about her books and travels to Israel and England and National Geographic tours." Wyble would sometimes join them, and the three came to rely on one another as if they were family. "One of us would talk to her every day," says Baldassari.

Neff occasionally went up to Wisconsin to stay at the large house Wyble has been building for himself for the past 20 years. "It's really not that grand," he says, "but Mary loved it. She always called it 'the castle.'"

Last spring Neff, by then 87 years old, started writing the history of the house, including details about the lives of the Reid family. "In the music room," she wrote, "a string quartet or trio would join Mrs. Reid's piano in afternoon concerts to entertain the housebound Prairie Avenue wives."

Then in mid-June she took Wyble and Baldassari to lunch and asked them to look after her only immediate relative, her sister, who still lived in Wichita and had Alzheimer's. "I asked Mary why she was talking like that," says Wyble, "when she usually talked about living to be 100."

Three days later Neff's cleaning lady found her on the floor of her bedroom. "She'd had a stroke the night before," says Baldassari. "We thought she'd be OK--she'd already survived breast cancer and colon cancer and took all these vitamins and assumed she knew more than all of medical science. She really did want to live forever."

Neff had been counting on another decade at least. "She had plans for George Bush," Wyble says. "She wanted to give him some ideas on running his administration."

But after the stroke Neff couldn't speak. "She definitely recognized us and tried," Baldassari says.

Neff died on July 16.

Several years earlier Neff had told Wyble and Baldassari what she wanted done with the mansion. She wanted them to sell it for a good price. She didn't want them to let anyone even try to tear it down. And she wanted them to ask prospective buyers to please take off their shoes so they wouldn't mar the floors. Wyble says she was a fanatic about making people take off their shoes.

Neff had already chosen a real estate agent, Patrick Fegan from Re/Max. She thought he'd handled the listing of other mansions well, including the Marshall Field Jr. mansion down the street.

"Mary saw what was going on down here," says Wyble. "She had some definite concerns." He says Neff had spent much of the past couple of years trying to stop a condo high-rise from being built next to her mansion. She'd even spoken against the development at community meetings. "Mary treasured her anonymity," he says, "but she said she was going to give some of that up to go public with her quest." Shortly after she died, the developer cut the project from 11 to 4 stories.

In 1998 Neff made Wyble and Baldassari her executors and primary beneficiaries in her will. "When she asked us to be executors of her estate, I was honored," Baldassari says. "It took her a long time to trust somebody." A childhood friend in Wichita and several local charities were also well provided for.

In early January the mansion went on the market for $2.25 million. Wyble and Baldassari say that after it's sold to the right person they'll take Neff's ashes up to Wisconsin. "We're going to bring her up to the garden at Peter's place," says Baldassari. They thought that made more sense than leaving her on Prairie Avenue. "If we buried her on a side lot, who knows? It might become condos," says Wyble. "No one wants a marker that looks like a gravestone in their backyard."

Since Neff died, Wyble and Baldassari have been sorting through her things, deciding which to keep and which to put in an estate sale. Some of the furniture has been passed down from owner to owner and may go to the next one. Many of her 4,000 books have already gone to the Newberry Library.

"She kept everything," says Baldassari. "I'm finding kindergarten report cards. She won awards for her legal essays. She was the archery champion of Kansas."

"I kept finding loaded guns when I was cleaning out stuff," says Wyble. "I don't think she wanted to scare off burglars--I think she wanted to take them down."

Baldassari, who's been staying in the mansion, says she's less brave. "One night I freaked out because I thought I heard something," she says. "The cops came, and they were looking all over the house. But it wasn't like they were looking for a robber. They were just checking it out--in awe."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.

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