DECATUR - Rhonda Glidewell believes those who don't learn to buy from the past are doomed never to save it.

So when the Powers-Jarvis mansion at 357 W. Decatur St. comes up for auction Aug. 15, Glidewell and her husband, John, will be throwing their hats into the ring. It's likely to get expensive - opening bids for the almost 100-year-old, 9,400-square-foot home are to start at $342,000.

But the Glidewells, who've loved the palace from a distance for years, see it as the chance of a lifetime to live in a piece of history and are getting ready: They've put their 1870 mansion in the 400 block of West Macon Street up for sale, a home they rescued from an apartment house conversion and then fully restored to its Victorian splendor. Glidewell says you've got to be willing to put your money where your mouth is to buy these antique housing gems and preserve for posterity.

"The owners are just kind of like caretakers," she said. "You just want to look after them and then pass them on to the next person."

Glidewell runs her own mortgage business, is a partner with her husband in a real estate investment company and partners with two friends in a company that buys and restores classic homes. She has seen a lot of fabulous residences but rates the Powers-Jarvis mansion among the very best survivors from Decatur's glittering history.

"This house is beautiful, unique, one of a kind, and I would like to live in it as my home and see it fully restored," said Glidewell. "The worst thing that could happen, I think, is that it is turned into apartments and its architectural details are ruined."

The house was built in 1909 by business magnate Charles Powers, whose family was one of the biggest landowners in Macon County. It has passed through many owners and many stories since then.

In the early 1960s, when it was owned by oil tycoon Vernon Jarvis, it had regular brushes with Hollywood stars; Nancy Walters, the sister of Jarvis' wife, often stayed at the home and was there in 1961 after she finished shooting "Blue Hawaii" with Elvis Presley.

Other chapters in the history of the 9,418-square-foot home have not been so pleasant, however. Its past has included several sales forced through foreclosure as previous wealthy owners suffered reversals in their fortunes.

It stood empty and forlorn by the end of the 1960s, and part of the house was damaged by a fire in 1970 that was blamed on arsonists. Then there was a plan in the mid-1970s to bulldoze it altogether and build a housing complex for the elderly, but, after disputes over zoning variances to increase parking and local protests, the developers retreated.

Powers-Jarvis prospects began to look up in 1988 when the Bachrach family, former owners of Bachrach Clothing Inc. of Decatur, bought the home to use as a training center and guest house for visiting staff.

"I remember there were all these little kids' plastic swimming pools scattered around the house," said Ron D. James, vice president of corporate operations for Bachrach. "They were there to catch water leaking through the roof."

The Bachrachs spent a fortune refurbishing and restoring the home and are now ready to sell and move on after their company was sold in February.

"When this house was built, it was the biggest and fanciest home in Decatur," said Barb Bachrach James, Ron's wife and the great-granddaughter of the company founder. "And we've tried to keep all of that - the woodwork is still original, the floors are still original; everything that was put into it, we've tried to keep."

How much is a house like this worth today? Auctioneer Rick Levin of Chicago-based Rick Levin & Associates Inc. says an auction may be the only way to find out.

"I've been in the auction business for 15 years, and although I've sold thousands of homes, I've never really seen a property like this," he said. "And when you've got a property that is this special, and so unusual, I'm not sure anyone really knows what its true worth is."

Levin, 40, says it is easier to think of the Powers-Jarvis mansion as a fine painting that would not be out of place going under the hammer at Sotheby's or Christie's auction houses.

"It's really a work of art," he said. "It's just that instead of using canvas and paint, they used bricks and sticks."

Tony Reid can be reached at treid@; or 421-7977.

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