Advertisement
100 Year Remodel
The Palace of Depression Gets a Face Lift
By Elyse Notarianni

The Palace of Depression is the stuff of South Jersey legend.

During the Great Depression, a mysterious man named George Daynor bought land in Vineland for a dollar an acre – sight unseen. When he arrived, he found nothing but a junkyard in the middle of a swamp. So naturally, he built a castle made of junk that would become a popular tourist attraction for years to come.

When it fell into disrepair after Daynor’s death and was mostly torn down in 1969, a quirky piece of South Jersey history died with it. But then, in the late 1990s, Vineland resident Kevin Kirchner stepped in to rebuild this unusual local legacy. Channeling the eccentric original owner, the retired Vineland building inspector figured he would have it completed in three years. Piece of cake.

 

 

But some 20 years later, the junkyard fortress is still a work in progress, and perhaps it may always be. But finally (and this is big!) the Palace is back as a tourist attraction. The Palace of Depression Foundation has been leading tours, by appointment and some weekends, for the past few months and sinking the proceeds back into the rebuilding effort and the eventual hard reopening of the roadside curiosity.

“With a building like this, we knew the process wouldn’t be a straight line, and boy, has it been winding,” says Kirchner. “But we’re getting to the point where we can share the building with the public again, just like Daynor did.”

SJ Magazine has been following Kirchner’s efforts – even featuring the palace in “This is South Jersey” in 2016 – but interesting as the mission is, it hasn’t been easy. Over the past 20 years, weather, vandalism, thefts, lack of funds and enough injuries and illnesses to make you think the place may be cursed have led to years of building setbacks.

 

 

“It can be frustrating, really frustrating,” Kirchner says. “It’s a very slow process to begin with, and then there are problems on top of it. There were so many times through the years when I was ready to just bulldoze the whole thing.”

Daynor had it easier. He built his fortress using clay and literal trash found in the junkyard that occupied the property back in the 1920s. For Kirchner and his son Kristian, who are leading a group of volunteer builders, reconstructing a scrapyard fortress that didn’t come with any blueprints or building plans is not so simple. They’ve used vintage photographs and old news reels as a guide. But while Daynor had the materials on hand, they’ve had to rely on donations and sometimes needle-in-the-haystack searches throughout South Jersey for the right materials to recreate the original structure.

The wooden staircase is handcrafted by Vineland artisan Abe Warren

Fortunately, the obsession keeps them going. Take a tour through the newly constructed Palace, and you’ll learn just as much about the building as the area it resides in.

In a pathway leading up to a round stone building, which is the ticket booth where Daynor charged 10 cents for a tour, you’ll see bricks recycled from the 102-year-old Levoy Theatre in Millville after it collapsed during renovation work in 2011. The roof shingles are a mishmash of 4 different metals collected from 4 local buildings that were torn down, re-cut and re-painted to match the original roof.

“Because I still have relationships with a lot of construction companies from my days as a building inspector, I’m able to ask for materials they’d normally send to a junkyard,” Kevin Kirchner says, noting that almost all of the structure is material recycled from local construction sites. “The truck drivers hate it. Instead of an easy two-hour drive to the junkyard, they have to help unload everything here.”

Inside the actual castle are troves of items that local residents have donated – junk, sure, but also pieces of their personal histories: car and motorcycle parts that have been built into entryways. Metal figurines the likes of which you may find on your grandma’s windowsill and old tools left over from Vineland’s rich farming history are now cemented into the walls. But when it comes to the Palace, not all trash is created equal.

“We try to keep it as close as possible to the things Daynor would have found in his junkyard,” Kirchner says. “We have this huge stone bench that someone left outside our gate – it took three men and a pickup truck to move it to the Palace grounds. That’s the kind of thing that would have been around in the late 1920s. But when people send things that are plastic or too modern, we can’t use it.”

What they can’t scrounge up or salvage from the depths of South Jersey trash, they have had to custom make.

“With something like this, it’s not like we can just run to Home Depot and grab what we need,” Kirchner says. “All our materials are locally sourced. And if we can’t do it ourselves, we go to a local craftsman or a local business.”

In the walls are bits of marbles and glass – castoffs sent over from Wheaton Arts Glass Studio. Rooting up from the main floor is a tree-trunk staircase crafted and donated by Vineland woodworker Abe Warren that bypasses the second floor and leads to the roof (weird, but what do you expect?).

Watch “This is South Jersey” visit The Palace of Depression

A visitor’s center is a new, Kirchner-original addition. Unlike the Palace, this building is made of wood, not junk. If you look closely at the planks on the wall, you’ll see (and probably smell) dried sap still dripping from the lumber sent to the Palace from a sawmill down the road in Deerfield. It serves as a modern ticket counter as well as George Daynor museum, showcasing bits and pieces of the original junk found during years of the rebuild.

Every year of that rebuild, despite the difficulties, the Palace has gotten a little bigger, a little weirder, and a lot more interesting. Many would call it dedication, determination, perseverance – but that’s not exactly how the father and son team describe it. In the face of obstacles from every angle, what keeps them moving forward?

“Borderline insanity,” says Kristian, a former Vineland police officer.

And maybe a dash of nostalgia. For his father, whose visit to the Palace and encounter with the legendary Daynor himself as a kid stuck with him through adulthood, the Palace is a remnant of his childhood. For Kristian, the heir to the Palace, it’s a part of his family history.

“Do you know when you’re a kid, and you go out to build a fort with your dad? It’s like doing that for your whole life,” Kristian says. “Plus, it’s my inheritance. Some people get cars or money – I get a palace of junk.”

 

 

Father and son may joke and complain about the challenges, but at the end of the day, they feel a deep personal attachment to the Palace and its effect on the community.

“When we bring people on tours, and we see the awe on their faces as they take it in layer by layer, that’s why we do it,” Kevin says. “And when we’re here alone working to build a wall or figuring out how to make a circular stone doorway with no instructions – just photos – there’s no stress, no worries, just a puzzle to figure out. We’re still just kids building forts.”

February 2020
Related Articles
Comments

Leave a Reply

Dr. Ali Houshmand on What Baffles Him About Women – 2017 SJ Magazine Men's Roundtable
Advertisement
dining guide web ad
Advertisement
adventure aquarium button
Subscribe to Our Newsletters
Advertisement
Sept. Announcement WEB AD
Advertisement
JCC SJ Web Ad June 2020
This is South Jersey at the Cowtown Rodeo
Advertisement