Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Vineland's Palace Depression

Vineland's Palace Depression
Written by Patricia A. Martinelli

When I first learned about the resurrection of the Palace Depression, a tourist attraction in Vineland that once drew thousands of visitors from throughout the United States and other countries, I decided it would make a great subject for an article that later appeared in South Jersey magazine. As I watched the Palace continue to grow under the guidance of Vineland native Kevin Kirchner and a crew of skilled volunteers, I decided that there was so much more to the story that still needed to be told. After all, the original hadn’t sprung magically from the ground back in 1929. What exactly was the story behind this unique place?

What you have to understand is that I have been addicted to history since I was six years old and an aunt gave me a tattered copy of The Big Golden Book of History. That book focused primarily on ancient and medieval history but my eyes were eventually opened to the wonders of America’s past. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned over the years is that history is never static--it is a constant voyage of discovery as new facts come to light that reshape our existing body of knowledge.

So, the idea for The Fantastic Castle of Vineland: George Daynor and the Palace Depression slowly began to take shape. Before I did anything else, I needed to talk to Kevin Kirchner about the project. Since he was responsible for tackling the reconstruction, I felt it was only right to ask for his blessing. The original Palace, made of old bricks, glass, car parts and petrified wood slathered together with stone, drew more than 250,000 visitors between the 1930s and the 1950s. They gladly paid a quarter apiece to visit “the strangest house in the world.” Unfortunately, by the early 1960s, it had become a public safety risk and was demolished by the city of Vineland.

George Daynor, designer and builder of the Palace Depression.
Thanks to Kristian Kirchner, a retired Vineland police officer who worked with his father on the project, new avenues of research had been brought to light that I was able to incorporate into the story. But further research often raised questions that are still unanswered. For example, to this day no one is certain as to where George Daynor actually came from. And while Daynor promoted himself and the Palace, he almost never mentioned his wife, Florence, who helped with the backbreaking labor. Florence was so terrorized by her husband that she ultimately fled Vineland late one night with the help of friends. She later became a home health care worker and traveled to different towns throughout New Jersey but never returned to Vineland until she knew for certain that George was dead.

Kevin Kirchner inspecting progress at the Palace Depression reconstruction.
The reconstruction does an excellent job of capturing the original structure and the grounds. The most significant change is the addition of a visitors center, where the public will learn a little more about the Daynors and local life in the first half of the 20th century. Since the Palace will soon be ready to welcome visitors once again, I decided it was time for a “re-release” of The Fantastic Castle, which was initially published in 2012. So far, the response has been extremely gratifying.

About the Book
At the height of the Great Depression, an eccentric man named George Daynor arrived in Vineland. He was rumored to have amassed a fortune during the gold rush only to lose it in the crash of 1929. Daynor invested in a piece of barren land that nobody else wanted and--believing that he was guided by angels--built a palace from car parts, trash, bits of stone and anything else he could find. The Palace Depression, as it came to be known, was one man's testament to surviving the hard times, and hundreds of thousands flocked to its gates over the next two decades. A misguided publicity stunt landed Daynor in jail, and after his incarceration and death, the palace deteriorated and was torn down in the 1960s. Yet the memory lingered for some local residents who started a movement to rebuild. Discover Vineland's mysterious story of Daynor and his palace.

About the Author
Patricia A. Martinelli has served as curator of the Vineland Historical and Antiquarian Society since 2011. The Society is the oldest local historical society in New Jersey, headquartered in the oldest purpose-built museum in the state. She is a native of Vineland and has written nine books on regional history, including The Fantastic Castle of Vineland: George Daynor & the Palace Depression. and Rain of Bullets. She graduated from Glassboro State College (now Rowan University) with a bachelor’s degree in American history and later received her master’s degree in liberal arts--with a concentration in American history--from Thomas Edison State College (now Thomas Edison State University). Martinelli is currently researching her next book on the New Jersey State Spiritualists Association, which was founded in Vineland in 1866. 

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