Walking into the newly rebuilt Leiter House on Summit Street in Portsmouth is like walking into a horror film complete with an elegant old staircase, a gruesome tale of murder and an attic of old medical papers.
The 3,800-square foot beautiful behemoth once sat on 200 acres and was built in three phases during the 1800s by the Lawson Family.
“At one time, this was the only house in this section of Portsmouth,” owner Lee Scott stated.
The house even sits at an angle because when it was built there were no roads in the area, and everyone traveled by horse and carriage. The old carriage house, since re-purposed, still stands.
However, one of the most recent, long-term occupants was Dr. Russell Leiter. According to the Scioto Historical app created by Shawnee State University Professor Dr. Andrew Feight, the doctor was the Chief Psychologist at the old Portsmouth Receiving Hospital from 1955 to 1964, but his international acclaim was for the development of the Leiter International Performance Scale for intelligence testing.
Scott, who has a vast knowledge of the history explained that the doctor never married. In his lifetime, he collected several pieces of silver, paintings and antiques.
“The whole house was wired specifically in those days, which was a feat in and of itself with the low wattage wiring, to shine the lights down on the paintings and stuff that hung on the walls of this house,” Scott explained.
In addition to filling the house with silver and art, Dr. Leiter used the home in his professional endeavors.
“This house was used as a mental hospital in the days before the receiving hospital was built,” Scott stated before adding that Dr. Leiter also used his home as a boys home, opening up the many bedrooms to young boys with no where else to go.
The doctor, who had been robbed on more than one occasion, met his death when he was murdered in his office in 1976, a room that has continued to be used as an office since.
In his last will and testament, Dr. Leiter asked that all of his estate be left in the care of Security Central who was to donate the items to the Columbus Academy of Fine Arts unless there be a gallery in Portsmouth or Scioto County with the ability to display the items. The trustee of Leiter’s estate determined there was no Columbus Academy of Fine Arts and decided to charge a new entity for the care of the Leiter Collection. Central Security thus donated their vacant lot for use by the Southern Ohio Museum, which is now the permanent home for the doctor’s valuables.
However, many interesting items were left behind. The home features a very large attic. More than two years ago, when Scott purchased the house through Portsmouth’s Land Reutilzation Program, he climbed to the attic to discover the house was literally filled to the top will history.
“It was packed full of the doctors old papers still when I got it,” Scott stated about the attic.
The house was also falling in and overgrown. The roof was coming down, the sheet rock was on the ground, the floors were uneven, and it even needed new rafters and studs.
Adding to the spooky feel of the home, outside the property was just as bad.
“With this house, you couldn’t see it from the road. It was like a forest back here. No one had been here, and it was all caved in,” Scott stated. “It was one of the most complained about properties in Portsmouth. You couldn’t walk down the street because of trees down and hanging over. It was a snake pit around here.”
Prior to Scott’s purchase, the lowest bid to get the property back together was $660,000, so it was difficult to find an interested party willing to bring the home to life again. The City considered demolition; however, because of the size, it would have cost Portsmouth between $10,000 and $12,000 just to have the structure torn down.
Scott purchased the property from the City for $1,000, putting it back on the tax roll, saving the history of the home and eliminating the City’s cost to have the home torn down. He also now pays $1,400 in taxes on the property.
Scott explained that it has cost him $175,000 and two and a half years of very hard work to put the house back together. With work nearly completed, he plans to move in by April 11.
With so much of the house damaged, it was difficult to retain all of the original elements. However, some including an elegant archway in the master bedroom, have been saved.
“We tried to keep the house as close to its original appearance as we could,” Scott stated. “It’s actually a better house now than it has ever been in its life.”
He was able to keep the original stairs and banister with some repair and retreading.
“The walls are double brick walls as were built 200 years ago,” Scott commented.
He was able to save one brick wall.
Scott also had to reframe the house with 2×4 boards.
“It set on brick as was common in those days. That’s how the built it,” Scott explained. “We were able to level the house by basically building a house within a house.”
Scott added a new roof, added new hardwood floors, added new baseboards, replaced the pine wood with all oak woodwork, cut the house from six bedrooms to five in order to create a master suite that will include a claw foot tub, added closet space, added an “overabundance of heating and air conditioning,” added new windows, added a back deck, rebuilt the garage and added stone retainer walls at the back of the property.
To ensure the house resembles the era in which it was built, Scott also added four fireplace mantles that he was able to save from homes that were being torn down when the City was building new schools. The home once had eight fireplaces. Scott saved approximately half of those with two being functional and the other being gas log fireplaces.
“In those days, they had a fireplace in every room because that’s the only type of heat they had,” Scott explained.
Scott also installed antique fixtures, custom built doors, and will be adding 20 to 30 pieces of antique furniture and granite counter tops in the kitchen.
Nearly every aspect of the 12 room home has been replaced.
“Everything’s top of the line now,” Scott stated.
Still, a tour through the house tells much about how people lived through the ages. Scott explained that he can tell the home was built in three phases because of the type of brick used. The center was built in the early to mid 1800s with the back corner added later and the front two rooms and stairwell added last.
When Scott purchased the property, the basement still contained an old double bolt sink, and the garage still had a cooking stove.
“In the old days, in the winter they would do their cooking in the basement, keeping the heat inside that would rise through the house,” Scott explained. “In summer, they cooked outside in the garage to keep the heat out.”
Scott has rebuilt/renovated 12 properties in the area with this being his second biggest project.
“I love this old house,” Scott stated. “This house has so much history.”
He and his wife are excited for their move-date, and if the ghost of Dr. Leiter appears then Scott has saved another part of Portsmouth past through his labor of love.
Reach Nikki Blankenship at 740-353-3101 ext. 1930.