February 7, 2005
Talk about your spec home.
Hardscrabble rancher Niels Petersen must have stunned all who knew him when he suddenly turned out his pockets in the spring of 1892 to build an elegant Queen Anne Victorian bungalow.
The 47-year-old Danish immigrant, who had lived for decades in a dirtfloored adobe hovel about the size of a child’s bedroom, plunked down $10,000 — a fortune at the time — to build the epitome of luxurious living, a two-story brick house.
Petersen hired the territory’s most fashionable architect, James Creighton. He arranged for extravagant features, such as built-in bedroom closets and stained glass windows. And he invested in the finest craftsmanship available, right down to the ornately engraved brass door hinges.
All for a wife he had yet to meet: Forty-year-old spinster Suzanna Decker was keeping house at the time for her ailing father in Montrose, Pa.
This month, the Hayden’s Ferry Questers group is sponsoring a series of seminars on antiques to raise money for restoration projects at Petersen House, now a museum on the northwest corner of Priest Drive and Southern Avenue in Tempe.
Petersen, who joined the German merchant marine at 16 and traveled the world before settling in the Salt River Valley at 26, had pretty much dedicated his life to work, turning a small farm into a 1,000-plus-acre ranch, one of the area’s largest producers of cattle, hay and grain.
Petersen’s first wife, a teacher named Isabel Dumphy, died during childbirth in 1884. Their son, taken back East by his mother’s relatives, reportedly died of illness in infancy, though Ann Poulos, museum curator of collections, says accounts differ.
"It doesn’t really say why he waited that long (to remarry)," says Judy Knoth, a docent with the Tempe Historical Museum, which oversees the home. "Apparently, he got lonesome."
Knoth says there are two different stories about how Petersen learned about Suzanna. "One was that one of her brothers was out here and talked about her. The other was that they found out about each other through friends."
After a long-distance courtship, Petersen traveled to Pennsylvania in August 1892 and, in less than a month, married Suzanna and returned home with his new bride and father-in-law in tow.
The lanky, reticent man and the large, laughing woman lived out their lives in the house they dubbed "Casa Bonita." They were known for their largesse, church involvement, community gifts and birthday parties for children in the neighborhood.
Petersen died in 1923 at age 78. He was buried in Tempe Double Butte Cemetery, where a plot was reserved for Suzanna. Then, for reasons never explained, she moved his grave to the front of their home, against the wishes of her nephew and heir, Edwin Decker, who worried it would lower property values. Four years later, she was buried next to her husband.
The details of their matrimonial arrangement remain a mystery. Did they exchange letters for months? Were details of the house specified?
"It would be interesting if anyone found any of his letters or her letters," Poulos says.
"I can’t say that (the house) was part of the agreement," Knoth says. "But you can draw your own conclusions. I mean, if you are going to want a bride and you want her to come out here, aren’t you going to want her to have a nice home?"
But then, Niels Petersen didn’t build Suzanna just a nice home.
"He built her the nicest home in the Salt River Valley at the time," Knoth says.