Editor’s note: This is part of an ongoing series on landmark homes in Topeka. Stories about other landmark homes can be found at cjonline.com.
Topeka was founded in 1854, and since that time, many historical figures have chosen Topeka as their place of residence. Along with backgrounds of significance, they brought a variety of architectural styles to what would become the capital city.
Through the efforts of many who have rescued them from disrepair and potential destruction, the homes still stand today. Among those structures is the Billard House, 1400 N.E. Sardou Ave.
Travelers heading east over the Sardou Bridge can catch a glimpse of Topeka’s most famous “castle,” located in the historic Oakland neighborhood. On the banks of the Kansas River, the yellow limestone exterior, with its unique stonework and rounded front entrance, resembles a home fit for royalty.
While no members of the aristocracy that we know of have lived within the walls at 1400 N.E. Sardou Ave., the house has a rich and fascinating history nonetheless.
Political refugee Gilbert Billard built the house in the years leading up to the Civil War. According to the Kansas Historical Society, Billard brought his family to the United States while fleeing the tyranny of emperor Napoleon III’s regime in France. His wife, Antoinette, and their two sons, Charles and Julius, joined him.
In 1854, Billard met a man by the name of Charles Sardou. Together, the two staked adjoining claims of 160 acres each along the Kansas River. The Billard claim stretched toward Shunganunga Creek. There, he built a two-room stone house and planted trees.
In 1860, Billard decided to go west to Colorado with the hope of striking gold in the Colorado Gold Rush. Before he left, he rented out the homestead. Upon his return a decade later, the house had fallen into terrible disrepair. Billard set about rebuilding the neglected farm and added two additional rooms to the front of the house.
The Billard family was well-educated and enjoyed travel, and Billard’s sons would go on to influence the Oakland neighborhood, as well as other areas of Topeka.
Julius, or J.B. Billard as he later became known, made a successful living as a businessman and served as Topeka mayor from 1910 to 1914. He and his wife had three sons.
Their youngest child, Philip, was born in April 1891 and came of age just as the innovation of human flight was taking off. Philip was drawn to the air, and his flights around Topeka were mentioned frequently in the Topeka newspapers due to the public’s fascination with airplanes and the fact that his father was mayor. J.B. Billard was quoted in 1912 in the Topeka Daily Capital as being “opposed to his son purchasing the racing biplane because of the dangers of flying, but Phil wanted something that was faster than an auto.”
In December 1916, Philip became the first person to fly from Topeka to Kansas City. When the United States entered World War I, Philip volunteered for service. He was assigned the duty of test pilot.
Philip died on July 24, 1918, while serving in France. The engine of the plane he was flying failed. He was 27.
In 1940, the Philip Billard Airport in Topeka was dedicated to his memory. The Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Topeka is also named for him.
When the Sardou Bridge was built in 1961, the Billard home’s driveway was rerouted away from N.E. Sardou Avenue and around to the side of the house. As a result, the entrance faces the river and provides a feeling of seclusion in the middle of an otherwise busy neighborhood.
A hook-and-eye system used to hold open swinging doors is still cemented into the front stonework of the four-car garage, suggesting that the garage was once used as a stable or barn long before automobiles became commonplace.
The 2 ½-story house includes five bedrooms, three bathrooms, a living room, dining room, kitchen, utility room and two fireplaces. Guests enter into a rotunda with a winding spiral staircase that leads to the second floor. The walls and ceilings are original stucco plaster, although repairs here and there have been necessary over the years.
The first floor of the house features original cherry and walnut paneling in the living room and dining room, beamed ceilings and built-in shelving.
The second-floor landing’s light fixtures are original, although they have been converted from gas to electric over the years, and still bear the Billard family crest. A gun closet upstairs has a secret cut-out tucked inside where the family probably hid their jewelry, gold and other valuables.
There is evidence that the Billard family employed servants when they lived in the house, with maid’s quarters and a place where swinging doors once hung for a butler’s pantry.
A basement kitchen probably allowed servants to fix meals and bring them upstairs to serve to the family to avoid overheating the main floors of the house during warm months.
There is also a main-floor kitchen where meals could be cooked for entertaining or during the cooler months of the year.
Liz Schardine, who grew up at 1400 N.E. Sardou Ave., remembers a time when the kitchen was the only room in the house with a window air-conditioning unit. During the summer, she and her eight siblings spent a lot of time in the kitchen in an attempt to keep cool while their mother, Valerie, cooked and canned vegetables from their garden.
Schardine’s father, John Ingenthron, purchased the Billard House in 1966. Ingenthron was a firefighter, owner of the Rocket Tavern, and co-owner of the Pizza Parlor in Oakland.
According to his son, George Ingenthron, John Ingenthron had taken him to get stitches after he got hurt at school, and they stopped at the “businessman’s club” — what their father called the local tavern — on the way home. His mother was expecting her seventh child soon, and his father was looking for a bigger house to move the family into. He wanted to stay in the Oakland area.
A man named Henry Freeze and his wife had purchased the house and hoped to open it as a private club, but the city wouldn’t zone the land for a club, so Freeze sold the house to John Ingenthron for $11,000, just enough to pay off the back taxes he owed.
At that time, the house had been vacant for many years, and previously had been used to store grain. According to her children, Valerie Ingenthron wasn’t as excited about the purchase as her husband. The house was dirty and full of cobwebs, and the floors were in poor shape. The house soon became home, however, and that is where the Ingenthron family gathered for every holiday.
“The home was always filled with much laughter and love,” said Schardine. “It was the foundation to a strong family base, with lots of children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. The tire swing in the backyard was a true favorite to all the kids and still is to this day.”
When the Ingenthron siblings were growing up, they took turns trying to spook one another with tales about the old house. At the time the family moved to the three-acre property, there was a smaller house adjacent to the castle where a woman lived for a number of years. Schardine’s sister tried to frighten her by telling her scary stories about the woman in the house.
The unfinished basement with its rock walls and dirt floor was another source of scary legends. A wine cellar built by the Billards still bears the handwritten Billard family wine recipe on the door frame, and a shute that originates in the garage brought coal to the basement in bygone years.
While some tales were clearly fictional, other stories surrounding the house may very well be rooted in reality. Folklore says the Billard House cellar was used as a safe house for slaves during the years of the Underground Railroad. Two covered openings in the brick cellar wall seem to confirm the story, according to Schardine.
Legend says a tunnel ran underground from the river dike to the house, and slaves were brought up the river on boats and housed in the cellar until it was safe to move on.
In 2005, John Ingenthron died. His wife lived in the house with the support of her children until 2016, when she moved to an assisted living facility. Their children planned to sell the house until Schardine’s husband, John, convinced her to move their family into her childhood home in October 2016. They have been busy making minor updates and repairs since then.
“We were going to sell it because it’s a lot of work to keep up the yard and house,” she said.
Although the house isn’t on the national or state historic registers, the Shawnee County Historical Society presented the Ingenthron family with the Historic Preservation Award for Architectural Preservation for their commitment to preserving an important piece of Topeka’s history.
For Schardine and her family, the house’s history is interwoven with their personal history.
“This is where the family gathers,” she said.
Shanna Sloyer is a freelance writer from Topeka. You can reach her at email@example.com.