A casting of Italian sculptor Jean de Bologne’s 17th century statue of Mercury emerges from amid the weeds and rose brambles.
Nearby, overgrown branches conceal the cornerstone from the third Cuyahoga County courthouse. You can still see the marks where builder J.J. Husband’s name was chiseled away in April 1865 for calling Abraham Lincoln’s death “well-deserved.”
Visitors to the Hay-McKinney home —part of the Western Reserve Historical Society’s museum complex in University Circle — don’t have access to these artifacts. They’re tucked away in a seemingly forgotten courtyard, hidden behind the walls of the property.
But 29-year-old Chad Malkamaki has a perfect view of them from his bathroom window — because he lives at the museum. Well, sort of. Technically, he lives in the chauffeur’s quarters on the second floor of the Hay-McKinney home’s carriage house.
But after spending an afternoon exploring the property with him, it’s clear there are some sweet perks to living in the past.
“I like to think of this as a secret garden,” Malkamaki says, wading through the overgrowth.
It certainly looks the part. Amid the crumbling statues and dried foliage, stately elements such as the rear portico’s twin sentinel lions provide a clue to the home’s former opulence.
Built between 1908 and 1911 at the behest of Clara Louise Stone Hay — wife of Secretary of State John Hay, daughter of financier Amasa Stone and sister of Flora Stone Mather — the home was among the first in the stylish subdivision of Wade Park.
But Clara and her family never lived in the home. She sold the mansion to steel magnate Price McKinney, who moved in with his wife, Lucy, and their three children in 1916. A widowed Lucy sold the home to the Western Reserve Historical Society in 1938.
Malkamaki never expected to reside in such a place. But after years of gobbling up the stories, maps and souvenirs from family trips to presidnetial homes and other historical sites, he went on to study education, history and political science in college.
He joined the Western Reserve Historical Society staff in 2001 and has since been a historical interpreter, research assistant and education technology manager with the museum. Two years ago, Malkamaki moved into the carriage house, which he rents from his employer.
For a history buff, there are pleasant surprises everywhere in the home (which was designed by Abram Garfield, son of President James Garfield). While preparing a bedroom wall for a fresh coast of paint, Malkamaki found a section of old wallpaper. He suspects it was applied when the McKinneys lived in the home.
“There’s a lot of history to the house,” Malkamaki says, adding that it sometimes gets “a little creepy” living there.
“My first night here, the museum’s alarm went off at 1 a.m. I was still getting used to the creaks and noises of the place,” he recalls. “I was convinced someone was downstairs.”
There wasn’t. But if you ever think you see a ghost roaming the Hay-McKinney house — say, the specter of John Hay himself — look again. Malkamaki portrayed him for a year as part of the museum’s Timeslider Theater Troupe. Malkamaki, who grew a beard and suited up in period dress, got caught up in the role.
“I got weird goose bumps and a strange feeling walking down the stairs [while portraying Hay],” he says. “This is the closest I’ll ever get to having a mansion.”