At the beginning of February 2011, blizzard-like conditions set in as a snowstorm blanketed much of central Missouri with nearly two feet of snow. Pat Westhoff, director of the Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute (FAPRI) and professor of agricultural and applied economics, and his wife, Elena Vega, had just moved into their Columbia home and waited out the storm. “With all the snow and the wind blowing so much, we couldn’t even see our neighbors’ houses,” says Elena, as she recalls gazing through the ripples of her home’s time-honored windows. “It felt like we were the only ones out here. It felt like we were back in time, to more than a hundred years ago when there weren’t many people that lived out here.” Beyond the whiteout conditions, Pat and Elena’s abode also might have made the couple feel as if they were transported to another era. The home they had procured three months prior is the Guitar Mansion. The famous Italianate home in northeast Columbia probably began as a simple, one-room cabin, according to local architect Brian Pape. David Guitar oversaw the construction of the main part of the current house between 1859 and 1862. Over the last century and a half, the 4,000-square-foot home has seen numerous owners. Since Pat and Elena took over as stewards for the property in 2010, they have been working to restore the mansion to its Civil War-era splendor.
History in the making
David Guitar was an early Boone County farmer and successful businessman. He graduated in 1847 in one of the University of Missouri’s first classes, served in the Mexican War and sought gold in the 1849 California gold rush. He returned to Columbia in 1852, married and purchased land from a settler in 1859. As his family expanded to a supposed 10 children and his farm grew to close to a thousand acres, David added onto the house with additional wings, porches and rooms. The home soon took on its current look with large columns, ornamental eaves and stately manor appeal. During the Civil War, David’s brother, Odon, was a general for the Union forces in Missouri. David’s own role is disputed. A commonly repeated story is that he was an officer in the Confederate Army, and many in Columbia still refer to the property as “Confederate Hill.” However, David’s 1912 obituary in the University Missourian reports that he served for Union forces, and local historians have found other evidence supporting that report. “We know that from Census records that David Guitar had a large family and owned slaves,” adds Pat. “One of the external buildings was a summer kitchen and we’ve been told it may have served as a slave cabin, one of the few still standing in this part of Missouri.” Since David’s death, the mansion has changed hands many times. It was owned from 1940 to 1953 by novelist Ward Allison Dorrance, who named the property “Conferderate Hill.” He used a similar setting as the home in his novel, “The Sundowners.” Miriam McCaleb and her family owned the property from 1956 until the 1990s. In February 2002 Noel and Mary Ann Crowson bought the Guitar Mansion and worked on converting it into a bed and breakfast. Due to financial problems with the business, the house was foreclosed on in 2007. It remained vacant for three years until Pat and Elena won the property at auction in October 2010.
Restoring a bygone time
Work still remains on the two-story, four-bedroom, three-bathroom home. “We owe a lot of gratitude to the Crowsons who did a lot of the heavy restoration work,” says Elena. “When we moved in the interior was in overall, great shape. The electrical and water systems were all redone. They took out the old boiler furnace and replaced it with a modern one. But the house still sat empty for three years so we had some exterior work and cleaning to do.” The home’s signature spiral staircase remains in great condition in addition to the high-ceiling front rooms that were once a music room for the Guitars and a library. The upstairs bedrooms also have been redone to accommodate guests. The home’s decorative shutters are still down until the last remaining new coats of paint are added. “Our next biggest task is working on restoring the summer kitchen building,” says Pat. “We’ve removed a concrete floor and hope we can save some of the original features of this piece of history.” Pat adds that the home also has seven or eight fireplaces, and it would be great if someday they could get one or two of those back to working. Elena says they also are working with local arborists to give the trees and gardens around the 6-acre property some much-needed attention.
A part of the community
One of the delights for the couple is the space for entertainment. “We can have the whole family over for the holidays,” adds Elena. “And the large windows are perfect for a Christmas tree. It just looks so elegant.” Besides the several families that have owned the Guitar Mansion over the years, the estate also is a piece of important history and of significance in Columbia. “Everybody in town knows about this place and wants to see it preserved,” says Elena. “Almost every day we have someone stop by or slow down along the road to take a look. It’s a piece of history and a piece of Columbia. Wouldn’t you want to save something so beautiful and meaningful?”