This palace, made of trash, was built for angels.
In 1929, just as America was tailspinning into the Great Depression, a drifter with a blurry past arrived in Vineland, New Jersey.
He said he was a gold speculator from Alaska.
He said he was a millionaire who lost his fortune in the San Francisco earthquake.
He said a lot of things — most of them lies.
His name was George Daynor, and very likely he was a construction worker from Upper Darby. He had a wife named Florence, about 15 years younger. They put down stakes in a junkyard next to a swamp near what is now Route 55.
“He claimed an angel came to him and told him to come to South Jersey and build a palace to show they could overcome anything, regardless of how bad times were,” said Patricia Martinelli, curator at the Vineland Historical Society and author of the new book, “The Fantastic Castle of Vineland: George Daynor and the Palace Depression.”
The original Palace Depression was made of castoff brick, rusty car parts, and river mud, with seven spires rising from the roofline, one for each angel.
Ultimately, the castle fell–spires and all–to time, neglect, and abuse. By the time Jeffrey Tirante discovered it as a kid in the 1970s, there was nothing left but a concrete ticket booth and a low retaining wall, sloppily constructed by hand 50 years earlier.
“That place was our sanctuary. It gave kids who were running away a place to stay with a roof over their heads,” said Tirante. “I learned the bar chords to ‘Smoke on the Water’ on those benches.”
Tirante is part of the volunteer army working to bring back the Palace Depression. He did not spearhead the project but is arguably the most invested. He lives in an underground cave below the Palace. He is set up with a sleeping bag, a crock pot, and a cat named Boone. He visits his cousin’s house across the street to shower.
“I am the Jersey Devil,” said Tirante, an artist, musician, and construction worker.
The Palace Depression was a wonder of outsider architecture. Like the Magic Gardens and the Watts Towers, which followed, the construction of the building out of bits of trash, broken pottery, glass bottles, and car parts was largely improvised.
“I spent 30 years in houses,” said Tirante, who suffers neurological damage from shingles. “I’m 54 now, it’s like being a kid living in a fort you built out in the woods. I really think it’s helped me keep moving.”
Tirante is one of the few people alive who remembers how the Palace was laid out. As a kid he spent countless days playing in its ruin. He built a miniature model of the Palace, from which the new construction is being built.
The original Palace was made over a period of decades as Daynor, slowly and obsessively, built his home into a philosophy.
“My home is an answer to the crisis of 1929,” said Daynor in a short documentary film made in the 1950’s. “The Palace of Depression was built for a king: the floors don’t creak, the doors don’t squeak. It’s a song I love to sing.”
Daynor was a tireless publicity machine. He made sure the Palace was a roadside attraction by printing up thousands of postcards and leaving them in gas stations all over South Jersey. He charged visitors ten cents for a tour. He installed a shortwave radio tower on top of the Palace from which he broadcast anti-Communist tirades and bootstrap conservatism. He played up his own strangeness and that of the house, which got picked up by newspapers nationwide.
“He was not well-liked, in general,” said Martinelli. “He was always fighting with his neighbors, filing lawsuits…. He was talking about city hall and how they didn’t know how to run the town.”
Daynor’s insatiable hunger for publicity was ultimately his undoing. In 1956, the infant son of Morris and Betty Weinberger was kidnapped in Westbury, New York. Daynor broadcast news that the kidnappers were hiding out in his Palace and were ready to negotiate with the FBI.
The FBI was not amused. As soon as it figured out Daynor was lying, it prosecuted. He spent two years in jail. By the time he got out, Daynor was about 60 years old and his Palace had been severely vandalized.
Florence, his wife of 26 years, whom he often hid when visitors arrived, had left him.
“When she found out that he planned for her not to outlive him – he literally threatened her, saying that he was going to bury her in the backyard rather than see her inherit the property – that was when she decided it was time to make her escape,” said Martinelli, who says Florence fled to her parents home in Upper Darby and became a occupational nurse.
Daynor died a few years later. A few years after that the property was razed by the city of Vineland.
Kevin Kirchner remembers visiting the Palace Depression and George Daynor in the 1950’s, when he was just 5 years old.
“I had nightmares about the place, OK?” said Kirchner. “I was scared to death of it. He reminded me of Lon Chaney as the Werewolf. I never forgot it.”
Kirchner grew up to become a construction official for the City of Vineland. In the 1990s, a proposal came across his desk to build low-income housing on the site of the former Palace Depression. He sat on the memo.
“The city business administrator called me and said, ‘Hey, we need to know what we’re going to do with this property,'” remembered Kirchner. “I said, ‘Why don’t you try and let me rebuild the palace?’ It just popped out of my mouth. I don’t know why it did.”
Kirchner formed a non-profit, the Palace of Depression Restoration Association, to which the city gave the property on the condition that the castle of junk be re-created, then given back to the city as a public park.
With his connections to the local building trade, Kirchner was able to divert demolition materials to the site, which are being recycled into bricolage.
People randomly bring by odd and ends–a Harley Davidson fender as a threshold archway, baubles from Wheaton Glass Studio are used as bricks, and an iron bedframe is used as a gate.
The Palace Depression has a reputation of attracting cast-offs. A Palace-like set was created for a pivotal scene in the film “Eddie and the Cruisers,” where Eddie, the crestfallen rock and roller, howls his hopelessness to the universe from atop a mountain of trash.
Though fictionalized, Eddie represents a lot of the rebellion, frustration, and desperation felt by Jeffrey Tirante and his friends as teenagers. They used to come to the lone remaining structure on the site–the concrete ticket booth–when things got tough.
“They had no where to go. There was no couch surfing, nothing for them. They knew they could come out here,” said Tirante, who held his wedding in the ticket booth in 1986. “If anybody else came, it was for comradery. That’s what made the ticket booth so special. I didn’t want to get married in the church. My congregation was people who hung out here and used the ticket booth as a sanctuary.”
The Palace Depression is waiting for its final stage, a roof. Kirchner says roofing contractors have volunteers their time, but there are all busy with work rebuilding the Jersey Shore after Hurricane Sandy. He hopes to top off the Palace in this summer.