On a quiet street in Vineland, N.J., stands a sprawling, mosaic castle that has fascinated locals and tourists for close to a century.
Built in the 1930s, the Palace of Depression is an architectural oddity constructed from scraps, junk, and discarded materials. In the 1960s, the palace faced multiple acts of vandalism and neglect. The city gutted it after it went up in flames. A few decades later, a father-son duo resurrected the structure.
Kevin and Kristian Kirchner passed away within the last two years. Now, a group of volunteers are striving to keep Daynor’s and the Kirchners’ legacy alive.
They are using archival footage, photographs, and memories to make the new palace as close to the original as possible. Reconstruction has been a slow and arduous process with many setbacks, but today it’s much closer to what it once looked like, said Steve Medio, president of the Palace of Depression Restoration Association.
Medio, who is overseeing the volunteers, wants to bring back one of the original attractions: an actress impersonating a mermaid that would appear in a well and wave to visitors.
“It definitely meant something because the city went and just tore it down,” said Will, a 19-year-old volunteer who only gave his first name. “And then all these people came together just to reconstruct that, to show people what it once was. Even if it’s just a close replica of what was once here, it’s still nice to give it to the next generation and the younger people who may not have had the chance to see it and its prime and in its glory.”
What is the Palace of Depression?
The castle today looks like a mash-up of a red-roofed country house, a hobbit’s hole, and a medieval castle built with brick, glass bottles, hubcaps, and other found parts. Its history is as colorful as the architecture suggests.
George Daynor built the palace as a testament of human resilience in overcoming the challenges of the Great Depression. Daynor moved to Vineland with his wife Florence in 1929. He wove a tale around his life, claiming to be a gold miner from Alaska who lost his fortune in the stock market crash. Patricia Martinelli, curator at the Vineland Historical and Antiquarian Society, and an expert on Daynor and the palace, said Daynor was most likely a builder from Pennsylvania.
“Mr. Daynor was always a larger-than-life figure,” Martinelli said. “I’ve heard stories about him walking down Landis Avenue with his long hair and beard and his swallowtail coat and scaring the life out of little children. So he was a great storyteller. And the tales he told really piqued people’s imagination.”
Daynor erected the castle on four acres of swamp land. It took him three years to build using auto parts, glass, rocks, and mud. According to historical records, he began offering tours for a nickel to tourists and locals.
For about 25 years, the Palace of Depression became a national attraction, bringing in about a quarter of a million visitors from around the world. Daynor, a consummate showman, made various efforts to keep the attraction popular. He was able to land the palace a spot on the New Jersey map, and convinced Universal Studios to create a short film about it. But some of his more extreme efforts led to the castle’s demise, Martinelli said.
In 1956, Daynor tried to convince the FBI that the castle had a connection with the kidnapping of Peter Weinberger, an infant from New York. Daynor found himself in jail for a year after admitting to lying to federal authorities. While he was in jail, vandals broke into the palace, partially due to rumors Daynor spread about buried gold in one of the rooms. After years of repeated vandalism and neglect, the city tore down what was left of the structure in the late 1960s.
Decades later, Kevin Kirchner, then a city employee, took it upon himself to give Daynor’s vision another chance. Kirchner and his son, Kristian, raised money and worked with a team of volunteers to rebuild it. Kevin passed away in December of 2021 from COVID-19; his son died the following year from complications due to leukemia. They never got to officially open the grounds and welcome tourists.
Medio, now 37, said he began working with the Kirchners when he was 16. He said the Kirchners were passionate about the palace.
“Kevin was a great guy,” Medio said. “He was easygoing, but you had to do it his way. He wanted to make sure it was done right.”
Medio and Kristian were friends. When Kristian died last year at the age of 44, rebuilding the palace fell to Medio.
“It must have been something to see if Kevin and others in Vineland here liked it so much — the memory of it — that they’ve rebuilt it,” he said. “Yeah, it meant something. It means something.”
Medio, whose day job is with the New Jersey Youth Corps, a service learning initiative for students who dropped out of high school now pursuing their GEDs, has made the restoration project a community service site.
Jeff Tirante, a 63-year-old long-time Vineland resident and artist, said he has witnessed the transformation of the palace over the years.
Tirante visited the palace as a young child. For a time he lived out of the Devil’s Room in the basement (which Daynor purported was the home of the New Jersey Devil) to ward off vandals, and even slept for a time in the ticket booth, the last of the original structure remaining today. He has painted murals, artwork, and even created the mosaic for the Devil Room in the basement.
“Obviously, I’m not in the same capacity that I was when I first started the project,” he said. “But I really appreciate still being able to come out here… I think we all got one common goal and that’s for the kids, the next generations who are gonna come out here and actually see and believe that these places do exist and they can get into doing whatever art they want to do.”
‘A symbol of optimism’
Patricia Martinelli, the historian, said the palace isn’t just a mysterious relic made out of junk — it remains as a beacon of hope.
“The palace, I think, is a sort of a symbol of optimism because Cumberland County really is the poorest county in New Jersey,” she said. “We have a lot of low-income families who are struggling just to make ends meet as inflation continues to arise. So I think the palace is really serving the purpose that Daynor originally intended for it to be, a symbol of optimism in difficult times.”
Medio said he wants Daynor’s castle to be more than just a place to tour. He hopes to open the palace up for movie sets, music venues, and other events. He is also envisioning an onsite museum.
But, any changes embraced will have to align with upholding and honoring the palace’s original purpose.
“It’s for the next generation,” he said.” And that’s what it’s about, is having something to do, somewhere to go.”
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