Jeff Tirante and the Palace mural.
Jeff Tirante and the Palace mural.

Crazy Labor of Love: Palace of Depression

Vineland, New Jersey

Rebuilding the Palace of Depression -- it's one crazy labor of love. Since the late 1990s, Kevin Kirchner and Jeffrey Tirante (along with hundreds of volunteers) have toiled on the Palace's ancestral wooded lot in Vineland, NJ, resurrecting the oddball splendor of eccentric George Daynor's hand-built junk castle. The project crashed through the irony barrier a long time ago. They have spent more time on the replica than Daynor spent on the original, started in a swampy automobile dump in 1929 (and bulldozed by the early 1960s).

Old fenders incorporated into exterior wall.
Old fenders incorporated into exterior wall.

Yet, their quest is noble, and necessary. George Daynor was arguably the most fascinating personality ever to live in Vineland, and his Palace of Depression became world famous, dubbed "the strangest house on earth," featured in Ripley's Believe or Not and on newsreels. While other south Jersey towns sag from economic malaise and meth erosion, at least Vineland will once again be home to a great roadside attraction. Someday.

Car parts and devil art.
Car parts and devil art.

After heaping praise on Daynor's fabled construction in our books, we first visited the Palace of Depression site in 1998, when Kevin was breaking ground with town officials and Jeffrey was disguised as the Jersey Devil. Roadside America posted news updates from the Palace team and tipster reports on progress. Generous material donations by businesses and organizations. Occasional incidents of vandalism. Bold plans. Fallow times. Productive years. The completion date sputtered into the future. In her 2012 book "The Fantastic Castle," author Patricia A. Martinelli reported Kirchner's certainty that completion was only a year away, 2013. Or so.

Subterranean fireplace.
Subterranean fireplace.

In March 2017, we stopped to snap a few pics from the road (there's a chain across the dirt drive with "No Trespassing" signs). A voice boomed from down near the creek: "Come on in!" It was Jeffrey Tirante, hard at work behind the stone ticket booth. He was happy to take a break. His buddy Neil Bowman was also there -- Neil, it turns out, is an unofficial expert on every odd character in South Jersey. In fact, once you get him going, he's a fire hose of history, intrigue and scandal. He told us more than we'd ever want to know about John Mahalchik's Fabulous Fifty Acres.

Jeff led us on a quick tour of the Palace, pointing out the next phase. "The roof is going to double back and take you up around the radio tower." The spires will be one of the last touches.

Up close, you realize why the thing is taking so long -- it's a solid stone edifice, not a rusting pile of car fenders and oil cans. The foundation and other elements have been carefully built for longevity. Storm flooding during the construction resulted in further changes.

Since it would be impossible to source the exact arcane junk and materials Daynor scavenged to decorate his original, the new Palace of Depression strives to best capture the spirit within an accurate layout. Door openings are low and narrow. Found objects are incorporated into the cement and rock walls.

Palace underground kitchen.
Palace underground kitchen.

"[Daynor] had rakes and stuff in the walls, we're just finally getting to do all that now that we are able to seal it up here," Jeff said. He led us below ground into the structure's basement, once Daynor's "dungeon." It's cool and damp, like a cave, and cluttered with construction material and Daynor-like decoration (some based on historical photos).

Ticket booth.
Ticket booth.

It's also obvious someone sleeps here. "Our artist in residence," Jeffrey admits -- which is, um, him.

Onsite curator. Palace guard. Mythology Muse.

The tour continues: "Welcome to the Devil's Den!"..."His Nugget Room"... "The underground kitchen" ..."He had a barber chair, we found out, long before I created the throne here."

Large piles of scrap and building materials sit next to the Palace of Depression, but it's feeling like the Palace could be done by, maybe 2018? Jeff is as confident as ever about the pace of progress.

Neil jumps in to reveal a little dirt about Daynor's grave, in Oakhill Cemetery 1.5 miles away. After Daynor's conviction and incarceration for making a false report to police in a child kidnapping case (hoping it would get him publicity and more attraction visitors), vandals had set the Palace of Depression on fire. Daynor was never able to rebuild, passed away in a state care facility, and was buried in a pauper's grave. He was supposed to be buried on Palace land, but officials thought the lonely spot would be vulnerable to vandalism -- and someone might dig him up.

Apparently, someone did, years later over at the official cemetery. Jeff said "His grave may have been moved, along with eight other ones, I found out, when they did Wendy's up there."

Wendy's restaurant, next to Oakhill Cemetery. Anyone want to grab a Frosty?

[Bonus: search for Daynor's pauper grave, Oakhill Cemetery, 122 Delsea Dr, Vineland, NJ 08360 LL 39.4854295,-75.0435463]

Palace of Depression

265 S. Mill Rd, Vineland, NJ
Hwy 55 Landis Ave. exit, east on Landis, then right on South Mill Rd. On the left a quarter-mile. Visible from the road; no trespassing.
Closed until 2022.
Donation $10.
In Transition
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Nearby Offbeat Places

Tiny Folk Art Lady LibertyTiny Folk Art Lady Liberty, Vineland, NJ - 2 mi.
Artsy Giant Martini GlassArtsy Giant Martini Glass, Vineland, NJ - 2 mi.
Fountain of Youth, Statue of LibertyFountain of Youth, Statue of Liberty, Vineland, NJ - 3 mi.
In the region:
Peter, Stuffed Eagle of the Mint, Philadelphia, PA - 33 mi.

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