"The only real depression is a depression of individual ingenuity" George Daynor's Palace of Depression
July 14, 2012 8:45 PM   Subscribe

"As the story goes, [George] Daynor was a former gold prospector who’d lost his fortune in the Wall Street crash of 1929. Hitchhiking through Alaska, he was visited by an angel who told him to make his way to New Jersey without further delay. Divine providence had dictated that Daynor was to wait out the Great Depression there, building a castle with his bare hands. Daynor had only four dollars in his pocket when he arrived in Vineland, NJ.... For years he slept in an abandoned car on the mosquito-infested property, living off a steady diet of frogs, fish and squirrels while he built his elaborate eighteen-spired, pastel-hued Palace of Depression out of auto parts and mud. His primary objective? To encourage his downtrodden countrymen to hold onto their hope and stay resourceful, no matter what."

If you're thinking "Gee that sounds familiar" you may have heard of it via a mention in Eddie and the Cruisers. Some footage here courtesy of Weird NJ. Fun facts about George Daynor. More details about Daynor.

The palace closed in the mid sixties, had fallen into disrepair even before then, and was eventually razed by the city. Recently local artists Jeff Tirante and Kevin Kirchner have been enthusiastically working to restore the location to some of its former grandeur through an organization called The Palace of Depression Restoration Association. Here are some photos of the restoration. [via]
posted by jessamyn (20 comments total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
the timing for rebuilding the Palace of Depression couldn't be better...
posted by oneswellfoop at 8:55 PM on July 14, 2012 [3 favorites]

And few places could be better than Vineland for it.
posted by mollweide at 9:13 PM on July 14, 2012 [3 favorites]

He sent his dog to the claims office with a cipher in its mouth (as an anti-robbery measure), then decoded it when he got there and secured his first fortune. This guy was a born storyteller.
posted by Kevin Street at 9:28 PM on July 14, 2012

A thing of beauty. I always get this and Coral Castle mixed up in my brain. Thanks for helping to clear that up.
posted by sleepy pete at 9:41 PM on July 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

Shameless plug for Colorado's own home-built Rocky Mountain Bishop Castle (WP, images). These labors of love always remind me of obsessed mountaineer Roy Neary in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977).
posted by cenoxo at 9:44 PM on July 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

I love folk-art architecture, and I wish there was a better way to have it coexist with building codes and regulations. There should be some sort of crazy artist exemption, or a program to help with seismic upgrading.
posted by Forktine at 9:44 PM on July 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

Good thing this wouldn't be allowed now!
posted by anigbrowl at 9:59 PM on July 14, 2012

I built a Palace of Depression in my bedroom when I was teenager. I didn't have auto parts and mud, so I used beer cans and bong resin, instead.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 10:45 PM on July 14, 2012 [4 favorites]

Fuck yeah America, this kind of weirdness is what I love about you. Someday I am going to move out to the desert and spend forty-five years building a monument to human kindness entirely out of chollawood and my own hair.
posted by Scientist at 11:06 PM on July 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

Love stories about eccentric visionary artists/builders like this. It's a real shame his life's work had to be erased. Glad that some other grandiose, home-brewed works, by contrast, still survive. Like, say, the Watts Towers.

Thanks for the post, jessamyn.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 12:01 AM on July 15, 2012

An angel telling me to go to New Jersey (and make it snappy) would have me swearing off religion forever.
posted by telstar at 12:51 AM on July 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

The story in the sixth link is a little different. (Somehow, it doesn't surprise me that Daynor may have varied his autobiography from time to time.) In the "More details" link he's walking down a road somewhere when a car nearly hits him. The driver comes back to see if he's all right, then gives George a ride. They have a conversation, wherein the driver somehow convinces George to buy a plot of land with the last four dollars in his pocket. Then he discovers that his new property is a junkyard in a swamp, and he builds a sort of miserable underground hut. That's the angel appears before him and tells him to construct the Palace.
posted by Kevin Street at 1:04 AM on July 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

There's a hand-built castle outside of Cincinnati too: Chateau LaRoche
posted by Mick at 5:25 AM on July 15, 2012

What a cool story.
posted by caddis at 5:39 AM on July 15, 2012

...Contrary to the myths that he propagated [that he built the place all by himself], he came with his wife, an unfortunate woman named Florence who worked like a mule on the palace. "There wasn't a single stone that she didn't help lay," Tirante says, "but George didn't want anyone but himself to get credit for the palace, so he'd lock her up all day in the ticket booth and forbid her to talk to anybody....

Yeah, this guy was a sweetheart.
posted by mule98J at 8:23 AM on July 15, 2012

My whole family is originally from Vineland. My mom says she never heard of the place (she would've been a teenager when it closed), but I bet her older sibling remembers it. Knowing my relatives, I can see this being the kind of thing that no one particularly wanted to mention or take the kids to see.
posted by nev at 9:11 AM on July 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yeah, this guy was a sweetheart.

Pretty sure no one is arguing that he was some sort of great guy, just that what he built was interesting and had an odd history and his part in it as something of a crazy person was integral to the entire weirdness.

I remember hearing about this after watching Eddie and the Cruisers and then read a small blurb about it in a book I was reading last night. The active "we're going to rebuild this" activity complete with fairly-quirky folks working on it seems like it's continuing the odd legacy but in a less creepy fashion.

The part I was hoping to be able to put in this post were clips from Universal's 1938 movie The Fantastic Palace. I'm not sure if this is the same or different from the short Daynor excerpts in the Weird NJ video. Daynor is in parts of the video, has a strong accent, wears tuxedo pants. The video talks about how by the late 50's he was also something of a cross-dresser wearing makeup and earrings. He went to prison for a year in the fifties for giving the FBI a bad tip about a kidnapped child (or something) and by the time he came out, people had started destroying his place. He lived in the wreckage (I think?) until he died and then his wife sold it to the city who razed it completely. However, they've been excavating the basement areas which is giving them the outline of the floor plan of the place.
posted by jessamyn at 9:42 AM on July 15, 2012 [4 favorites]

Great post, jessamyn! The links give a fascinatingly multivariate picture of Daynor and his Palace.

Somewhere in there (read it yesterday and can't recall which link right now) it says that he was 81 when was sent to jail - or maybe 96, if he really was 104 when he died. That's pretty rough treatment for an old publicity hound.
posted by Kevin Street at 3:27 PM on July 15, 2012

Yeah, I always want to try building, say, a crazy cob hut with all these weird features, but there's no way to manage building codes. Even to build a regular strawbale house, it's so hard to get it approved.
posted by windykites at 5:54 PM on July 15, 2012

Fantastic post about a place I'd not heard of before.

The story reminds me a bit of Nitt Witt Ridge in Cambria, CA, where old Art Beal (aka Cap'n Nitt Witt or Der Tinkerpaw) also stayed on in his folk art environment long after his mind and body had begun to break down like the junk he preferred to build with.

These spaces are fine for strong young oddballs and sometimes even their long-suffering lovers, but they're tough on old coots with the onset of dementia. And yet, somehow, it does seem like falling apart in the world of one's own creation isn't such a terrible fate for artists like these. It is weirder to think of Simon Rodia just packing up his suitcase and driving away from his Towers than it is to know that mixed among the sand and paint and rotting bowling balls of Noah Purifoy's camp in Joshua Tree are bits of his accidentally cremated self, forever.
posted by Scram at 11:16 PM on July 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

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