Reader question: Hey Answer Man! Whatever happened to the Pensmore Castle? — Robert Kipfer of Springfield
Well, first of all, it’s still there.
I saw it from a distance Friday and drone photographer Bruce Stidham shot video for us this week.
The Pensmore Mansion, which isn’t finished, is one of the largest homes in the country at 72,000 square feet.
You can catch a glimpse of it along Highway 65. It’s on the east side of the highway, up in the foothills, south of the Route EE exit to Highlandville.
If you recall, there was some conjecture — it is hard to believe it was serious — that the mammoth structure might be torn down to start over after it was discovered there was less Helix than thought in the concrete used, thus far, to build it.
It is the Helix that Pensmore owner Steven Huff believes makes the Pensmore Mansion — also called the Pensmore Chateau and the Pensmore Castle — virtually indestructible.
Helix is a high-tensile steel fiber that is an alternative to rebar. Helix is mixed into cement to make fortified concrete.
The elusive owner
Huff, 71, is not an easy man to reach. He is a Brunswick, Missouri native who once worked for the CIA. He is an astrophysicist and also owned a security software company in Texas. His main residence is in Virginia.
On Friday, I went to Pensmore and stopped my vehicle at the No Trespassing and Video Surveillance signs on the gated road (although the gate was open) leading to the mansion.
I turned around and, instead, drove down the nearest gravel road to talk to whom I expected to be the closest neighbor.
I knocked on the door and met the wife of the man who is Pensmore’s general contractor, Jared Gorham.
She gave me his number and, when I asked, she assured me that the Christian County Sheriff’s Office would have immediately been contacted had I tried to drive up to the mansion.
I texted Gorham my nine questions, the foremost being: Is there daily progress being made on the mansion?
Then I spoke to Gorham on the phone. Although he was cordial, he answered none of my nine questions.
But he did say he texted my questions to Huff.
“I really don’t say much,” Gorham tells me.
“One of the reasons that we keep quiet about it is that we get so many trespassers up here,” he says. “It just slows things down.”
It’s interesting to me that photographer Stidham told me that within two minutes of launching his drone he heard gunshots nearby. He brought the drone back.
He tried from a different location and noticed that his “drone didn’t like the area,” and his signal was far weaker than it should have been. He wondered if something was in place to block his signal.
As I mentioned earlier, Huff once owned a high-tech security firm in Texas.
I asked Gorham: Can you at least tell me if work is progressing on the mansion? Or has it stopped?
“It’s a big house and there is not one single feature of that house that is not custom,” he says. “You know how custom goes. It just takes time.”
While Deep Throat told Woodward to “follow the money,” I decided to “follow the concrete.”
In 2016, Huff sued his concrete supplier, alleging that it shorted him on the amount of Helix in the mix. He sought $63 million from Kansas-based Monarch Cement Company and its Springfield subsidiary, City Wide Construction Products, in Ozark.
The lawsuit was settled in 2017 without details made public.
Douglas W. Sommers, vice president of sales at Monarch Cement, tells me his company no longer does business with Huff and Pensmore.
It’s 3 p.m. and deadline has come too soon
That doesn’t necessarily mean that work on Pensmore has stopped.
After all, would you continue doing business with a company that you believe did you wrong?
Maybe there is a new supplier. (That was one of my nine questions.)
I also called the company’s local subsidiary in Ozark and a guy named Bill who would not give me his last name said that everyone who works there has only been there about three years and that he never heard of the Pensmore Mansion.
Huff offered media tours of the unfinished home in 2015. The Springfield News-Leader published a story and photos.
Huff told the newspaper that construction started in 2005 and that he had three goals.
First, he wanted to build a home that is disaster-resistant, meaning it could withstand the force of an EF5 tornado, which is the strength of the tornado that hit Joplin in 2011 and killed 161 people.
He believes that Pensmore, which some call a “living laboratory” in construction design, could serve as a model for safety in building schools and hospitals.
The second goal is that the mansion be energy efficient. The home is heated and cooled through a combination of geothermal and solar sources.
The concrete walls are a foot thick and have 4 inches of foam insulation on the exterior and three-quarters inch of insulation on the interior.
Huff’s third objective, according to the 2015 News-Leader story, was to build a residence where his family could live for generations to come.
In 2015, parts of the guest wing had been finished, but the rest of the structure was not.
Huff also opened the mansion’s doors to the Springfield Business Journal in 2011.
What jumps out at me in that story is that Huff said he expected the mansion to be finished in late 2013.
(Another one of my nine questions: Mr. Huff is 71. Does he expect the mansion to be “finished” in his lifetime?”)
Huff told the Business Journal he became interested in energy-efficient houses at a time when the national focus was on energy-efficient cars.
Huff is quoted in that story as saying, “Forty percent of the energy used in this country is in heating and cooling buildings, more than is consumed in transportation.”
I also reached out to the Christian County Planning and Development department, but I was told that the one person who might have information regarding Pensmore was unavailable on Friday.
Well, it’s 3 p.m. Friday and I have not heard back from Huff and, once again, deadline has come too soon for me.
If I do hear back, Robert, I’ll let you know.
Regardless, thanks for the question.
This is Answer Man Column No. 16.