Animal Crackers

P.T. Barnum was a great showman, but Denver's Bart Barnum may be just as good.

Bart Barnum answers the phone in a theatrical fashion, his voice slow and cartoonish.

"Barnum House," he says.

You ask him if it might be possible for you to come by and take a look at the place. Of course it is, he responds enthusiastically. He would be delighted to show you around. You can even bring a friend or two. Since he grew up in the house, it's nothing new to him, of course, but other people do seem to take an interest in it. After all, his great-great-grandfather, P.T. Barnum, lived in it for ten years, he says.

Barnum tells you he gives about one tour per week, free of charge, mainly to groups from women's clubs who have heard about "them" -- him and the house, that is -- by word of mouth.

Barnum House, at 360 King Street, does indeed have a personality of its own. A cheerful two-story with a fresh coat of yellow paint, a high peaked roof, and crisp red and white trim, it stands out sharply from the small bungalows that fill most of the Barnum neighborhood, the hilly west Denver area hemmed in by Alameda and Sixth avenues and Sheridan and Federal boulevards. The mailbox next to the house is a replica of the house itself. A little red and green cottage sits only yards away, and several small, colorful buildings of different shapes and sizes poke up through gentle mounds of snow in the backyard. On a gray winter day with a few flakes drifting from the sky and long icicles clinging to the eaves, the little cluster of buildings looks like a group of circus tents pitched in a snow globe, untouched by the rest of the world.

A cement hitching post with an iron ring on top marks the beginning of the brick path that leads to the main house. When the white front door swings open, it seems like it would not be impossible for a trained seal or troupe of clowns to be posing in the foyer. Instead, 79-year-old Bart Barnum emerges from the bright-red entryway wearing a rust-colored button-down shirt, a pair of slightly stained khaki pants, and brown slippers. Bushy eyebrows hover above his blue eyes.

He welcomes you in, and you step right up to begin the tour.

Bart passes from the foyer into a dining room filled with muted green light. The house was built in 1878, he says, but in 1956 it had to be moved from its original site, which was exactly two blocks to the north. Sixth Avenue was coming through, and he had to get out of the way. Barnum House and all of its outbuildings -- a chicken coop, a carriage house, a children's playhouse and the little red cottage next door, which he rents out but which was originally the guest house -- were rolled down the street to 360 King. "I sure moved my fanny," he says.

To the right of the dining room is a round sitting room with bright-blue walls, ornate gas lamps that have been converted to electric ones, and a white domed ceiling with stained-glass skylights. The crown jewel of the tiny room, and perhaps the entire house, is an elaborate stained-glass window that depicts a young woman playing a pipe. It's an original Tiffany, Bart purports, appraised at $30,000. And the floor is made of lava from Mount Vesuvius, he adds.

"This thing is a Dutch Colonial, and it doesn't turn me on at all," Bart says of the house. "I like all the fiddle-faddle and whoop-de-do that a nice Victorian has."

The ceilings in the home are all very low. This is because the house is actually the old Barnum carriage house that P.T. Barnum converted into a home after his mansion burned down, Bart explains.

"Some people call it the 'Barnum Barn,'" he says, "just to be crazy."

The place has the feel of a museum, and Bart clearly has plenty of practice exhibiting it. Most of the tiny rooms in the house are labeled in black block letters above their doorways: LIBRARY. SCULLERY. Bart says this makes for less explaining when he's giving tours. From the "tack room" (now a miniscule bedroom) on the second floor to the wee "coffee kitchen" on the "garden level," the house is immaculate and orderly, but full of knickknacks and oddities of indeterminate age and origin: teacups with "moustache shelves" to keep gentlemen's whiskers from "getting in the goop," an indoor rotisserie, even a Winnie-the-Pooh doll sitting on a couch in the basement.

Bart heads forward through the dining room into the spacious yellow kitchen. It's done in 1950s style but contains the home's original stove, Bart says, a bright-blue monster that burns both gas and coal.

From the kitchen, narrow stairways lead both up and down. The entire top floor used to be the hayloft, a feature that is still evident from the many small doors -- once used for pitching hay -- that line the walls of the pink-hued master bedroom. Bart points out the fireplace in its inglenook and the cables that strengthen the peaked roof.

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