International Palace of Sports [North Webster]
Description: Former Museum Location: 127 South Main, North Webster, IN Condition: Converted to alternative use Originally Photographed: August 2002
In 1967, banker J. Homer Shoop was chatting with some of his fellow townspeople from North Webster about ways to increase tourism traffic. Indiana 13 runs right through town, and each weekend families rushing to their lake cottages around Lake Wawasee would buzz right through. Wouldn’t it be great if they could get them to stop for just a little while?
Somehow they hit upon the idea to theme the town around “Camelot”. Soon shops shaped like little castles started popping up – first the King’s Keg Package Liquor, then the Ye Old Double Dip and Dunk It bought into the plan. However, Homer was thinking bigger – toward a crown jewel – an amazing place that would be called The International Palace of Sports.
Way back in 1947, J. Homer Shoop became president and majority owner of the very small Farmer’s State Bank in North Webster, Indiana. Over the years he became a prominent citizen of the small town, serving as a member of the North Webster Lion’s club which launched North Webster’s “Mermaid Festival” in 1945 and “Queen of Lakes” beauty pageant right after the war. Quite the amateur tennis player, he actually won, along with Gardnar Mulloy, the 1960 national Public Parks senior doubles title. He befriended well-known ABC sports broadcaster Chris Schenkel, a native Hoosier, who moved back to the shores of the nearby Lake Tippecanoe from New York in the late 1960s.
According to the official 1978 edition of the Palace of Sports Yearbook:“Soon thereafter, village banker and long time festival booster, J. Homer Shoop, interested Schenkel and the community in likening the area to a 20th century Camelot of the ‘Realm of Recreation’, forming a public youth foundation, selecting a ‘King of Sports’ annually, and linking festival and youth career awards to outstanding sports personalities.”
Yep, just like we all do.Fully bought-in to his own vision, on December 31, 1971 he officially changed the name of Farmer’s State Bank to “The Counting House Bank” and started tearing it down, reforming the block on which it stood into “Camelot Square” and beginning construction on the giant “International Palace of Sports”. Groundbreaking was on June 23, 1972.
At the dedication on June 29, 1974, 50,000 people saw a three-hour “Mermaid Festival” parade, followed by the crowning of no less than OJ Simpson the “1973 King of Sports”. Joining “the juice” was Jesse Owens, “King of Track and Field”, Pancho Gonzalez, “King of Tennis”, John Weismuller, “King of Swimming”, Dick Weber, “King of Bowling”, and a whole bunch of other important and not-so-important people.
Homer named Chris Schenkel “King Arthur” of the organization, and his poor wife Fran Schenkel was “Queen Guinevere”. Homer’s title was “Merlin” for some reason.
This was not the first “King of Sports” selection – that had come the year earlier when Mark Spitz, the Olympic champion swimmer, became “1972 King of Sports”. He attended a dinner in his honor on June 27, 1973 at the Tippecanoe Lake Country Club while the Palace rose on the grounds of “Camelot Square”.
The Palace itself was an amazing combination of tourist trap and kitsch, perhaps never equaled before or since in the history of the Hoosier state. Upon entering the “imposing” front doors, one saw a big pool of water with three jets of water shooting up out of it. As described by Homer:
“Steeded knights of the Mississippi and St. Lawrence Rivers joust, in full armor, above the surging waters programmed to lights and music in spectacular symbolism of the Fountain’s location on the Continental Ridge.”
Walking up the staircases or riding the elevator to the second level leads you to “The Royal Gallery of the Realm of Recreation”, which was really just a long wall with 50-or-so oil portraits of all of those honored by the Palace painted by one-armed local artist DeWitt Mullett. On the floor in front of the paintings was a glass case containing “Realm of Recreation Crown Jewels”, a pile of fake baubles including the Chris Schenkel “Excalibur” Sword and the “King of Sports” and “Queen of Lakes” Crowns.
To the side of the case, workers embedded a gigantic checkerboard with where oversized plastic pieces depicting each King and other honoree positioned over the squares. One could buy smaller replica coins in the gift shop (and on eBay today).
Perhaps the most disturbing part of the museum were the wax figure galleries. Artists immortalized each King in wax in separate alcoves of the building called “Kingdoms of Sport”, along with audio programs containing information about their achievements. There was a “Kingdom” for football, for basketball, for auto racing, and so on. The wax figures were sometimes spot-on renditions, and at other times were a bit off the mark.
Oh yeah – there was also a full-sized tennis court on the roof. Seriously.
The first floor contained restrooms, offices and a giant banquet room called Camelot Hall where ceremonies (and the occasional wedding reception) were held. The North end of the building’s first floor was an elaborate main office for the Counting House Bank itself.
The glorious years continued. On July 16, 1975, Homer officially retired as president of the bank, devoting all his time to his creations and civic work. The organization named Heisman Trophy running back Archie Griffin “King” in 1975, followed by Olympian Bruce Jenner in 1976. In 1977, A. J. Foyt won the Indianapolis 500 for the fourth time – and was promptly named that year’s “King of Sports.”
In 1979 Homer sold the bank moved to Florida, mostly devoting his time to Contract Bridge, a game he had played for many decades, becoming a Grand Master, the highest level awarded to any player. He left the day-to-day operation of the museum to it’s board of directors.
In 1987, Homer formed the American Contract Bridge Educational Foundation with a $25,000 gift. By this time he was living out of the Golden Glades, Florida Holiday Inn, as he was away at so many bridge tournaments it made little sense to him to have a more permanent residence.
However, without Homer’s promotional skill and flair, the museum faded quickly. By 1988 only 300 people had visited during the entire summer, and the staff used a hot glue gun to repair parts of the wax statues still on display and not stored away in pieces. The 1986 “King of Sport” winner Walter Peyton didn’t show up, and when named “King” in 1987, local Hoosier legend Bobby Knight didn’t even bother to make the drive up from Bloomington, it was clear the end was near. They had stopped making wax statues years before, as the $2,500 cost of each was unaffordable. Tapes playing the histories of each athlete in each “Kingdom” broke and could not be repaired. Only 200 visitors stopped by during 1989 before the bills piled up and it closed.
An auction for the contents was held on April 23, 1990. Everything including the fixtures went under the gavel. The oil paintings went quickly, as did the 16 replicas of Excalibur in a stone scattered about the building. An actual championship belt from Boxer Rocky Marciano went for $14,000, mostly for the gold it contained. The highest bid for a wax figure was for Wayne Gretzky ($1,500), and the lowest for a box of assorted broken wax fingers ($1).
According to a report by the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, a sports bar bought Larry Bird’s wax figure. Ely Culbertson, one of the top Bridge players in history, became a hat rack in Champaign, Illinois. Steve Ryeson of Clarkston, Michigan added Gordie Howe, Red Grange and Muhammad Ali to his high bid on Gretzky, hoping that “his dog won’t chew on them” as they went to storage in the sports memorabilia collector’s basement.
Then Debbie Pilcher, a life-long resident of North Webster, and her husband Robert bought the building and turned it into one of the largest shoe stores in the midwest.
That’s correct – it’s a shoe store now.
Wooden shelves filled with boots now line the walls where the statues, paintings and checkerboard once stood. Sale tables line the front of the building, where newly constructed steps and strategically placed potted plants help you forget you are stepping into what once was a fountain. A gigantic “Pilchers” neon sign now glows in the night through the windows.
Mrs. Pilcher admits she never set foot in the museum until the Realtor showed it to her, though she discovered a painting of her sister on the wall – she was a past Queen of the Lake.
The auction netted $51,000, and the sale of the building much more. Some of this money went to fund the “J. Homer Shoop Pre-Teen Scholarship”, awarded every year since 1989, though it ran out funding in 1997 until an anonymous donor write a $25,000 check. The fund was once again out of money in 2005, until the resolution of a dispute between the American Contract Bridge League and it’s foundation. The foundation then distributed the last of the funds.
However, the Shoop Sports and Youth Foundation lives on in North Webster, providing thousands of dollars in funding for projects large and small from it’s multi-million dollar endowment – direct from Homer’s own fortunes – a true representation of his generosity and goodwill.
Shoop didn’t attend the auction – he was at a bridge tournament in Mesa, AZ.
On February 23, 1991 he achieved Grand Master status in the American Contract Bridge League, only the 93rd person to ever do so. Later that year he passed away at age 78, but not before telling his nephew that he wanted his ashes eventually spread on Mars.