The shoe must go on: After one owner’s sudden passing, it’s business as (un)usual at the Haines Shoe House

The shoe-shaped house was once a weekend getaway for elderly couples and newlyweds

In 1948, Mahlon Haines, a shoe salesman in York, Pennsylvania, handed his architect a Haines Shoe Company work boot and said, “Build me a house like this.” The resulting Shoe House is exactly what it sounds like—a 25-foot-tall, 48-foot-long, shoe-shaped house with a living room in the toe, an eat-in kitchen in the heel, three bedrooms, and space for a maid and a butler.

Haines, a master of self-promotion, never lived in his shoe—the unconventional house functioned mainly as an advertisement for his business. Once highly visible from the main road and surrounding areas, the shoe is a wonderful example of programmatic, or novelty, architecture. As more people began driving across the country, buildings shaped like what they sell—coffee pot-shaped coffee shops, for example—became a popular way to attract passing motorists.

When Haines died in 1962, he left his Shoe House to his employees. The house has had several owners through the years, including a local dentist and Haines’s granddaughter. In February, 2015, Jeff and Melanie Schmuck became the latest couple to own the unique house.

The Schmucks’ shoe

Jeff Schmuck, a realtor who has lived in York since he was a kid, grew up in Haines Acres, a neighborhood named for the shoe salesman. The Schmucks had tried to visit the Shoe House on several occasions, but were frustrated by previous owners’ inconsistent hours. “I have always been drawn toward things that are different and quirky,” says Jeff.

When Jeff was finally able to take a tour, he not only saw an opportunity to own something unique, but he envisioned a space where Melanie could turn her baking hobby into a full-time business. When the shoe came up for sale, the Schmucks didn’t hesitate.

Jeff and Melanie Schmuck bought the Shoe House in 2015. | Photo: Courtesy Jeff Schmuck

“It was like we were given the keys to the Wonka factory,” Melanie said in an interview she gave shortly after purchasing the house.

Sadly, Melanie Schmuck passed away unexpectedly in February, 2019. She was 38 years old. Melanie is survived by her identical twin, “but she was one of a kind,” says Jeff. “Melanie was even more amazing than the Shoe is large.”

Despite his enormous loss, Jeff opened the Shoe House for the season less than a month later. “The Shoe will go on!” he wrote in a Facebook post. “After much crying, thinking, soul searching, and thoughtful discussions with friends and family, we have decided to open The Haines Shoe House. Mel would have wanted us to keep the legacy she helped build going strong.”

“It was like we were given the keys to the Wonka factory.”

Although she could usually be found in the ice cream parlor making cake pops and fudge, Melanie did occasionally give tours, and her love of the Shoe House was infectious. In addition to baking full time, she also designed the Shoe House logo, website, t-shirts, brochures, and business cards. She maintained the grounds and tended to the flowers inside and outside the house.

The entrance to the Shoe House. | Photo: Alexandra Charitan
The house has stained glass shoe windows. | Photo: Alexandra Charitan

“Mel was constantly promoting the Shoe House everywhere she went, to everyone she met,” says Jeff. “She would even visit groups and give talks about the Shoe House. She really enjoyed meeting new people every day and had a huge zest for life.”

The Shoe Wizard

Haines, the Shoe House’s original owner, grew up working in his mother’s department store, advertised as “the largest store in the world, built, owned, and controlled by a woman.” His mother, however, declined to make Haines a partner at her store. After a few more business and relationship setbacks, he moved to York and acquired a consignment of shoes from a local department store.

By the 1930s, Haines—the self-proclaimed Shoe Wizard—had built the largest shoe store chain in the U.S. By 1935, there were 50 Haines Shoe stores across Pennsylvania and northern Maryland, six of which were located in York.

In addition to its value in generating brand awareness, Haines wanted to use the Shoe House to benefit the local community. Each year, he invited 38 elderly couples to stay in the house for a weekend each, free of charge.

A Haines ad in the July 22, 1949 issue of The York Dispatch explains the deal, which included clothes for the couple in addition to a free pair of Haines shoes: “Each week, as people of this country know, is entertained an old gentleman and old lady who have been selected by the aldermen of the wards in York and burgesses of each borough, and through the fine, gracious generosity of the wonderful men’s clothing firm of Gregory’s, the man has been given everything he wears and the lady, by the fast-growing, popular Murphy’s Department Store, everything she wears. That is for each couple of each week.”

Newlyweds shopping at a Haines store could also enter for a chance to win an all-expenses-paid, weeklong honeymoon in the shoe. In the 1950s, the public finally had a chance to rent the Shoe House.

Shoe-shaped planter. | Photo: Alexandra Charitan
The front door features the Shoe Wizard. | Photo: Alexandra Charitan

Stained glass and “shoevenirs”

Since purchasing the Shoe House, the Schmucks had been lovingly restoring the house and its furnishings to its original glory. In 2018, they repaired several cracks to the exterior stucco and gave the shoe a fresh paint job. Future plans include a new roof to ensure that the structure is water-tight.

“Mel was constantly polishing the inside of the Shoe with fresh paint and adding new artifacts to help tell the story of the Shoe and the man that made it possible,” says Jeff.

Locals started adding their own pieces of Shoe House history, and now the house also functions as a museum—items on display include the original shoe-shaped mailbox, buttons, pencils, shoe boxes, paper fans, and other Haines promotional items.

In fact, there are shoe details everywhere you look inside and outside of the house—stained glass windows feature shoes and Haines himself; shoe-shaped concrete planters hold seasonal flowers; and wooden shoe cutouts adorn the fences. There are two miniature replicas of the house on the property—a doghouse and a mailbox—and the house’s official mailing address is 197 Shoe House Road.

The ice cream parlor is located in the heel—once a drive-through carport—and a small gift shop sells “shoevenirs.”

“People come for great ice cream and treats in addition to taking a tour of the Shoe,” says Jeff. “In an average year, we see visitors from 48 of the 50 states and over 30 countries.”

He adds: “The Shoe House has always been special to us. But now I see the fruits of Mel’s labor and how she transformed the Shoe and grew her business, all while maintaining the great history of the Shoe.”

If you go

The Haines Shoe House is open from the first day of spring through October. Hours vary. Appointments are appreciated for large groups.

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