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[ The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: 11/26/03 ]

Disney devotee designed, lives in facsimile of Haunted Mansion

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Charlotte B. Teagle/AJC
Mark Hurt's home is an 11,000-square-foot replica of the Haunted Mansion featured at Disney amusement parks. At lower right, Hurt shows off a Disney gallery along a back stairwell. And the bionic head? Hurt is working on audio for this creature to greet human visitors to the mansion.

Gwinnett community page

Something frightful happens every time Mark Hurt turns on the cold water in his downstairs bathroom.

The lights begin to flicker. A mysterious voice cackles, "Watch out for hitchhiking ghoooosts." And then, right on cue, a cadaverous ghost hovers for a few heart-stopping seconds in the gold-rimmed mirror above the sink.

So is Hurt's 11,000-square-foot mansion in Duluth haunted?

You bet it is. The special-effects guru and former Disney contractor designed it that way.

Hurt, 41, has built a replica of Disneyland's storied Haunted Mansion, featured in its theme parks around the world. This one, though, sits in the exclusive Sweet Bottom Plantation neighborhood off Pleasant Hill Road. And like thousands of other Disneyphiles across the country, Hurt will go to the movies tonight for the opening of "The Haunted Mansion," starring Eddie Murphy.

Hurt may be the only moviegoer thinking about home-improvement possibilities.

"Maybe I'll get some ideas," Hurt said. "This will always be a work in progress."

His current to-do list includes four singing busts, a talking head in the foyer and a ghost-projection system on the roof.

The dimensions and architectural details of Hurt's home are the same as those of the Haunted Mansion, from the four giant columns on the front porch to the quarter-size urn embellishing the brass trim ring around the keyhole. The wrought-iron fencing adorning the front terrace came from the Alabama foundry that Walt Disney used for the original Haunted Mansion.

The home, which has a four-story "Disney Gallery" in back, is what happens when the imagination of a wide-eyed kid gets trapped in the body of a veteran jack-of-all-trades.

"What better thing to build than the Haunted Mansion?" Hurt said. "You can have fun with it."

Hurt learned sculpting, carpentry and taxidermy while helping his father build exhibits for natural history museums as a child. But it was a trip to Disney World in the theme park's inaugural year that inspired him to put a childlike spin on the family business.

"I said, "This is what I want to do,' " he said. "I want to build amusement parks."

In high school, Hurt wrote a letter to a Disney executive explaining his dream. The polite response informed Hurt that Disney had a large team of mechanical engineers, electricians and other specialists who worked together on projects. Hurt should develop a specialty, the executive advised, and find his place in Disney's system.

That wasn't sufficient, Hurt said. "I want to do it all."

So he did. Hurt went on to study semiconductor manufacturing, plastics forming and welding. He started his own engineering firm in college and soon after was an independent contractor working for theme parks, including Disney World. Hurt helped build several exhibits in Epcot Center.

"I wasn't employed by Disney," he said, "but I was still getting checks with Mickey Mouse on them."

Today, Hurt not only builds components for theme parks such as Six Flags, but also works for a Roswell-based anti-counterfeiting firm called Nanoventions.

His third, unofficial job is the Haunted Mansion, completed seven years ago. He's constantly adding features, such as the haunted bathroom, completed last month. It came just in time for a friend's Halloween night wedding at the mansion.

"It was absolutely the main attraction at our wedding," said Sarah Petermann, who married one of Hurt's co-workers in front of costume-clad guests on the rooftop party deck. "People were lining up to go to the bathroom."

Hurt says he's not some Disney nut collecting Mickey Mouse lunchboxes. His passion lies more with the man behind the theme parks. A giant framed painting of Walt Disney dominates the dining room.

Hurt has the castings for the model train set that encircled Walt Disney's home. And some of his most prized possessions are the original sketches Disney used to design tracks for the train he called the Lily Bell. The weathered scrolls show the trestles, the figure-eight track design in the back yard and the spot where the tracks dipped beneath the flower garden of Disney's wife, Lily. In the bottom right-hand corner of one page is the handwritten note: "Use this for layout. 6-1-51. Walt."

Hurt and his 12-year-old son plan to reconstruct the train set in their back yard. For Hurt, the reconstruction will be a pilgrimage of sorts.

"The railroad in Disney's back yard -- that was the seed for building all the theme parks," he said.

It's hard to believe that Hurt has managed to construct a large-as-life tribute to Disney in a gated community whose 35-page set of covenants regulates everything from curtains to pets (no more than two dogs).

Luckily for him, the Haunted Mansion is modeled after a stately antebellum house in New Orleans. And it just so happens that each section of Sweet Bottom Plantation has authentic homes from famous Southern cities such as Charleston and Savannah. Hurt lives in the neighborhood's New Orleans-style "Garden District."

"It fits right in," he said.

Hurt designed the mansion himself, creating his own molds for features such as the 300 corbels adorning the eaves.

Hurt admits to a few modern modifications. He has a party deck instead of a pitched rooftop in back. The entire house is raised a bit to account for the high water table on the banks of the Chattahoochee River. And unlike the real Haunted Mansion, this one has a cat door. Hurt has tried to add authenticity to the tiny door by decorating it with a gargoyle from the official Haunted Mansion plaque.

Hurt's mansion has one final deviation -- a mailbox.

"The real Haunted Mansion didn't have a mailbox," he said. "It doesn't get mail."

But if you're looking for the most telling touch, one that hints at the man behind the mansion, go no farther than the front door.

There, hanging from a peg on the wooden coat rack, is a yellow hard hat -- complete with a pair of Mickey Mouse ears.


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