The Propylaeum

Prop-pa-lay-em. That’s how you pronounce it. I practiced it in my head, determined not to forget it. I had heard whispers of the place and then louder rumblings recently.

The Propylaeum, a woman’s organization founded in 1888, is housed in a building on the Old Northside that is nearly as old as the organization. The building was open to tours during the recent Talbot Art Fair. Normally, it is only open as a venue for special events such as weddings.

I had toured a number of other old buildings on the Old Northside, including former President Benjamin Harrison’s house a block away and the Indiana Landmark Center, which is housed in a late 1880s Methodist Church a few blocks east. I was ready to see a special house.

Oddly enough, unlike tours in other historical buildings, these tours were self-guided. Before wandering through the rooms and heading up to the second floor, I gleaned a few tidbits of information from the greeter.

The third floor, with the ballroom, was closed. The front stairwell used to go all the way up but now stops at the second floor. The large windows over the stairwell used to house stained glass but those were sold long ago; unfortunately, no one knew what the windows looked like. The painted ceilings in the other rooms were in mint condition, protected by a drop ceiling that earlier residents had added. The house was first built by a giant in the alcohol industry, who was later brought low by Prohibition.

On and on the tidbits came tumbling out of the greeter.

I thanked the greeter and then wandered through the house, which was devoid mostly of people. I whispered silent thanks for the blessings of air conditioning on the hot Midwestern summer day.

I was struck by the number of bathrooms and their size in a house from the 1880s. The rooms upstairs were fairly plain. The front rooms on the ground floor were gaudy with faux gold moldings and paintings of cherubs and portraits of—presumably famous—white men on the ceiling.

One item that drew me was the fireplace in the tea room. The fireplace was tiled in aquamarine with a bas-relief of flamingos. (As I write that, I realize that “bas-relief of flamingos” sounds like it would be a bit gaudy, but the birds—and all of the tiles—were a subdued aquamarine color.) It was a beautiful fireplace that reminded me of the Arts and Crafts tradition.

I have discovered in the last year that I am a sucker for beautiful old fireplaces, especially those designed with hand-carved wood mantles and colored tiles.

I am a sucker too for old wooden doors—doors with character, doors that speak of a different time or a different culture. I am drawn to photos of doorways. Like pathways or trails, doors pull the viewer into the scene.

And the Propylaeum had old wooden doors, substantial doors that I had to lean my weight into to open…as I left to face the heat of the outside.

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