A pleasure-house for his soul

The Lew Wallace Study & Museum is a hidden gem in the middle of a small Indiana town, a town in a state that produced a great many writers during what later became known as the Golden Age of Indiana Literature (1880-1920).

Lew Wallace himself was many things. He was a renaissance man—lawyer, military tactician, designer, painter, patent holder, inventor, writer, diplomat, and politician.

He is perhaps best known these days—if at all—for his authorship of Ben-Hur. His 1880 novel, which has never been out of print, helped bring worldwide recognition to Indiana literature and fueled the popularity of books written by Hoosier authors. Ben-Hur was later made into a movie many times: 1907 (silent), 1925 (silent), 1959, and 2016 (future).

Other than knowing that Wallace penned Ben-Hur, I approached the museum ignorant of the man but walked away knowing quite a bit about him. Wallace was born and raised in Crawfordsville. He loved reading and learning but not school. At the age of 16, he set out to find his way in the world, first in law and then as a military tactician. He served in numerous wars and military excursions—Mexican-American War, Civil War, etc.—rising up the ranks quickly and skilled in organizing troops.

He served as the territorial governor of New Mexico, which was beset with violence and political corruption. Lew attempted to arrange a plea deal with Billy the Kid in exchange for his testimony to convict others. The deal fell through. Billy escaped and was later killed. It is Wallace’s handwriting on Billy the Kid’s death warrant.

After his resignation in 1891, Wallace was appointed US Minister to the Ottoman Empire, spending time in Turkey where he became good friends with the Sultan. Against all custom, he asked to shake the sultan’s hand. The translators refused to translate the request. Puzzled, the Sultan inquired about what they were discussing. After the translators reluctantly relayed the request, the Sultan thought about it and then shook Wallace’s hand. A painting that was a gift from the Sultan graces Wallace’s study.

Wallace returned home to Crawfordsville where he wrote the bulk of Ben-Hur, often under a beech tree on his property. He designed and then in 1895 had built a study where he could retire to read, write, and paint—a pleasure-house for his soul.

Following his death in 1905 and then his wife’s in 1907, the property was kept in the family though his only son was living back East. Maintenance of the property passed to his grandson who hit hard times during the Depression and with the help of the groundskeeper, sold off bits and pieces to keep afloat. Miraculously, lots of artifacts from Wallace remain, including most of the original land, the carriage house, and the study with furniture, paintings, books, and items from his travels.

The museum is amazingly well kept. The study was recently restored. The brickwork is almost entirely original and in outstanding condition. Seven layers of paint and canvas were removed inside to reveal paint in stunning shades that start dark blue at the floor and lighten as it goes up to the ceiling. The study was equipped with both gas and electric lights as well as a gas fireplace. A mechanical device opened and closed the windows in the skylight. The study looks much like it did when it was in use.

Next on the museum’s agenda is the restoration of Wallace’s paintings. Wallace received paintings during his travel (witness the painting gifted him by the Sultan) and was a painter himself. The largest painting in his study is one of the conspirators (minus the only woman, Mary Surratt) involved in Lincoln’s assassination.

The docents are volunteers—knowledgeable and passionate about keeping Wallace’s legacy alive. Tours start with a video of Wallace’s life and continue with a docent discussing items and fielding questions in the study. Interpretative markers fill the grounds.

The beech tree where he wrote was struck my lightning not long after he died. A statue of Wallace stands in its place. The statue is a replica of one in National Statuary Hall in DC. (Each state is represented by two statues in the National Statuary Hall. The other Indiana statue is of Oliver Hazard—what a great middle name!—Perry Morton.) Henry, Lew’s son, saw the statue of his father in DC and had a copy commissioned for the grounds of the study.

Wallace came from a prominent political family. His father, David Wallace, was the sixth governor of Indiana (1832-1840) and a US Representative (1841-1843). His wife came from a very wealthy local family. Although Wallace signed away his rights to Ben-Hur early on (and didn’t see any royalties from the movies), because of his family ties—through blood and marriage—he did not want for money. The study cost $38,000 to build in 1895 or about $1.1 million today. The study stands as a National Historical Landmark.

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