Irwin house and gardens

I ran into Selma sooner than I thought I would.

I was on a tour of the historic Irwin house and gardens in Columbus, Indiana. I had walked by this walled house with garden, intrigued by the European looking gardens and the Italianate architecture. It was an historic home turned into a bed and breakfast, closed to passersby except for a few hours twice a week when its gardens are open to the public.

Or when a tour is available.

The tour I was on had just moved from the foyer to the parlor. I was scribbling notes, listening to the docent. And then I looked up. I was flabbergasted. There was Selma over the fireplace. Of course, it was a replica. (The original is back in Steele’s studio on his Brown County property.)

I had arrived a bit early, per the tour instructions. As we waited for all the people signed up for the tour to arrive, the guide let us loose to wander the house. I was so focused on all the details of the rooms, I missed Selma on my initial walkthrough!

The house was originally a Victorian structure built in 1864 for Joseph Irwin, who owned a dry goods store. Luck smiled on Irwin. As the sole owner in town of a safe, he stored money for other businessmen. Unsurprisingly, in the 1870s, he founded a bank—Irwin Union Bank & Trust (which went out of business just a few years ago).

Flushed with cash, in 1890 he enlarged and remodeled the house. The house doubled in size and resembled little of its former self.

In 1910, the house underwent a final renovation and transformation, remodeled by Massachusetts architect Henry A. Philips. Gone were Victorian touches, replaced with Edwardian style.

The house stayed in the Irwin family, passed down through married daughters, which explains its reference as the Irwin-Sweeney-Miller house. Multiple generations often lived in the house at the same time. I attempted to make some sense of the generations of this family, its history, and Cummins, the company associated with the city. Clessie Cummins, who founded Cummins, was a chauffeur and mechanic for the Irwin family. William Irwin, Joseph Irwin’s son, financially backed Cummins’ venture.  J. Irwin Miller, great-grandson of Joseph Irwin, was the late great CEO of Cummins.

In 1996, the last family member who lived in the house passed away. The Miller family maintained the house and garden, but the family never lived in the house again. In 2009, the house left the Irwin-Sweeney-Miller hands. In 2010, the new owners, the Stevens opened the house as a bed and breakfast, and maintained the family tradition of opening the gardens to the public on certain days.

The tour started in the current foyer and included all rooms (sans kitchen area) in the downstairs area. (As the house is a functioning bed and breakfast, we did not get to tour the second or third floors.)

The current foyer is dark, covered with wood paneling and filled with a lovely staircase. What, I wondered, was the wood? As if reading my mind, the docent explained that the Irwins had a choice: use cheaper local wood that would keep the remodeling on schedule and in budget OR use tiger oak from England that would last 200 years? They chose the latter. Long-term thinking people. The wood in the house is in mint condition. They clearly made the right choice.

The parlor, as she pointed out, is like other parlors, not a comfortable place, only meant to greet guests before moving to somewhere else. Huh. Not something I ever realized about parlors. Interesting tidbit to learn. The furniture in this room didn’t look particularly comfortable. (But hey, you could gaze at Selma in the Garden here!) The furniture on the first level is all original. For the most part, when the house was sold to the Stevens in 2009, the original belongings were sold with it.

Next to the parlor is a small “music” room. The baby grand is gone but replaced with a smaller piano for guests to use while they enjoy tea in this room. I noticed that the fish in the large bowl on the piano must have been spooked as we traipsed through. He was hiding in the castle archway. (When I initially perused the room, he was out swimming around.)

After the music room is a side door and strange hallway. This was the original entranceway, the docent explained. The entrance and hallway seemed like an afterthought, not a grand entrance like the current foyer. (To my chagrin, I didn’t ask about what the current foyer originally was.) Why is the original entrance no longer used? It opens on the side of the house, not facing the street. Immediately to the side of the house sits the modern public library. A pity that the property lines are so close.

The small entrance and hallway house the phone and elevator, added during the 1910 remodel. The elevator—not an Otis!—is oval shaped and can fit two people with a suitcase. (Otis was THE elevator manufacturer with Indiana roots.) Contrary to typical Amy behavior, I did not investigate the elevator. I blame it on the cramped hallway, the size of the tour, and the tour moving on. But I am disappointed that I didn’t investigate it.

The dining room houses a long table, not the original to the room, but the original type of table. The owners recently acquired a similar model to what the Irwins had. The art hanging over the table was another pleasant surprise—a large Audubon print of red-shouldered hawks. (The Indianapolis Museum of Art is currently running a special exhibit of Audubon’s works, full of prints like this one.)

The library is rather the pièce de résistance. Its dark wood paneling is the same as in the foyer. The fireplace is the only one in the house that they use. One wall is lined with books, that any guest is welcome to peruse. (In fact, books, the docent told us, fill the house.) On occasion, guests stumble across interesting tidbits such as letters in the books. The current owners just ass the treasure finders to place the items back where they found them after enjoying their contents. (Gosh, what historic secrets are in the pages of these books?)

In hindsight, the house—at least the main floor—is surprisingly small. I would have LOVED to get an entire tour, including what was the bachelor pad of an unmarried son on the third floor. The gardens, which were built from 1911 to 1913, are about the same footprint as the house.

After sharing a few stories about the gardens, we were left to wander to our hearts’ content. Really? The tour instructions mentioned that we would have limited photography opportunities in the garden. But in fact, the gardens were opening to the public soon.

The gardens are modeled on Pompeii ruins, something that the family must have been smitten with on their travels. (Of course, the style fits in well with the Italianate style of the house.) Pergolas with wisteria (the sole remaining original plant in the garden) mirrored each other, housing busts of four Greek philosophers. The symmetry continued with dual ponds sporting turtle fountains. To one side is a shaded garden, where brides emerge during wedding ceremonies.

Past the dual ponds with turtle fountains are steps that lead down to a sunken garden with another fountain and rectangle pond. To the left is an elephant, originally from the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair (it has been subsequently recast), and steps leading to a mini amphitheater.

Opposite the elephant on the other side of the fountain in the sunken garden is a stone wishing well. In a separate side garden, by the Italian wishing well, is what currently is the herb garden. (It originally was a rose garden.)

The high point of the garden (design-wise and geographically) are steps leading up to a “tea house”. Up the steps are five fountains: a man with a walrus face, a boar, a ram, a bear, and two boys. From the top, you can look down on the entire gardens and gain a good view of the house.

The gardens were a piece of quiet and respite, the sound of the many fountains creating a sense of calm. After the gardens opened to the public, the space gradually filled with people: parents with small children stopping for a quick visit, people coming to take photographs from different vantage points. The world was intruding into this walled space. Time to join it.

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