Francis Costigan House

I had already visited some quirky historic homes so I should have been primed for oddities. But I wasn’t prepared for the front door.

I turned the handle and tried to open the door. Nothing happened. I stepped back, looked at the open sign, and then tried the door again. Huh. What gives? There was a small illegible sign beneath was seemed to be a doorbell.

I paused, unsure what to do. Perhaps a tour was in progress and the docent had locked the front door. And then all the sudden it opened. The docent looked at me and exclaimed, “Can’t you read the sign”, referring to the small, illegible sign above the doorbell. “No, no I can’t. Not without my glasses.” Her exclamation had rather surprised me. “Oh!” Now it was my exclamation that surprised her.

Apparently the sign indicated that the front door was a pocket door. Neat! I love pocket doors. I had never seen a front door that was a pocket door. I knew that the Costigan House, designed and built by a famous early architect was unusual, but I didn’t know about the front door.

Costigan (1810-1865), originally from Washington D.C., arrived in Madison in 1836. Considered a premier Civil War era architect and master builder, he is responsible for designing several famous houses in Madison, such as the Lanier Mansion and the Shrewbury House (which alas is currently closed for renovation).

He built this house for his family in 1850 but they only lived in it a short time before moving to Indianapolis (sometime in 1851 or 1852), where he designed many buildings. (Unfortunately, none of which survive.) He died in Indianapolis at the age of 55 (!) and is buried in Crown Hill Cemetery. (Oooh. Someone else to search for.)

There is little information about Costigan and no records about how the house looked. He sold the house in 1851 for $12,500. Various families, including the Hintons in the early 1990s, lived in it. (The Hintons’ name appears in stone in the walkway before the front door.)

In 1988, Historic Madison Inc acquired the property. About five or six years ago (according to the docent), an anonymous donor paid to have the house rehabilitated, during which time the house was closed for a year.

The house is a bit odd. Rumor has it that it was built on a dare. Can Costigan design and build a house on such a small lot? The answer is yes, with a few oddities in the design. (One being the pocket front door.) In fact, the house is considered to be a masterpiece design for a narrow lot.

The house is narrow, only 21.5 inches wide. The foyer is, well, non-existent. A staircase, curved at the bottom as if to draw you into the front room, immediately faces you as you enter. The entrance to the front room is curved. The docent had me open and close the door so I could experience the incredible design and craftsmanship. The curved door fits perfectly into the doorframe, even more than 150 years later.

The front room is a long parlor with two (coal) fireplaces! The two fireplaces seem odd but probably a necessity for such a long room (35 feet). The lighting in the house was all gas. The city of Madison had just gotten its gas charter in 1850, when the house was built.

Beyond the parlor is the dining room, which runs the width of the house (21.5 feet). The room was renovated to the time period with pineapple wallpaper and patterned carpeting. Beyond the dining room is an unrenovated kitchen (trapped in time in the late 1970s).

Another oddity of the house is the staircase. The docent described it as a ladder staircase. Huh? What do you mean? Well, you go up and then you go down. Aren’t all staircases like that? Oooh. These stairs are like a stepladder—steps on both sides rather than a single staircase. At the top is a wooden swing gate—to prevent you from climbing up one side and tumbling down the other side. (Gosh, the Costigans must have been more balance-challenged than me.)

As with the Jeremiah Sullivan House, I was free to explore upstairs alone—the docent did not climb stairs. In addition to the two front bedrooms were two other rooms used as studies and workrooms with extra gas lamps for improved lighting.

Can’t make it to Madison to see the house? Check out a short video that shows the house as if you are walking through it.

I wish more of Costigan’s buildings had survived. I did manage to stumble across him at Crown Hill Cemetery.

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