Lanier Mansion State Historic Site

I passed this house and grounds a few times before I was able to take a tour. After seeing the Francis Costigan House, I was even more eager to see the Lanier Mansion, which Costigan designed. The house did not disappoint. It has been beautifully restored.

James Lanier was born in North Carolina in 1800. In 1817, his father brought the family to Madison and opened a dry goods store. (They apparently lived in what is now known as the Schofield House.) After studying law in Pennsylvania, James returned to Madison and worked as a legal clerk when the Indiana General Assembly was in session. (Nearby Corydon served as the state capital from 1816 to 1825.)

James later turned to banking and finance, becoming the president of the State Bank in Madison. He invested in the first railroad in Indiana. He was successful enough to hire Francis Costigan to build a great mansion on the Ohio River. The mansion, which took three and a half years to complete, was finished in 1844. However, James did not enjoy it for very long.

In 1849, he formed an investment bank, Winslow & Lanier, which was based in New York City. In 1851, he moved to New York City, leaving behind his grown son Alexander to care for the Lanier Mansion. Alexander was the force behind the creation of the formal gardens between the house and the river.

The house is imposing but as a Greek Revival house, it is not over the top and gaudy like some Victorian era houses. The foyer is large and runs the length of the house. A twin to the front door opens to the river-facing side of the house. (Because the river was a major transportation avenue, visitors often showed up on the side of the house facing the fiver.)

Reminiscent of his own house (built later in 1850), Costigan used 10-foot doors with the 14-foot ceiling (vs. a 12-foot ceiling on the second floor and a 6.4-foot ceiling on the third floor). As a nod to the curved walls and doors in his own future home, a curved door, perfectly hung under the stairs, separates the foyer from the dining room.

On one side of the first floor are the parlors: formal in front, informal behind it. Large double pocket doors separate the two rooms. Like Chief Richardville’s house, the door frames in this house sport “ears”. (Another visitor pointed this out to the docent just a few days prior.) Molding at the ceiling is in alternating shapes of eggs and arrows—birth and death—symbols that seemed more Egyptian than Greek to me. Mike, the docent, pointed out the symmetry that was de rigueur in Greek Revival house—and opened every fake door. (Fake doors abound to provide symmetry to real doors in the rooms.)

Strangely, only the windows on the west side of the house—which included the parlors—have storm shutters on the outside. (Later during a stroll of the grounds, I noticed some on the southern windows of the kitchen.) The windows also have inside shutters, which could be folded and tucked away into a pocket in the walls, a Costigan feature that the docent pointed out.

Wild patterned wallpaper and carpeting reflect the style of the times. The formal parlor includes an Italianate marble fireplace. The informal parlor is a music room with pianoforte, harp, and harmonium. The harp came from Paris in the 1790s (!) and the harmonium arrived a few days prior from the Indiana State Museum. (The museum runs the Lanier Mansion State Historic Site and typically outfits historic sites with period appropriate pieces.)

The Laniers had 8 kids total—five girls and three boys. A portrait of the youngest boy, James, hangs in the informal parlor. He unfortunately did not make it to adulthood. In the portrait, James is a small child, dressed in a smock. Apparently, in the days of buttons rather than zippers, young boys wore dresses. Easier and faster to disrobe for the urgent calls of nature. (Ah! Now it makes sense why clothes for young James Whitcomb Riley at his childhood home included dresses—or smocks.)

On the other side of the house, looking out at the river, is Lanier’s study/library. The bookcase full of books is original. Next to the fireplace is an early, pre-Barcalounger chair that moves into a reclining position with an attached wooden tray to hold books or papers.

The room to the front of the house, across the foyer from the formal parlor, is the dining room. The dining table was set for the dessert course of a meal. Above the table hangs an oil chandelier—an argon chandelier. A container in the middle of the chandelier contained the oil that flowed to the lights thanks to gravity. (The house did move to gas lighting after the city received a gas charter in 1850.) In a corner stands a cellarette, a zinc-lined wine cellar. I looked at the small squat piece of wooden furniture with claw feet. I suspected that I had seen these before without realizing what they were.

On this side of the house, with an entrance between the dining room and study, is the breakfast room with stairs to the servant quarters and a kitchen behind it. Both rooms are in the process of being restored. The fireplace in the kitchen seemed incredibly small. But strangely no kitchen in the basement or a summer kitchen exists.

According to the docent, the Laniers did not have slaves; they used indentured servants—Maggie and David. (Similar to the Jeremiah Sullivan House.) I always wonder about claims like this. Technically slavery was illegal in Indiana but things were a bit loosey-goosey early on. Slavery. Indentured servitude. Tomato. Tomaato.

Apparently though the Laniers had a contract for David, a twelve-year-old African-American boy whose mother signed a contract for his indentured servitude. According to the contract, David was to be taught to read, write, and do basic math. When his servitude came to an end at the age of 21, he was to be release with a suit of clothing. (I wonder what happened to David.)

Before we ascended the beautiful circular staircase (Costigan really was a master architect), Mike had me stand so I could look up at the three flights of stairs. At the top were skylights covered by a cupola. On cloudy days, Mike said, the area around your feet would be bright and sunny. (The day of my visit was sunny so, strangely, I was not bathed in bright light.)

The second floor consists of bedrooms, a small study, and a nursery. The bedrooms seemed big, even though they were filled with large furniture. May and Louisa shared a front bedroom. Mike pointed out the top drawers in the dresser that overhung the lower drawers. Quilts were stored in these overbig drawers. (Huh. That’s why the first drawer is larger on some antique dressers! Interesting.)

Charles, one of the sons, occupied the other front bedroom. In 1851, when Lanier moved to New York to run his investment bank, he took his wife and young son Charles. After Lanier died in 1881, Charles took over the business but was not quite the businessman that his father was. No fear though. He had a good friend to help him—J.P. Morgan.

In between the two front bedrooms is a small study with an original Lanier desk. Odd to think of this space being used as a study.

Alexander, the elder son who was 30 and a graduate from Yale, took over care of the house when his father left for New York. He slept in the room on the riverside, across from May’s and Louisa’s room. Alex didn’t marry until he was 60. He was in love with Stella from his youth. Stella, for unknown reasons, had married someone else. When she became free later in life, the two of them wed.

The last bedroom is the master bedroom. In between it and Alexander’s bedroom, directly opposite the small study, is a nursery. Clearly, the Laniers expected more children. In 1846, just two years after the house was finished, his wife Elizabeth died. In 1848, James married again. It doesn’t seem that the nursery was used.

The third floor consists of rooms for the servants and a playroom for the children, complete with a large 1840s rocking horse. At the top of the stairs is another double curved door. Alexander converted a small closet between the playroom and the servants’ room into a water closet. All of the windows on the third floor are oculus windows that swing open. (They reminded me of the beautiful oculus window in the Samuel Plato house in Marion.)

So what happened after Lanier left the house in 1851 and moved to New York with his wife and teenage son Charles? Lanier in many ways financed the Civil War for the state of Indiana. The legislature was packed with Democrat Copperheads who opposed the war and sided with the South. They blocked all financing of soldiers for the war effort. Governor Morton turned to Lanier, who loaned the state $400,000 and later another $640,000. By 1870, five years after the war ended, Indiana had repaid Lanier with interest.

Lanier died in 1881. Alexander, who occupied the house since 1851, died in 1895, and Stella, his wife and life-long love, died in 1900. The deed passed to her daughters (from a previous marriage). By the early 1900s, Charles, the thirteen-year-old who traveled to New York with his father, managed to buy back the house for $5,600 (!). In 1925, the house was donated to the Indiana State Museum.

As with other Indiana State Museum sites, the Lanier Mansion was a delight to tour. The tour only lasted an hour. Like many tours, I was the sole attendee, which has its benefits. I wonder though what it would have been like to tour with the group of women I encountered at the Jeremiah Sullivan House. (They were quite inquisitive and liked to discuss different items that they encountered—they had toured the Lanier Mansion the previous day and highly recommended it.)

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