Culbertson Mansion State Historic Site

I typically find historical sites managed by the Indiana State Museum to be wonderful places to tour. Docents tend to be passionate about the people and history attached to the site, and it shows.

The Culbertson Mansion was a bit different. Maybe my timing was off.

I showed up, hoping to snag the first tour of the day. Normally these historic sites are buzzing with docents. Nobody was around. That was not a good sign.

A docent did eventually appear but indicated that today was going to be a day of school children. Did I mind having a tour with children? Not so pleasant images filled my head. Well, she volunteered, perhaps she could give me a quick 30 minutes tour.

I was both disappointed and thankful. Disappointed because Culbertson Mansion was well out of my way; I likely would never be in the area again. Thankful because she was willing to give me a tour, albeit an abbreviated one.

And off we went on a speed tour, ever cognizant that busses of children could show up at any moment.

The Culbertson Mansion State Historic Site in New Albany is just down the Ohio River from the Lanier Mansion State Historic Site in Madison. Both families moved to the area around the same time to make their fortunes in similar ways.

James Lanier‘s (1800-1881) father established a dry good store. James Lanier himself made his money in banking and railroads. Similarly, William Culbertson (1814-1892), slightly younger than James Lanier, made his money in dry goods and then in investments (gas, water, infrastructure, railroads).

Their houses are completely different. The Lanier Mansion is Greek Revival style. The inside is a bit restrained though the carpets and wallpaper are heavily designed as was the style of the times. The Culbertson Mansion is Second Empire style. The inside is over the top—gilded and ornate.

William Culbertson moved to New Albany in 1835 and acquired his initial wealth by 1860. His wife Eliza died in 1865, leaving behind five children. In 1867, he married Cornelia and had two children with her. Cornelia died in 1880. In 1884, he married Rebecca.

The house was built from 1867 to 1869 for his second wife, Cornelia. The 20,000 square foot house cost $125,000. (The lot itself cost $5,000.) After William died in 1892, Rebecca auctioned off the house and contents to a John McDonald for $7,100 (!). (I am not sure why Rebecca auctioned off the house and contents for so little money. William was worth $3.5 million when he died. But an economic panic lasted from 1893 to 1897. Perhaps the family was in dire financial straits due to the economic panic?)

When McDonald died after WWII, his daughter sold the mansion to the American Legion, who made numerous changes to the house. The mansion continued to change hands, and in the 1960s was in danger of demolition. In 1964, Historic New Albany purchased the mansion for $24,000 and turned it into a museum. In 1974, the mansion was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 1976, Historic New Albany gave the mansion to the state, and the mansion became part of the Indiana State Museum and Historic Sites.

Given its history and the numerous owners, not much of the original furnishings remain. The inside of the house is a bit worse for wear but slowly the Indiana State Museum is restoring it—now in its 36th year (!) of restoration. Restoration has been completed on the first and second floors but stops at the top of the stairs where McDonald walled off the third floor. (In some respects, walling it off helped preserve the third floor.)

The walls and ceilings sport elaborate designs. However, when the Indiana State Museum acquired the property, layers of paint covered the walls. After removing the paint during the restoration, experts discovered the original designs. To protect the original designs, the renovators recreated the designs on top of boards that they placed over the original designs to protect them. So the designs you see on the walls and ceilings are not originals but conservation creations of the original designs.

The docent quickly took me through the rooms. The informal parlor contains a piano and harp, much like the Lanier Mansion. The fireplace in the dining room is Italianate marble. (All the fireplaces downstairs are original. Only one fireplace upstairs is original.) The dining room includes original gas lamps. (And I spied a stereoscope, ever-present in houses of this era.)

The formal parlor is left unfurnished because it is rented out for events. The study behind it includes a solarium.

I was warned that the rooms upstairs changed functions over the years. (For example, the morning parlor was a bedroom in a previous incarnation.) The first restored bedroom that we saw is for daughter Blanche. The second bedroom at the front of the house is a suite of rooms for daughter Annie, called the “blue room” in documents about the house. The master bedroom, the “rose room”, includes a fireplace with a large wooden mantel and scenic tiles—identical to the mantle in the study downstairs.

(Side note: I discovered that Blanche was known as “Scandalous Blanche Culbertson”. She fell in love with a man from the circus who was a womanizer to boot. She stood to lose her inheritance if she married this man, Leigh Hunt French, “a scalawag of the first water”. Her father William Culbertson died in 1892 and in 1893 Blanche married Leigh. She moved to New York and successfully sued for her part of the inheritance. On a separate note, Blanche was a suffragette and the President of the Equal Franchise League of New Rochelle.)

The third floor, which McDonald had walled off, really did feel like a time capsule. The children’s playroom would have been on one side and the servants’ quarters on the other. Only one room has been staged as a bedroom of sorts. Behind it I was shown the servant stairs and a small lattice room. (The walls of the room, or closet, are made of lattice work, of the sort that you might use to train climbing plants.) What was that? The room where they locked the children when they misbehaved. Excuse me? Yup. This was the time out room for the children. I stood dumbfounded. Some practices just do not age well.

The house required many servants in order to function. None of servants were indentured servants (as opposed to the indentured servants at the Jeremiah Sullivan House and Lanier Mansion in Madison). All were paid weekly wages plus room and board. In fact, one servant, Mary Ann, served at the mansion her entire adult life and the Culbertsons paid for her funeral.

The tour guide actually stressed how benevolent Culbertson was. In 1873, he established a home for widows a few houses down from the mansion. His will stipulated that the financial support of the home would continue after his death. In 1882, he also built a home to house and educate orphans. (One historic marker pointed out that he insisted that inhabitants follow strict rules. Ah, charity with strings.)

Due to the hurried nature of the tour, I wasn’t able to pepper the tour guide with my normal quota of questions. Given the close proximity to the Confederate south, I had to ask: what side did his sons fight for? (One of Jeremiah Sullivan’s sons presumably fought for the south; the other fought for the Union.) Only William Arthur was old enough to fight. He paid for a replacement. Ah, one of those. To be part of the wealthy definitely has its benefits.

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.)

The History Center in Fort Wayne

I visited the Jean Baptiste de Richardville house, which is overseen by the History Center. It seemed only fitting that I visit the actual History Center, which resides in a former City Hall that was built in 1893.

As I wandered through the History Center, I was struck by the fact that the revered early settlers were what I would think of as scoundrels. Of course, history is usually written by the victors. (An exception would be the history of the Mongols who established the Yuan Dynasty in northern China.) I have a decidedly different feeling about these revered early settlers. They are portrayed as the bedrock of early (white) civilization in the US, but when I read about their lives, I see mostly exploitation of other people and the environment.

With no sense of irony, early settlers who made names for themselves (= amassed wealth) are invariably called land speculators. In my eyes, land speculators = someone who benefited from the robbery of Native American lands and the misery inflicted on the Native Americans through their removal of their traditional lands.

I read about Chief Turtle, the War Chief of the Miami tribe who led the Miami to victory over the Americans in 1780, 1790, and 1791. But then he signed the Treaty of Greenville.

Chief Turtle was followed by Chief Richardville, the Peace Chief of the Miami from 1816 to 1841. He signed six treaties with the US government, which by 1840 gave more than 950,000 acres to the US. His wealth, the History Center explained, came from farms, control of a portage, and land sales (= selling out his brethren for profit, though I suppose what else could you do in the face of sure defeat by the US government?).

The Center next discusss Allen Hamilton. In my blog post about Chief Richardville’s house, I mentioned that Chief Richardville had the equivalent of $23 million when he died but that his descendants were quickly destitute. The reason given on the tour of his house was that they made bad business deals. You want to know why they made bad business deals? Thank Allen Hamilton.

Hamilton, who lived from 1798 to 1864, was a land speculator (of course!). He founded two banks (hmmm…early banks were shady and in Indiana went under due to corruption). He was also the personal legal and financial advisor to Chief Richardville—and the executor of Richardville’s estate. According to the History Center, Hamilton depleted the wealth that Richardville had amassed, leaving Richardville’s heirs destitute. So it was not so much that the heirs made bad business deals as they made a bad choice about whom to trust with the inheritance.

And then there is Sam Hanna, another one of those white men presented as the movers and shakers, a respected icon in the community who is anything but respectable. Hanna lived from 1767 to 1866 and was a land speculator. He was also involved in milling, the Wabash Erie Canal (which almost bankrupt the state), banking (corrupt in its early days), and railroads (which ironically were behind the demise of the canal).

The History Center also contains a lot of displays about German immigrants and the heritage that they brought. Interestingly, I learned that the powers that be in Allen County intentionally targeted certain immigrants. Not just any immigrant would do. They needed skilled German workers who had a strong work ethic.

Down in the basement, you can visit the old jail. This area includes an interesting exhibit about the history of the police force in Fort Wayne. Although originally only volunteers filled the ranks of the police, in 1863 an official force was established. As a transportation hub, Fort Wayne saw its share of crime. In 1875, the Chicago Tribune called Fort Wayne “the most lawless town in Indiana”. (Given Chicago’s reputation as a corrupt city, this is kind of the pot calling the kettle black.) In 1913, women joined the police force.

The History Center was a welcome taste of the culture and background of Fort Wayne and Allen County. I had the place nearly to myself on the sole Saturday that it was open for the month. (Normally, it is only open Monday through Friday.) If you find yourself in downtown Fort Wayne, check out the Center, the exhibits, and the drunk tank in the jail. And then cross the street for a visit to The Hoppy Gnome.

Vincennes State Historic Sites: Old State Bank

Officially, the Old State Bank is managed by the Vincennes State Historic Sites, but stands several blocks removed from the campus of main buildings that the Vincennes State Historic Sites administer. Docents at the log cabin visitor center can provide tours of the bank.

Honestly, there is not much to see. The bank stands empty, an odd space filled with large columns in the front room where in the days of the bank, tellers interacted with the public. An echo precludes the use of its space as a meeting room or event venue.

Placards explaining the early banking system fill the space. I never really gave the early banking system much thought, though vague memories of rudimentary learning in grade school surfaced. Early banks weren’t quite the, ahem, reputable places they are now. They were worse. Dens of corruption, it seems.

Officially the Old State Bank helped transform the Indiana economy from a fur-trading one to an agricultural one. In reality, the early bank was not for the average Joe on the street.

In 1813 the Indiana Territory chartered not one but two banks to produce currency for the state. By 1823, the two banks both folded due to financial difficulties and Indiana was back to relying on a federal bank for its currency. In 1832, President Jackson vetoed an extension of the charter for this federal bank and it folded in 1833. No federal bank = no federal currency. No federal currency = states needed to produce their own currency.

Desperately in need of cash for its own development, on February 13, 1834 the Indiana General Assembly chartered a Second State Bank of Indiana. In November 1838, the bank moved into the Old State Bank building that I was touring. The bank issued paper money, which helped finance the state’s debt for development projects and spurred enterprise.

The bank’s charter was extended until 1857 when the Indiana General Assembly didn’t renew it. The bank took until 1858 to convert the state currency to the federal currency before closing its doors. Indiana was back to relying on federal banks for currency.

Weird to think that states issued their own currency, or that state banks existed to serve the wealthy and enrich them further. (OK, maybe that last point isn’t so weird.) Corruption and fraud stained the early Indiana state banking system. (And probably every other early state banking system. Let’s face it. No regulation and ruled over by the independently wealthy does not make healthy banks.)

The Old State Bank is interesting to visit, if only for the information gleaned from the placards and the wealth of information from the docents. And it is always neat to step inside the walls of historic buildings.