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.)

James Whitcomb Riley Boyhood Home & Museum

Another Riley home? A couple years ago, I toured the house where he lived as an adult at Lockerbie Square in Indianapolis. I was surprised to learn that his childhood home existed.

In fact, the James Whitcomb Riley Boyhood Home & Museum is celebrating its 80th year as a museum! The city of Greenfield bought the house in 1935 with the idea of making it a museum.

But I am getting ahead of myself.

Riley’s childhood home is on the National Register of Historic Places. Next door is the museum. Check in at the museum. A docent will accompany you to the house and walk you through an hour or so tour of it. The tour winds through the garden and ends with a seven-minute film at the museum.

Phyllis, my tour guide, was an absolute pleasure. She clearly enjoys giving tours and sharing stories about Riley. She paced the tour to the attendees, entertaining questions and engaging in conversation. Through the tour, she sprinkled in quotes from Riley’s poems.

In 1844, James’ parents married and lived in a log cabin that his father built on 3 to 5 acres of land—behind the current house. James was born in that cabin. After three children arrived, his father Reuben set out to build a house, which took three years to complete (!). (He also built a lot of the furniture that populates the house, some of which comes from their log cabin days.)

Reuben was a lawyer, a state legislator, and a soldier in the Civil War. Unfortunately, after the Civil War, the Rileys owed back taxes. They slowly sold off properties and then the house in 1866. James’s mother was devastated, and James vowed that when he got rich, he would buy back the house. (He did, but it wasn’t until after her death in 1870.)

The various rooms of the house are filled with furniture and knick-knacks, including items that Riley mentions in his poems, such as the ceramic dog and sample clock on the mantel or the what-not shelf in the front room.

The front formal parlor contains a wonderful Steinway piano that the museum keeps maintained. (We were encouraged to play it.) The piano is not original to the house but a gift from a Dr. Fletcher. (Hmmm. A Fletcher family was important in 19th century Indianapolis.) The floor had to be reinforced to support the 800 lbs of the piano. (Note: The front formal parlor is not the only room that has been reinforced.)

The other front room is a law office. (James’s father was a lawyer.) The pièce de résistance in this room is the partner desk that Reuben made—a large desk that allows one person to work on each side, divided down the middle by a large partition of cubbyholes. The desk had wandered away from the house between the Rileys losing the house in 1866 and the city buying it in 1935. In recent years, a local company, Irving Materials, stumbled across the desk at an auction, bought it, and donated it to the museum. (Kind of a wild story with a happy ending.)

As we prepared to ascend the front staircase—I marveled at the steep descent of the banister and vocalized my speculation that probably it was too steep for children to slide down—Phyllis paused to tell us about Mary Alice “Allie” Smith.

Mary Alice was an orphan who ended up at the Riley home, working for her board and keep. She would often tell the children stories of goblins—her stories ended up in Riley’s poems and she herself was the inspiration for Little Orphant Annie among other works. (Side note: The work was originally called Little Orphant Allie but the printer could not read Riley’s handwriting.)

The goblins, according to Mary Alice, lived under the stairs. (We got to see the room where the goblins lived—a dark and dank space under the stairs fit for goblins—at the end of the tour.) Apparently, she also had names for each of the stair steps. (The names are lost to time.)

The main bedroom upstairs houses a four-poster butternut bed so heavy that the law office below had to be reinforced. Our docent pointed out various objects in the room: washing and drinking pitchers and containers, a foot warmer, a boat jack, a steeple clock.

The one thing I hadn’t seen before—the sewing bird, a little metal bird fastened to a table. On top of the bird is a place to hold a sewing thimble. The bird’s beak holds a piece of cloth as you sew it—kind of like using pins to pin a hem in place before you sew it.

A rocking chair, a sewing chest (both made by Reuben), and a Howe Company sewing machine occupy the space between this bedroom and the next. The docent explained that early sewing machines—because they were machinery—were used by men, not women. (Hmmm…believable but true?)

The second bedroom was for the girls. The rope bed, with an 1853 coverlet on top, stores a trundle bed underneath. And we were given a demonstration and explanation about tightening the ropes. The room contains some curious objects: a curling iron (I thought of a scene in the movie The Little Women when some of the girls were getting ready for a party), a glove stretcher (the docent asked us to guess what it was…none of us were very imaginative), bottles of squill (a cough medicine made with turpentine!) and camphor. Phyllis pointed to a footstool—a cylindrical object with two wooden pegs on either side—and referred to it as a blind pig footstool. (I haven’t found any information about such a footstool.)

Through the second bedroom towards the back of the house is dormer room with slanted ceiling—the boys’ bedroom. The only access is through the girls’ room or through an alcove to back stairs that originally went outside. (The stairs now end in the kitchen.)

A little door in the room opens to a rafter room (which reminded me of the room where they hid runaway slaves at the Levi Coffin house). This room, keeping with the theme of the day, housed some goblins. We took turns looking through the rafter room door at two shiny goblin eyes peering at us.

A painting of lard hogs by John Keefer, who taught Riley to painting (his initial profession), hangs on the wall. The hogs do not look too happy. They are probably aware of their impending fate.

The alcove with the back stairs is where Mary Alice slept. A thin pallet lay on the floor, and a window overlooks the back yard—probably the best view in the house, our docent mused. The steps of the back stairs are different heights, an intentional design of Reuben’s as a warning from intruders who would stumble and wake the house.

The kitchen is not original, though I do not know when it was added. It is filled with lots of artifacts, including the ever-present pie safe. Our docent demoed the polishing box, which was used to sharpen knives, and picked the handle-less cup and saucer out of the dishes and asked use how they could use a handle-less cup. (And this is where knowledge of history comes in handy. I thought of the cup and saucer metaphor for the House and Senate. Like the saucer, where you pour out hot liquids to cool before consuming them, the Senate is where ideas from the House can cool before acting on them by turning them into laws.)

A small narrow room between the kitchen and the foyer holds several photos, a spinning wheel, and the entryway to the room beneath the stairs where the goblins live. Next to it is the dining room, which another little closet similar to the rafter room, where—you guessed it—goblins live.

Another John Keefer painting hangs in the dining room. An Enemy in Camp — Where is He? Could we determine what was special about the painting? Hmmm…the painting was of a turkey vulture and chickens. Why was there a large off-white shape in the center of the painting? My eyes couldn’t make it out. It turns out that this center off-white shape was key; it was the shape of a silver fox, an image of the South, among the birds. The fox in the hen house, so to speak.

In between the dining room and the front formal parlor is an informal parlor full of interesting tidbits. I noticed a stereoscope on the table, similar to the one I recently saw in the Swiss Heritage Village. A large dulcimer lay on another table. And in the corner is another Reuben-made desk from their log cabin days.

Phyllis then led us outside through the flower and herb garden and pointed out the pixie garden. A surprising number of bumblebees enjoyed the gardens, and I saw a butterfly house in the midst of flowers. I was stopped by a curious site on the climbing passionflower plant—big round pods. I had never seen maypops on passionflower plants before, which made me wonder: was I simply unobservant or were the passionflower plants that I previously saw deficient in some way?

The tour ended in the museum with an amusing seven-minute film of Riley played by an actor. The film, as Phyllis described it, really tied together all the bits of the tour. The museum itself is an interesting collection of tidbits, including tins and packages of the Hoosier Poet brand (like the items I saw in the kitchen at the Gene Stratton-Porter house).

And there was the story of Riley’s Edgar Allen Poe hoax. Riley was born on the day that Poe died—October 7, 1849. But that was not the only connection between the two poets. Before Riley became known as a poet, he struggled to get his poems published in eastern periodicals. To prove his point—that snobbish eastern periodicals only publish poems by already famous poets—Riley “discovered” a long-lost Poe poem. An Indiana (not eastern periodical) published it, and later when the forgery was discovered, Riley was fired from his job at a different newspaper.

I can almost hear Mary Alice’s admonishments to the children against doing something bad, words that are immortalized in Riley’s poem Little Orphant Annie:

An’ the Gobble-uns ‘at gits you
Ef you
Don’t
Watch
Out!

No goblins at the James Whitcomb Riley Boyhood Home & Museum, only lots of stories and artifacts from his life. The tour of the house and the museum are definitely worth a stop.