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.

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