Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Big Old Houses: Victoria Lives ... in Indiana

Big Old Houses: Victoria Lives ... in Indiana
by John Foreman


In 1867, dry goods king William Culbertson (1814-1892) hired a pair of architect/builder brothers named William and James Bane to construct this fashionable Second Empire manse on the corner of East Main and East 10th in New Albany, Indiana. Who would guess New Albany was once Indiana's largest and richest city? Alas, booming Louisville, Kentucky, facing it across the Ohio River, eventually sucked the life force right out of it, banishing New Albany into anonymity first, and then into a sort of somnolent decay.

That sly old codger Culbertson had 3 wives, 10 children, and a new house budget of $120,000. His first wife, Eliza Vance, bore him 8 children before succumbing to typhoid in 1865. Two years later, coincident with ground breaking on the new house, Cornelia Eggleston became Mrs. C. #2. She gave him another 2 children before dying of cholera in 1880. Four years later, the appropriately named Rebecca Young became Mrs. C. #3.
Cornelia Culbertson (pictured above), a.k.a. wife #2, was not the longest running Mrs. C. — the marriage lasted only 13 years — but the house on East Main, started the year she was married, seems to me more hers than anyone's.

The splendid looking Culbertson house, or Mansion as they call it, has not only survived the inevitable brushes with destruction, but absolutely flourished. Culbertson's will stipulated that any one of his children could buy it for $30,000, but not one of them jumped. Instead, his widow sold it in 1899 to a New Albany local named John McDonald for the knock down price of $7100.
McDonald wanted to build a hospital on the site, but the scheme tanked for lack of financing. He walled off the third floor instead, moved into 7 of the remaining 20 rooms and his family stayed there until 1946.
Midwestern rivers are lined with view-blocking levees, a fact we easterners tend to overlook. Does that inviting gallery on the south side of the Culbertson house provide sweeping views of the mighty Ohio? That would be a no. In 1946, the McDonald family sold the house to the local branch of the American Legion, which thrived here for many years. Declining membership and rising costs in the early Sixties led the Legion to request a zoning change that would have permitted demolition of the house and construction of a gas station. Horrified neighbors scrambled to form a nonprofit called Historic New Albany, bought the house with donations, and opened it as a museum in 1964.
Here's another vintage view of the house, behind an iron fence on 10th Street.
Here's my nephew Kyle, standing in front of that same 10th Street fence. Regular readers of my column may think, "Hmm, another nephew." In fact, 2 years ago I discovered, to my considerable surprise, that I had a heretofore unknown brother named Fred, product of a youthful indiscretion on the part of my late father — or, more correctly, our late father. Fred has children of his own, who have children of their own, and I now find myself the unexpected uncle of a considerable group of people.
Kyle and his father Kurt, members of today's expeditionary team, live in the Louisville area with Kyle's brother and Kurt's wife. This is why I'm here, and how I heard about Culbertson.
In 1976, Historic New Albany donated Culbertson to the State of Indiana, which has operated it ever since as a state historic site. Our hostess, site manager Jessica Stavros, is justifiably proud of ongoing restoration work that can only be described as spectacular. No, Jessica is not 6 years old; the door is 12 feet high. The decorated anteroom between inner and outer doors gives a taste of what's to come.
People are forever overestimating ceiling heights. I know, I know, it looks like it's 25 feet high. Actually this is a 15-foot ceiling. P.S. That's 23-carat gold leaf on the cornice molding.
On the east side of the main hall is the Formal Parlor, an apotheosis if ever there was of post-Civil War provincial elegance.
By the time the American Legion pulled up stakes, most of the ceilings had been painted white. The remarkable polychrome geometries we see today were originally painted by a German immigrant named Ernst Linne. They have been meticulously restored — recreated, really— by Cincinnati restoration artist Kristna Lemmon.
Through a door at the south end of the Formal Parlor, notwithstanding the musical ceiling motif, is the library.
What they call the Small Parlor, together with the dining room, flank the main hall on the west. Bear in mind when Historic New Albany took possession, the original furniture was long gone and the walls and ceilings were all painted dingy white. What HNA and the State of Indiana have recreated here is simply amazing.
Adjoining the small parlor is the dining room.
A service wing (with a not very sophisticated plan) adjoins the dining room. Back stairs lead to servants' rooms aloft, kitchen and laundry facilities below, and a former breakfast room on the other side of the hall. The old breakfast room is now an exhibit space illustrating in a most original and comprehensible manner precisely how this abused old mansion recovered its glamor.
The kitchen is downstairs; there is no dumbwaiter.
Mr. Culbertson is not really on ice in the basement, but a scarily realistic facsimile of him is. The non-profit Friends of the Culbertson Mansion, established in the early 1980s, sponsors murder mysteries, applies for preservation grants, holds herb sales, Victorian teas, Xmas galas and Mansion sleepovers. Most importantly, for the last 30 years they have, with the help of Mr. Culbertson, produced an annual sold-out October "Haunt" during which, as Jessica puts it with perfect sincerity, "people pay money to be scared out of their wits and chased by a chainsaw." The Haunt alone has funded most of the Mansion's restoration.
Let's retrace our steps to the foot of the main stair.
I'd describe this staircase as "impossibly voluptuous."
A dog-leg corridor just short of the 2nd floor landing leads to the gallery that doesn't have a river view. The American Legion tore the original gallery off. What's here now is a reproduction.
The second floor plan, despite its period charm, is not brilliant. The owner's suite, located on the west side of the hall, contains a bedroom (currently furnished as a sitting room), a tiny dressing room (in lieu of closets, of which there are none), and a boudoir (now furnished as a bedroom).
A door from the owners' boudoir or sitting room (which at present looks like a bedroom) leads to the back stairhall. The sole original bathroom, removed years ago by the Legion, was located half a flight down. Another family bedroom, used now for museum storage, is curiously located on this same back hall.
Two more bedrooms and an upstairs sitting room re located on the other side of the second floor hall. As for closets or bathrooms, sorry, not a one.
The third floor is equally interesting for wholly different reasons, the principal being that it's not yet restored.
Could that be an Arts and Crafts color on the walls? Nope, it's generations-old residue from smoky coal fired heat.
On the east side of the hall is a ballroom, presently used for local history exhibits. Third floor ballrooms appear from time to time in showy houses remote from social centers back east.
Two more bedrooms, looking kind of dreary compared to what's downstairs, are on the opposite side of the hall. The southerly of the two connects to the back stair. The latticed enclosure overlooking the stair well is an original feature.
What is it? A punishment closet (true!) for bad boys, not like Kyle.
Is there anything else to see? Yes, a final bedroom now filled with pipes, ducts and HVAC equipment.
As I note at this point each week, I think we've seen it.
How cool is this house? If you're ever in Louisville, it's 15 minutes from downtown. The link is www.indianamuseum.org.
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