Masterpieces of Madison

A century and a half ago, three visionary men built homes and fortunes on the banks of the river that divided the North and South.


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Madison may not be the first destination that comes to mind during Indiana’s journey to statehood, but it should be.  There’s something special here, and this charming river city has the rich history to prove it.   Nestled on the “great bend” of the Ohio River’s north bank, the city of Madison swung open the gateway to the state in the mid-twentieth century with its river traffic and prosperous pork-packing plants and flourmills.

Lanier Mansion State Historic Site Manager Gerry Reilly says Madison’s greatest point of growth was during the 1840s and 1850s.  “We’re the point where the railroad met the river,” Reilly says.  “Madison connected the interior of Indiana to the Ohio River.”

The Lanier Mansion in 1870. /Photo courtesy of the Indiana State Museum

The river brought finance extraordinaire James Lanier, former mayor Charles Shrewsbury and renowned architect Francis Costigan with it.  They made Madison a mecca for commerce and a major railroad transportation hub to solidify its reputation as the city that rivaled Indianapolis.  Madison’s reputation soon fizzled out when the state capital relocated to Indianapolis and commerce soon bypassed the city.

Today, the Greek Revival homes of these men stand as reminders of its burgeoning past. “We stopped growing, and everything stayed the same,” Reilly says.  “So, now, we have all of these great buildings that other places tore down.”

The massive columns of the Lanier Mansion and Shrewsbury home loom over the Ohio River while Costigan’s own humble residence is tucked away downtown.  Madison’s architectural masterpieces take you back in time to a period when three leading men constructed grand homes as a testament to their success.

Did you know?

  • Madison was settled in 1809, but Indiana didn’t become a state until 1816.
  • Madison’s Georgetown Neighborhood was part of the Underground Railroad prior to and during the Civil War.
  • Downtown Madison is labeled as one of the largest connecting National Historic Landmarks in the US.
  • The Madison Historic Landmark District comprises 133 blocks.

James F. D. Lanier

In 1817, the Lanier family moved to a modest home in Madison on the banks of the Ohio River where 17-year-old James Lanier would emerge as an Indiana pioneer.  Lanier worked his way from an Indiana Legislature clerk to an influential financier and railroad mogul.  By 1833, he presided over the Second State Bank of Indiana at the profitable Madison branch but made his name as a promoter and major stockholder in the Madison and Indianapolis Railroad.  As the man behind Indiana’s first railroad, Lanier put the flourishing river city on the map.

“Mr. Lanier isn’t known much today, but he was a very important citizen to the state and later to the country,” Reilly says.  “He helped develop the nation’s railroad infrastructure.”

Gov. Oliver P. Morton called on Lanier at the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 for monetary donations to keep Indiana in the conflict.  Northern states issued a series of bonds to equip Union troops with weapons and uniforms, but Indiana sat on the verge of bankruptcy.  Reilly describes Lanier’s $400,000 loan as a patriotic contribution for which he was fully reimbursed, but he later lent an additional $640,000 with no guarantee of repayment.

“He took a chance, and that was the really remarkable thing,” he says.

Lanier decided he needed a house to match his success and commissioned the young architect Francis Costigan to build a manor overlooking the river.  In 1844, he, his first wife Elisabeth and their children moved into Indiana’s first mansion.

The Crown Jewel

Today, the south entrance of the Lanier Mansion watches over the Ohio River.  It's brightly painted exterior is thought to be the home's original color. /Photo courtesy of the Indiana State Museum

Today, the south entrance of the Lanier Mansion watches over the Ohio River. Its brightly painted exterior is thought to be the home's original color. /Photo courtesy of the Indiana State Museum

A lush garden walk of flowers, watermelon vines, fruit trees and boxwood bushes leads to the entrance of a gold, temple-like mansion.  Four 30-foot fluted columns greet river travelers and support the portico to Lanier’s Greek Revival home.

“When you see the Lanier mansion, it’s not a huge house, but people always come away being very impressed,” Reilly says.  “The way Costigan designed things gives the house a much grander feel.”

The mansion with two fronts — a street and river entrance — is flooded with natural light from 8-foot-tall windows that look into the north and south hallway and mirrored formal parlors.  Ornate wallpaper, plush patterned carpet, chandeliers and black marble fireplaces decorate these rooms for entertaining.  A piano once adorned the parlor for Elisabeth to play.

Yet, Reilly says that visitors are drawn to the nearly freestanding spiral staircase in the main hallway.  The steps coil to an octagonal cupola on the roof with a glass skylight that brings light to the floors below.  A portrait of a serious-looking Lanier with a high-collared shirt and black bowtie hangs near the foot of the stairs.

Costigan filled the home with his signature details.  The entire layout is constructed to symmetrical perfection, and the parlors, in particular, are nearly identical, complete with pocket doors to divide the rooms.  Curved surfaces, including walls and doors, appear throughout, and doorways are oversized for a larger-than-life effect.

See it

Located on 511 W. First St., the Lanier Mansion is open daily with a small entry fee.  Try planning your visit on the Lanier Days (June 16-17) for a mansion tour and Civil War reenactments or make the trip during Night Spirits (Oct. 19) for some Halloween fun.

Charles L. Shrewsbury

Inside the Shrewsbury-Windle's formal parlor. The original black marble fireplace is one of two in the space. /Photo by Dana Andreoli

John Staicer uncovers a document box overflowing with delicate photo albums of unnamed family members and yellowing papers.  Staicer, Historic Madison, Inc. President and Executive Director, reveals the Shrewsbury house’s original signed deed, his son’s military demerits and his daughter’s handwritten letters from college give readers some insight into the life of this powerful Madison family.

“The Shrewsbury’s kept everything,” he says.  “We’re just now beginning to research the family.”

The life of Charles Shrewsbury remains relatively unknown, but we do know that Captain Shrewsbury was the former mayor of Madison from 1870 to 1872.  He acquired his wealth as captain of a salt-barge riverboat and owned a pork-packing plant and the largest flour mill in the state.

The Civil War, and Madison’s critical position on the river near the border state of Kentucky, created tension between Madison families. Captain Shrewsbury rallied against secession while his oldest son, John Woodburn Shrewsbury, enlisted on the side of the Confederates in 1862.

An Aug. 27, 1866, Madison newspaper confirms that Shrewsbury survived the war but died at his home. Staicer says that there is any amount of speculation as to why the Shrewsburys were divided on the conflict, but these mysteries make the relationships of Madison families and neighbors truly fascinating.

Just two years after the completion of the Lanier Mansion, Shrewsbury hired Costigan to construct a rival home on the river where his family would live for 75 years.

The Rival

In 1846, the family celebrated the completion of their new home with three days of dancing in their second-floor ballroom. Although its façade doesn’t induce the same Lanier awe factor, the Shrewsbury home shines from the inside out with one of the best-preserved nineteenth-century interiors.

The Shrewsbury-Windle house's free-standing, 53-step spiral staircase greets guests entering the main hall. The self-supported steps are made entirely of pine and cherry. /Photo by Dana Andreoli

The house boasts 12 rooms, 16-foot ceilings, 12-foot doors and a symmetrical layout almost identical to the Lanier Mansion.  The real showstopper is a remarkable 53-step freestanding, spiral staircase that ascends from the middle of the main hallway.  It’s built of pine and cherry and supported entirely by glue.

“It’s really a piece of usable sculpture,” Staicer says.

Staicer says the Greek Revival style was left relatively untouched in the parlor.  Original wall paint, gas chandeliers, two black marble fireplaces and enormous gold-trimmed mirrors are all original designs of the home dating back to Shrewsbury’s time.

In 1948, John and Ann Windle purchased the Shrewsbury home as their private residence and antique gallery with some pieces of furniture that were, perhaps, grander than those found in the White House.  The Windles established Historic Madison in 1960 to preserve and restore buildings in the historic district.  The group is currently restoring the home to its original splendor.

See it

Located on 301 W. First St., the Shrewsbury-Windle House is open by appointment only through Historic Madison, Inc., but make sure to plan your Shrewsbury and Lanier visits on the same day to compare these rival homes.

Francis Costigan

Francis Costigan began his career as a carpenter in Washington D.C. before moving to Madison in 1837.  He left his mark on the city with the only remaining examples of his architectural work.  However, Costigan left Southern Indiana in 1851 to pursue work in Indianapolis, where he built the Indiana Hospital for the Insane, the Institute for the Education of the Blind and the Odd Fellows Building, all of which have been torn down in the passage of time.

Costigan is known for his use of Greek Revival, which became a universal style in the United States from about 1825 to 1850. In the Lanier and Shrewsbury mansions he combined the Greek elements of symmetrical design, columned entryways and porticos with intricate details to resemble modern temples.

“It’s called the first national style because it was so popular,” Reilly says.  “The Greeks were the founders of democracy and fighting for their independence from Turkey at this time, so everything Greek became very fashionable.”

In 1850, he completed his private home for his wife and four children in downtown Madison but only lived at the residence for one year.  The reason for his brief stay in the house is unknown.

Francis Costigan's downtown Madison home boasts massive windows and a unique, sliding front door. The home is small, but the amplified details give the illusion of a larger space. /Photo by Dana Andreoli

The Masterpiece

Costigan’s home is considered a “masterpiece of design” for its extraordinary use of proportion and inclusion of intricate details, like his familiar curved doors and walls.  Staicer suggests standing across the street before entering and watching someone walk up to the front door.  The windows and doors appear to be of normal size but are a massive 10 feet tall.

“The Costigan House is an amazing use of design and space,” he says.  “The scale and proportion make it special for a lot only 22 feet wide.”

The front door doesn’t just open, it slides across the frame in a very “design-forward” way.  The main floor has only three rooms, but the elegant parlor echoes the design themes of his Madison clients with original chandeliers, vibrant wallpaper and hand-stitched carpet.  Yet, the dining room lacks these embellishments to create a more modest and intimate setting for the family.

A stepladder staircase with the original twentieth-century swinging gate to prevent family members from tumbling down the other side leads to the second floor.  The stairwell contains hand-printed period wallpaper that would have been found used in Costigan’s time.  It’s the first known reproduction of 1850s wallpaper and was reproduced from a sample of historic wallpapers in the collection of Historic New England, Inc., in Boston.

“Costigan included so many unique things you don’t see in a very modest space,” Staicer says.  “It’s like he was saying, ‘Now what can I do?’”

See it

Located on 408 W. Third St., the Francis Costigan House is open from mid-April through October on Saturday, Sunday and Monday from 1 to 4:30 p.m. through Historic Madison, Inc.  Consider making Costigan’s home the last stop on your tour to get a sense of his personal touches.

Recognize a Costigan

  • Think Greek.  Look for fluted Corinthian columns, porticoes and temple-like structures.
  • Search for symmetry.  Notice parallel windows and doors on proportional rooms.
  • Observe the curves.  Costigan added detailed curvature everywhere, walls, doors and spiral staircases.
  • Recognize size.  He also designed oversized doors and windows and used tall ceilings to give the illusion of a larger space.

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