by Anne Fairchild, Eastern Region Program Manager
To me, the most interesting thing about an old house isn’t the fancy parlors, or how the dining room is decorated, but rather the cool little details that are easily missed. You know, places such as a space in the basement that once held ice, how a closet is designed or a specialty room modern buildings would never have.
The Lanier Mansion, considered the “Crown Jewel” of Madison’s Historic District, is full of unique features throughout the 13,500 sq. feet home —10,000 of which the family lived in — that are easliy overlooked with a general visit to the site. For those who share that passion of exploring nooks and crannies, Lanier Mansion State Historic Site now offers a Behind-the-Scenes Tour on the second Saturday of each month at 4 p.m. The cost is $10 per person and we highly suggest making reservations by calling 812.273.0556.
Bill Lackner, our main tour guide at Lanier Mansion — and winner of the 2012 Madison/Jefferson County Hospitality Award — offers some insights about this tour.
Anne: What is your favorite Behind-the-Scenes part of the mansion?
Bill: Seeing the structural components of the house. A great example of this is found in the floor joists. The dimensions of the wood are many times larger and closer together than modern specifications demand. The remnants of bell signaling system. The modern HVAC and electrical systems are hidden from view and do not take away from the authentic appearance of the rooms. Also, be sure to take a closer look at the thick brick walls separating the rooms. Their thickness was determined more by financial ability than structural needs.
Anne: Why have the Behind-the-Scenes Tours been so popular?
Bill: People often wonder, “what is behind that door?” Now you can finally find out! People also like to have the inside story and be let in on some secrets.
Anne: How long has Lanier Mansion been offering these tours?
Bill: They began last year.
Anne: What is the #1 thing you think people ought to know about the mansion?
Bill: I actually have two things! First, it’s a showpiece. The building was meant to be dazzling in its day, and it still is today. It showed the wealth of the owner and demonstrated the ability of the architect and builder, Francis Costigan from Baltimore. This was Costigan’s first big job. After Lanier Mansion, Costigan went on to bigger jobs, and eventually moved to Indianapolis.
Second, its quality. In 1844, Madison was considered the Far West, and people often had to make do with available materials and workers. Lanier’s building materials, strength, beauty and craftsmanship is the same scale of quality you might find in more established Eastern cities such as Baltimore. For its time, it may have been the most significant home west of the Allegheny Mountains.
Anne: What should people know if they are interested in going on this tour?
Bill: It is more physically demanding than the regular tour. There are more stairs, steeper stairs and fewer handrails. The tour covers all levels of the house, including the basement with its uneven dirt floor. It also takes about twice as long as a regular tour. In the winter, it is dark by the time the tour is complete. So if you have a flash light, bring it with you.