Behind the scenes at Lanier Mansion

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. 

Tour guide Bill Lackner is waiting to take you on a behind-the-scenes adventure at Lanier Mansion!

Tour guide Bill Lackner is waiting to take you on a behind-the-scenes adventure at Lanier Mansion!

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.

A brighter corner of the Lanier basement.

A brighter corner of the Lanier basement.

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.

Bricks and Mortar

Written by Link Ludington, Architectural Historian at Indiana State Museum

Some historic buildings are not simply preserved in their current condition, but instead are actually restored to an earlier historical appearance. This is what is happening at the Lanier Mansion in Madison, which is being restored to its appearance in 1850, when J.F.D. Lanier and his family were still in residence. The restoration involves reversal of alterations to the home which require locating matching bricks to fill in missing masonry. On most homes and buildings this would be a simple task. But a 19th century Greek Revival mansion like Lanier presents a special challenge.

Recently, I traveled to Madison to determine the target dimensions for the replacement brick, which will have to be custom-made because of their unusual characteristics. During the mid-19th century (when the Lanier Mansion was built, and when Madison was one of Indiana’s largest cities), most bricks were made by hand by forming wet clay in wooden molds before being dried and fired. Some were pressed in cast iron molds in brick-making machines. Most modern brick is mass-produced by a machine that produces a “ribbon” that is then cut into individual bricks by wire grids.

The bricks that were used in concealed areas of Lanier Mansion were the common hand-molded brick like that found in buildings all over Madison (and elsewhere throughout Indiana) from that period. The facing bricks used in all areas that were visible in the exterior, however, were an example of the special machine-made pressed brick with smooth texture and fairly sharp edges, but the brick making “machines” of that time were still operated by hand. Each of the pictures shows the difference — one is the smooth, machine-made, pressed brick, while the other is the hand-molded brick. It’s really hard to tell the difference. Machine-made pressed bricks can also be found in several other buildings in Madison from the same period, including the Shrewsbury House, another masterpiece designed and built by Francis Costigan, the same architect who designed and built the Lanier Mansion.

Machine-made pressed brick.

Common hand-molded brick.











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