A sunny update for a historic sunroom

Written by Davie Kean, master gardener at the T.C. Steele State Historic Site

The name of the historic home at T.C. Steele State Historic Site is more poetic than accurate today, but when the house was built in 1907, breezes caused the screens enclosing the sleeping porch to sing — earning it the name The House of the Singing Winds.

Warmed by winter sunshine and fresh paint, this pleasant room is just waiting for furnishings to bring it alive.

As houses (and lifestyles) evolve, the use of space often changes, and so it did with T.C. and Selma’s Arts & Crafts style home. When the couple began staying on the windy hill year-round, the south-facing porch was converted to a sunny room for breakfast, napping and numerous flats of seedlings that would eventually find a home in Selma’s Gardens.

I imagined it was a hard choice to make in those pre-air conditioned days — sacrificing such a comfortable place to sleep in summer for a warm and welcoming room in winter. As it turns out, the Steeles had both.

Close inspection (and some head scratching) by site and regional Restoration Specialists concluded that someone had devised a clever system of seasonally rotating the window screens and storms — and storing them very close to home.

The wall cavity beneath each of the windows was designed to house the lowered window sash in summer. Both the top and bottom sash of the double hung units fit into the space, leaving the entire window area open. What makes this clever?

Usually with double hung windows, the lower sash is raised into position in front of the upper sash, so only half of the window area is open to accept any breezes wafting by. With the Steeles’ set up, when the screens were installed in summer, the entire opening provided ventilation — in effect turning it back into a porch for the season.

This discovery was made as plans were made to restore the space. It’s amazing how much research is necessary before the public gets to see the final product. Details, such as what species of wood were used for the architectural elements, determining color through chemical paint analysis and choosing appropriate furnishings all had to be researched.

Since the House of the Singing Winds was used for many years as a Caretaker’s Residence, a lot of restoration work involves undoing previous renovations. Historic site staff must be detectives as well as interpreters. Steele’s paintings, Selma’s letters and historic photos taken by Frank Hohenberger were consulted.

These recent photos illustrate some of the clues that helped inform an accurate representation of the house as it was when T.C. Steele was alive:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The room isn’t quite ready for visitors yet, but you can still get a quick peek when touring the House of the Singing Winds. Stop by, whether the sun’s shining or not.

The birds of Belmont and Bracken Hill

 Written by Davie Kean, master gardener at the T.C. Steele State Historic Site

All winter long, pileated woodpeckers and their smaller cousins, the red-headed, red-bellied, hairy and downy woodpeckers hammered away, echoing the carpenters working on the Sunroom Restoration at the House of the Singing Winds. Lately, eastern bluebirds have added to the human and avian percussion section with their warbling melodies.

Birdsong is such a welcome and spirit-lifting sound, bringing relief from winter’s cold and snow. “Real birders” can identify individual voices of these spring arrivals, but nature’s music — like art — can be enjoyed without specialized knowledge.

Both birds and art-lovers flock to T.C. Steele State Historic Site, but for different reasons. As a flower and shrub covered clearing amidst deep hardwood forests, the site’s ridgetop setting provides the edge habitat needed by birds, and scenic views enjoyed by humans. Where there are hills, there must be valleys, and Salt Creek and Hunnicutt Valleys, depicted in many of Steele’s paintings, are a fine prelude to what awaits above.

Last week’s heavy rains caused Salt Creek to overflow onto the fallow fields bordering T.C. Steele Road. I was concerned, since a flooded road could mean a long detour, but all was fine — even more than fine as I spotted several migrating sandhill cranes feeding in the cornfield stubble transformed into a temporary wetland.

As I stopped to watch, I wondered about their diet. Had the floodwaters washed up fish or frogs into the fields? That’s what’s on the menu for great blue herons, which are similar in size to cranes and prefer the same marshy areas. Time for some research.

It turns out that the sandhills feed on corn, left from last year’s harvest, with perhaps an insect or two as an appetizer. But they may have been attracted by the water, since they were gone in two days, along with the puddles. This year, the rains coincided with their migration, and it was the first time I’d seen them there.

I also learned that the herons’ arrival comes a week or two after the cranes pass through — but they stick around. In summer, these large herons can often be seen flying over or wading in Salt Creek’s shallows. I’ll be glad to welcome them back.

Passing by the same field earlier in the week, a large shape in a tree caught my eye. A resident bald eagle was eyeing the field for a possible meal. What a treat to see! Even though Selma Steele found the Belmont grocery lacking when she moved here in 1907, the area wildlife isn’t complaining.

Soon daffodils will add color to the drab winter landscape, but for now, birds are on the move. So bring your binoculars to Brown County for some birding on what was in the Steele’s time known as Bracken Hill.

The Dewar Cabin gets a facelift

Written by Davie Kean, master gardener at the T.C. Steele State Historic Site


Nestled in the woods just below the House of the Singing Winds is the Dewar Log Cabin. Because of its shaded location, the shingle roof didn’t weather as well as those on our other historic structures. It had become moss-covered enough to be mistaken for the original from the 1870s.

The most recent re-roofing is now complete and the fresh cedar shakes appear as a bright spot amid the bare trees. As I was helping the Sites Restoration Crew on the project, I wondered how may roofs the cabin had ‘gone through’ in 140 years. Shake shingled roofs can last from 20 to 60 years, so this may be its fifth or sixth roof.


We had the advantage of some sturdy scaffolding to make the job easier, and we certainly didn’t have to split our own shingles. I tried to remember this when my joints ached from working on the steep incline.

Although authentic looking on the outside, a lot of new technology lies under the new wooden skin — ice and water shield, black paper and a product that allows air to circulate between shingles and roof decking. Maybe this will help counteract the effects of moisture and shade.


As any homeowner knows, maintenance is never-ending, and the porch floor next in line. The oak boards to replace it have arrived, but, unfortunately, so has winter. Thinking about how the original builders had to contend with a lot more than cold weather will see me through the project.

What’s Doin’ at the Dewar Cabin?

Written by Davie Kean, master gardener at the T.C. Steele State Historic Site

T.C. Steele State Historic Site is a place of many contrasts. Here, visitors can compare an earlier way of life to their own, as they tour the historic buildings and learn of the hardships the Steeles faced upon arriving in Brown County in 1907.

The site’s Dewar Log Cabin presents another contrast. It is so different from the Steeles’ House of the Singing Winds, that it’s hard to believe that both were lived in during the same early time period. The cabin’s present location — about two miles from its original spot — is within sight of the artist’s sprawling Arts & Crafts style home, but in appearance, they are miles apart.

Selma Steele purchased and moved the little cabin in 1934, wanting to preserve it as an example of local architecture. She used it as a Trailside Museum, housing objects from nature found along the same hills and valleys painted by her husband, T.C. Steele.

That’s a bit of background. Today, artists and visitors find both buildings equally appealing. Proof of the cabin’s popularity was exhibited (literally) this fall at the Great Outdoor Art Contest on Sept. 11, 2010. The log building was featured in these winning entries:

First Place Watercolor: William Borden of Hanover, Indiana

First Place Teen 13-18: Luke Sanders, Fishers, Indiana

First Place child 12 & under: James Szalkie, Indianapolis, Indiana (also, the grandson of 1st place Watercolor winner!)

Want to know more about the cabin’s history and happenings? Ask a docent for details. Visit the site and make your own comparisons. Imagine yourself as the parents of 18 children living in the Dewar Cabin — or as a content couple entertaining and hosting area artists in the House on Bracken Hill.

Art on the go … A brief sketch of school groups

by LeAnn Luce, West Region Program Manager, Indiana State Museum and Historic Sites

They say pictures are worth a thousand words. If that is so, we have that to the nth degree here at T.C. Steele. Both in the wondrous works of art on display in the Studio and the House of the Singing Winds, and as illustrated in this collection of photos recently portraying the visiting school groups to our site. Boy, have we had school groups! More than 500 children have visited in October!

Let me draw you a picture of a typical field trip. They ascend on us in the friendly big, yellow buses. Teachers come out first and assemble the children into groups of three to four. Backpacks in tow, they excitedly approach their stations — the House, the Studio, the Classroom — for an intermittent art project, or perhaps a hike on one of our Trails of Inspiration filled with the flora and fauna captured in so many of Steele’s paintings. Recently, we captured some pictures of Monroe County School Corporation students who were able to attend due to the generosity of a grant from the Monroe County Community Foundation.

Picture this, children touring, creating, hiking, learning, laughing, sharing, experiencing, questioning, living and loving the art that is the T.C. Steele State Historic Site! Come and visit us and see for yourself. We are having a ton of fun!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

This place is for the birds!

By LeAnn Luce, West Region Program Manager, Indiana State Museum and State Historic Sites 

Recently I heard a cheerful sound. A repetitive “fee-bee, fee-bee” call came from outside my office window located in the “House of the Singing Winds,” the historic home of T.C. Steele. I immediately registered it as one of the many bird sounds I hear every day … but today this call spoke to me.

Most days I have been inclined to completely ignore the bird, bat, butterfly and bullfrog sounds that are in constant symphony here. I work on the programming details of several Indiana State Historic sites; pursue grant writing and spend most of my time concentration at the computer. My mother has visited the site and says, “I don’t how you get anything done … I would spend all of my time looking out of the window.” She is right; I had to condition myself to ignore the seasonal and day-to-day splendor of the flora and fauna that is found here.

But on this particular day, that sound made work truly impossible. I was actually becoming annoyed at the frequent persistence and repetition of the call. I decided to step outside and investigate.

What caught my eye first was the flitting, manic flight of a little gray-brown bird. The bird landed on a nearby tree branch, issued several sharp chip, chip calls and began frantically pumping its tail in what I interpreted as a territorial defense. I looked around the West Porch to see what might be making the little bird so agitated. I looked up and saw the oddest sight. Right under the eave was a nest anchored with marvelously sculpted mud and covered with beautiful green moss. In it were three little heads poking up, but remaining completely still. I had never seen a bird or a nest quite like this. Now I understood what all the commotion was about.

I had just seen my first Eastern Phoebe and her unique architecturally developed nest. This little architect had built a handsome piece of art and she had chosen to do so right here under the eaves of the art-filled, enchanting home of T.C. and Selma Steele. What a smart little bird!

I researched information about the Eastern Phoebe. This bird species is quite loyal to their nests and will reuse them year after year. With a little spring cleaning an old nest can look like new. In contrast, most songbirds build completely new nests every year.

The irony of this information was not lost on me. It is exactly what the Indiana State Historic Sites do with our state’s architectural treasures that are visited each year by thousands of visitors. Preservation, conservation and interpretation efforts are made and guarded at these sites so that these places can be frequented for years and years to come by visitors in the future. The hardworking staff and their dedication can be seen at any of the 11 sites open to the public.

So take a lesson from a little bird and come and see what the State Historic Sites are all about.

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to FurlAdd to Newsvine

T.C. Steele’s Remote Studio

Written by Davie Kean, master gardener at the T.C. Steele State Historic Site

The remote studio, framed by a pair of trees along T.C. Steele Road.

Breathing in the winter air — and inspiration — en plein-air …

One of the less frequented features of T.C. Steele State Historic Site is the remote studio, a roughly 10 x 10 foot structure reconstructed in 1994 by members of the Brown County Rotary Club. Although at a distance from the site’s main buildings, it actually sits quite near a county road. For a closer look, you can hike (or cross-country ski!) a 1/4-mile easy-access trail to this not-so-remote spot.

In winter, a glimpse of the painter’s shack can be seen through the trees as you approach the historic site. Mr. Steele used the original shelter for painting many of his winter scenes. I thought it made a nice picture itself, framed by two large trees that were much smaller in Steele’s time. Not wanting to paint the little outdoor studio from outside its protective shelter, I settled for a photograph instead.

Three young women visit the remote studio (in warmer weather) around 1919. Courtesy, Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana. Frank Hohenberger collection.

More familiar to visitors is the site’s Large Studio, reputed to be the largest private studio in the midwest at the time it was built in 1916. Seeing this space, it’s surprising to learn that most of Steele’s Brown County paintings were done en plein-air — or outside. The Large Studio was designed primarily as a gallery for Steele’s many works, while his preferred painting location was outdoors.

In her memoir, The House of the Singing Winds, Selma Steele illustrates her husband’s dedication to the plein-air method:                                                           

“Finally there arose a need for distant shelters to serve as studios when inclement weather made it impossible to work in the open … the painter built a well-lighted one-room studio on the top of the high hill overlooking the Schooner and Hunnicutt valleys. There were extensive views from these windows … Here many of the winter subjects were painted that are so splendid in their delineation of wintry snows and sunshine.”

The Steele’s didn’t let a little bad weather stop them from enjoying the beauty of their Brown County home, as indicated in this second excerpt from The House of the Singing Winds:

“It followed then that on a morning in early February of 1912, with temperatures hovering near the zero mark, we left the city for some deep winter experiences in the country.”

Since T.C. Steele State Historic Site is now open year-round, there’s nothing to stop you from experiencing that same beauty today. Maybe you’d like to try out the Remote Studio during the next cold snap — or do like I did and just snap a photo.

T.C. Steele State Historic Site is open for building tours Tuesday through Sunday. We’re closed on Mondays, but the grounds and trails aren’t. Call ahead for road conditions: 812.988.2785.

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to FurlAdd to Newsvine

A Striking Contrast

Elderberry blossoms at TC Steele State Historic Site

Elderberry blossoms at TC Steele State Historic Site

It’s hard to imagine a contrast that’s not striking. In fact, one definition of contrast  is, “One thing that is strikingly different from another.” I’ve been enjoying an example of this right in my backyard.

The elderberry bushes at the edge of the yard, although beautiful on their own, are enhanced by the dark backdrop of the forest edge. And though I’m content just to sit and enjoy the view from the porch, those dark shadows beneath the shrubs make the forest mysteriously inviting. Continue reading

Blowin’ in the wind

You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.

It’s finally warm enough for me to leave my windows open at night. This lets me wake to the sounds of Wild Turkeys gobbling and Phoebes scolding, rather than the ring of my alarm clock. I don’t even mind the occasional midnight interruption of sleep by barred owls, coyotes or distant trains. I welcome it after a winter closed-off from the sounds of nature.

The past two days have been the nicest yet this spring. Perfect temperatures and a steady breeze that’s been bringing in more that just optimistic thoughts. At T.C. Steele State Historic Site yesterday, I met retired I.U. biology professor Don Whitehead. He was out scouting for birds for an upcoming hike. He noted that the recent winds had brought in a lot of migrating birds overnight and he expected even more to have arrived by the next day. Perfect timing for his bird hike.

I listened to Don as he listed the birds he was hearing — Scarlet Tanager, Vireos and others. I couldn’t filter out individual calls through the noise of the wind, much less identify which bird was doing the calling. Identifying birds by their songs seems as much magic as skill to me.

I know that any skill can be developed with practice and repetition, but some people seem to have a gift for languages, including the avian ones. Spring is a season of optimism, so I’ve set an ambitious goal — to learn one new bird call this year. I’ll never match Don’s repertoire, but I hope to have another familiar sound to listen for next spring when I open up the windows again.

So, where’s the connection to the title — a line from a Bob Dylan song? These recent breezes have reminded me of our need to (re)sharpen our senses. Today’s world leaves us isolated from nature and we’ve lost skills once taken for granted. By listening to the wind through my open window, I can tell which way the wind blows. It sounds different coming through the pines to the north than it does from the west where it passes through deciduous trees.

The Steeles didn’t need the weather channel either. The House of the Singing Winds was named for the sound the breezes made blowing through the porch screens. A sleeping porch was included in the house’s original design, so they woke up knowing immediately what the weather was.

Dylan’s weatherman reference has a double meaning, which those of us who grew up during a ‘certain era’ may recognize. But the winds blowing this spring are not ones of discontent, and I hope they will return this summer to blow away the humidity Indiana is so famous for. I don’t want to be too tempted to shut the windows, turn on the air, and have to rely on the weatherman to tell me wind direction.

Davie Kean is the master gardener at the T.C. Steele State Historic Site.

We do daffodils!

tc_steele_daffodils_01I came to the T.C. Steele State Historic Site early last spring, after working for many years at Brown County State Park. At first, everything seemed different — the scale, the pace, the historic aspect. Then I answered my first phone call from someone wondering when the daffodils would peak.

Starting around September, Brown County State Park receives numerous calls like this from people asking about ‘peak’ fall color, so I was slightly amused by the daffodil question. Then they began to bloom. Fall color vistas and our ‘sweeping drifts of daffodils’ may differ in scale, but I learned that they rate the same on the WFS (Wow Factor Scale).

After her move to Brown County in 1907, inspired by the abundance of wildflowers around her, Selma Steele made plans to ‘naturalize’ flowers over the hillsides surrounding her new home. She wrote in her memoir, The House of the Singing Winds,

A day came when I set out, as a first experiment, a handful of Scotch daffodils. Now … this bulb garden covers many of the hillsides. There are many varieties, blooming virtually by the thousands and thousands*, contributing an unearthly and elusive beauty to the landscape, all enveloped in the soft atmosphere of springtime.

tc_steele_daffodils_03Well I won’t even try to top that description. Why not visit and see the results of Selma Steele’s plan? You could call ahead to find out the perfect day to see the most spectacular show of spring color, but why bother? Selma planted such a variety and abundance of flowers that even if the daffodils aren’t ‘peaking’, something else surely is.

*Perhaps Carl Sagan read The House of the Singing Winds.

 

 

Davie Kean is the master gardener at the T.C. Steele State Historic Site.