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Benjamin Harrison and More: Special Insights Into 19th Century Indianapolis
Tuesday, June 10, 2014

By Nelson Price

Special opportunities involving the legacy of the only U.S. President elected from Indiana – as well as rare tours of the oldest private home in Indianapolis and behind the scenes of the Indiana Supreme Court – were among the highlights of a Spring Pilgrimage that focused on the state’s political leaders of the 19th Century. Chief Justice Brent Dickson led the tour at the Indiana Supreme Court; on the day following the June 10 pilgrimage, Chief Justice Dickson announced he would be stepping down from his leadership role on the state’s highest court, although he will continue to serve as a justice.

So the timing was inadvertently ideal for the Society of Indiana Pioneers pilgrimage, which involved trips to several sites associated with Benjamin Harrison, the 23rd President (who was designated an honorary member of the Pioneers in 2006), including a visit to his burial site at Crown Hill Cemetery. The third largest private cemetery in the country, Crown Hill, also is the burial site of more U.S. vice presidents (three) than any other graveyard.

The day began at the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site, 1230 N. Delaware St, with a reception at the Carriage House for the elegant home where President Harrison lived before and after his White House years (1888-1892). At the Italianate home (built in the mid-1870s) and its scenic grounds, the group of 33 Pioneers, guests, and other tour-goers enjoyed special presentations by the staff and volunteers.

They included the demonstration of a pioneer-themed game used to engage thousands of Indiana school children in history annually during visits to the Presidential Site. Called “Settlers and Surveyors”, the award-winning game focuses on the creation of a township amid the wilderness of the Indiana Territory. The captivating game is played on a special quilt depicting rivers, forests, and meadows. Several Pioneers participated in the game, designing a frontier community that included cabins, a general store, a school, churches, a sawmill, and a doctor’s office.

Then, the Pioneers were divided into rotating subgroups. One group toured the 16-room, three-story home with curator Jennifer Capps, who noted that most of the furnishings (including the dining room table and chairs) belonged to the Harrison family. The Bible used for President Harrison’s inauguration was on display, along with other historic artifacts. The Pioneers also toured the gardens, including an herb garden and a “freedom garden” at the Presidential Site, with commentary by veteran volunteers Georgia and Ken Hottel. Thanks to extensive historical research by Mrs. Hottel and others, the gardens have  “vintage” flowers and other plants that would have been cultivated during the era the Harrisons lived in the home.

At the Presidential Site, the Pioneers boarded a motor coach to travel to Crown Hill Cemetery. Its historian, Tom Davis, led the group on specially designed walking tours. In addition to visiting the burial site of President Harrison (1833-1901), the group went to the Pioneer Cemetery, an area of Crown Hill that includes graves moved from several “lost” burial sites such as a pioneer cemetery in the Castleton area that was taken in 2008 for interstate expansion.

The Pioneer Cemetery also includes graves from the Hoosier capital’s first major burial site, Green Lawn Cemetery, which is located near the White River and closed during the Civil War era due to extensive flooding. That resulted in the creation – on much higher ground – of Crown Hill, which recently celebrated its 150th anniversary. Many of the Pioneers undertook the steep walk to the highest point (or “crown”) of Crown Hill, the site of the mausoleum of Hoosier poet James Whitcomb Riley (1849-1916).

The next stop was the Indianapolis Museum of Art. Pioneers were welcomed by curatorial assistant Leslie Anderson-Perkins, who gave a special presentation about the Tiffany stained glass window commissioned upon the death of Benjamin Harrison by his second wife, Mary Lord Harrison. The spectacular window, called “The Angel of the Resurrection”, was initially installed at First Presbyterian Church, where the president served as an elder for over 40 years. With congregational changes at First Presbyterian, the Tiffany window was donated to the art museum in the 1970s. The Pioneers’ visit coincided with a special exhibit about the window that included its presentation sketch.

From the art museum, the Pioneers traveled to the Columbia Club on Monument Circle. Although the current 10-story Columbia Club building was built in 1925, the club began in 1888. Known then as the Harrison Marching Society, its initial purpose was to support the presidential campaign of Benjamin Harrison, a Republican who had been a general during the Civil War and had served as a U.S. senator from Indiana.

The Pioneers enjoyed a buffet luncheon on the third floor of the club building, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. During a typical session of the Indiana General Assembly, more than fifty state legislators reside at the Columbia Club.

A trip to the Indiana State Capitol followed the luncheon. At the Statehouse, the Pioneers visited the Indiana Supreme Court.  After a welcome by Chief Justice Dickson, whose wife, Jan, is a board member of the Pioneers, the group sat in the historic courtroom for a presentation by Indianapolis attorney Peter Rusthoven. He has researched the array of legal cases argued by Benjamin Harrison, who was known as a highly-skilled courtroom orator. His outstanding legal career before and after his White House years may have been the most distinguished of any U.S. president.

The behind-the-scenes tour of the Indiana Supreme Court – courtesy of Chief Justice Dickson – followed. In addition to escorting the Pioneers to the meeting room where the Supreme Court justices deliberate over cases, he answered questions about court history and protocol.

After re-boarding the motor coach, the Pioneers traveled to the historic Lockerbie neighborhood of Indianapolis, where many homes date to the 19th Century. They include the James Whitcomb Riley Museum Home, where the celebrated poet lived for nearly 30 years at the end of his life. After a tour of the home museum, the Pioneers divided into subgroups again. Pilgrimage chairman Nelson Price and architect Terry Bradbury, who live in the Lockerbie area, led groups on neighborhood walking tours. It also periodically was the residence, more than 100 years ago, of composer Hoagy Carmichael and cartoonist Johnny Gruelle, the creator of Raggedy Ann.

In addition, the Pioneers enjoyed a tour of the private residence that’s generally considered the oldest existing home built in Indianapolis city limits. Built in the 1820s as the residence of Gov. James Brown Ray and his family, the home is owned by Lockerbie residents Patsy and Bob Cram, who shared insights about its history. Gov. Ray was the first governor to be based in Indianapolis following the relocation of the state capital from Corydon in the 1820s. He also was the first of three governors who declined to live in a Governor’s Mansion that had been constructed at the center of the new capital; the unoccupied mansion was demolished in 1857 and, beginning in the 1880s, the Soldiers and Sailors Monument was built on the site.

The pilgrimage concluded where it began: at the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site. The Pioneers returned to the historic home for a wine and cheese reception to cap the eventful day.