Incorporated in 1809, Madison quickly established itself as a significant cultural and industrial town in the Old Northwest Territory. Sitting prominently on the Ohio River between the hubs of Cincinnati and Louisville, the town became a lifeline for transportation and industry in the middle territories of the country. Waterfront factories drew commerce and wealth to the town, attracting settlers from the East Coast. Along with an entrepreneurial spirit, settlers brought to Madison architectural styles and cultural practices that flourished.
The National Historic Landmark Madison Historic District is tucked away in limestone bluffs on the banks of the Ohio River in southern Indiana. The more than 130 block historic district is the home of a superb and very large collection of historic buildings. Together they reflect nearly every period of the town’s development between 1817 and 1939, ranging from Federal style and Greek Revival mansions to vernacular shotgun houses to institutional and industrial buildings and a vibrant Main Street commercial area lined with two and three-story historic buildings. Visitors will enter a place that is still a compelling and lively embodiment of pre-World War II small town America. As a hotbed of antislavery activity and an important stop on the Underground Railroad before the Civil War, the historic district also brings alive the story of abolitionism and the flight of slaves from bondage to freedom and those who helped them escape. In Madison, free African-Americans established a community with commercial enterprises and independent households.
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Federal style architecture, first adopted by wealthy merchants in New England, is the most common style found in Madison. Well over 400 Federal style buildings grace the district. The Jeremiah Sullivan House at 304 West Second Street and a group of Federal row houses in the 500 block of Jefferson Street illustrate the very fancy (Sullivan House) and more modest (Federal row houses) characteristics of Federal balance and symmetry. Greek Revival style architecture of the same period is marked by small porches and columned entryways reminiscent of Greek temples. Architect Francis Costigan built a number of notable Greek Revival buildings in Madison, including the J. F. D. Lanier Mansion at 601 West First Street and the Charles Shrewsbury House at 301 West First Street. A native of Baltimore, Maryland, the talented Costigan drew inspiration from the work of great architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe and brought west some of the fine architectural craftsmanship for which Madison is so remarkable today.
In addition to spurring industry, the Ohio River also served as a major transportation network for the Underground Railroad and established Madison as a center in the freedom-seeking movement. This history can be traced today through the noteworthy extant buildings associated with the abolitionist movement and its leaders, a distinction acknowledged when the area was named the first Underground Railroad historic district to become part of the National Park Service Network to Freedom. Although the region was relatively tolerant, a fair number of pro-slavery supporters resided in pre-Civil War Madison. The division between pro and anti-slavery supporters in Madison was indicative of the dangerous struggle between free and slave States taking place on a national scale in the United States before the Civil War.
Despite opposition from slavery sympathizers, African-Americans were able to carve out a strong community in Madison. The Georgetown Neighborhood served as the center of this community and today preserves a number of churches, businesses, and residences of free, antebellum African-Americans. William Anderson formed the African Methodist Episcopal Church at 309 East Fifth Street in 1849. The building was a gathering place for the free African-American community in Madison and a crucial first stop along the Underground Railroad in a free State. Madison continued to be an important center for African-American life after the Civil War.
Increased stability after the war brought renewed industry, marked by the construction of factories and residences. One well-known factory still standing today is the Ben Schroeder Saddletree Factory at 106 Milton Street, which made wooden saddletrees for 94 years. In 2002, the building became the Ben Schroeder Saddletree Factory Museum where visitors can learn about the making of saddletrees and the importance of industrial heritage in Madison. Along with the growth of manufacturing came the need for more homes. Industrial workers typically lived in simple, rectangular buildings commonly called “shotgun houses” whose rooms were stacked one against the other with no halls or passageways for circulation.
More elaborate homes for wealthier individuals took on popular post-Civil War styles of Italianate and Gothic Revival architecture, inspired by the Pictureseque Movement from England. Many buildings along Main Street were either built in the Italianate style or had embellishments added later that were typical of Italianate architecture, including large cornice bracketing and round-arched doors. The Stribling House at 625 West Second Street, which dates from around 1840, was intentionally altered to suit the popular style of the time with the addition of pressed metal over the front door surrounded by two elaborate scrolls. The Stripling House also has a remarkable ornamental iron fence, a tribute to both the wealth of the owners and the use of the river to transport such industry. (source)
Recognized as a masterpiece of the Greek Revival style, this elegant house overlooking the Ohio River was built for banker James Franklin Doughty Lanier in 1843 and 1844. At the time Lanier lived in the mansion, there were iron foundries to the north and east, the railroad station to the west, and Lanier’s own wharf and warehouses to the south-all long gone. The house today has an unobstructed view of the Ohio River.
Local architect Francis Costigan designed the house, which would become known as his finest work. The home’s cubic form features Greek Revival characteristics such as the south portico supported by colossal Corinthian columns; a large, dentilled entablature broken by round, frieze windows; decorative window crowns and cresting. The interior is equally ornamented, and is most noted for its spiral staircase that gracefully occupies the east wall of the entry hall. Curved doors, a feature used elsewhere by Costigan, are found within the house as well. As in many of his other works, Costigan drew directly from the pattern books of New York architect Minard Lafever in designing the house.
Lanier was one of the most powerful and influential people in Indiana during the first half of the 19th century because of the role he played in promoting the State’s banking and railroad industries. He lived in Madison until 1851, when he moved to New York City to establish a new banking house there. He maintained ties to Indiana, and during the Civil War years, loaned the State over one million dollars. These funds allowed Governor Oliver P. Morton to continue contributing to the war effort, despite the Indiana legislature’s failure to appropriate funds. A significant number of legislators either sympathized with the South or wished for Indiana to take a neutral stance.
The Lanier Mansion remained in the Lanier family until 1917, when it was donated to the Jefferson County Historical Society. Shortly after, in 1925, the home was transferred to the State, and it has been operated as a State Historic Site ever since. The Lanier Mansion contributes to the historic significance of the Madison Historic District, which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places and designated a National Historic Landmark; it was also designated as an individual National Historic Landmark on April 19, 1994. (source)