Historic Structures

First Floor Description William Henry Harrison House, Vincennes, Indiana

It has indeed a distinctive character all its own. A frontier dwelling of brick walls, (28 inches think), false windows, look-Out. Its owner was a pioneer famed for bravery in Indian wars. A home of panelled doors, carved woodwork, spiral stairway--all evoking the delicacy and finesse of the Old South. Its owner belonged to an aristocratic Virginia family. William Lindsey, builder of the house, combined the two influences with such skill that the former "White House" of the West--on the Wabash— remains among America's most cherished possessions.

The massive door of solid walnut with a handmade lock and key, over which is an unusual fan-shaped transom of eight panes, opens into a typical colonial hallway, the general plan of which resembles that of federal Hill, (My Old Kentucky Home). It is very wide and a part of the ceiling extends to-the third floor.

Governor Harrison, after a visit to Mt. Vernon, was so impressed by the staircase there that he had a copy of it made for his own home. It is said to be the only other one like it. The carved, solid walnut arch is self supporting, and reaches to the ceiling, and is almost the width of the hall. A picture, (Washington's Last Birthday), at the right of the entrance, shows the stairs at Mt. Vernon, and illustrates the narrowness compared with the one in the Harrison Mansion. On this wall is a Chippendale mirror presented by Governor Harrison to Mrs. Henry Vanderburgh. Mr. Vanderburgh was Judge at that time.

It had always been a struggle for the Francis Vigo Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution to keep on with the necessary restoration of the Mansion. A few years ago, the State Officers, realizing this, started the movement which resulted in raising a ten thousand dollars each and finished the fund. A bronze tablet inscribed with their names hangs at the left of the door leading into the living room. Interest from this trust fund is paid semi-annually to the Chapter.

But there is nothing in the hall of such intrinsic interest as the secret panel; so let us investigate it at once. Some boys, playing in a little room overhead, loosened a board, and found a tiny dark room. Whether this was used as a secret hiding place for valuables, or was a part of the secret passage leading from the garret to the first floor, as tradition gives it, has not been proved as yet. At the time of extensive repairs, when the paper and plaster were removed from this wall, a lintel was uncovered, showing that an opening had been there at one time, so a narrow door was introduced at that place.

Harrison's living room was on the north side, huge, lofty-ceilinged, heated by two small fireplaces, common in those days. In an article taken from the Vincennes Sun., March 29, 1886, was the following: "In the sides of the fireplaces are long, narrow cupboards, the upper part of which contain secret panels, evidently used to conceal treasure. These cannot be opened, but are found to be hollow. Whatever the use of these shelved closets, they add materially to the interest of the house. They are usually referred to as "wine closets.” Two large mirrors in ornamental frames of gilt, surmounting the mantels, accentuate the effect of imposing grandeur.

Windows, great caverns in the wall, are prudently protected by inside shutters. These were always kept shut, and on one occasion saved the life of Harrison. He was walking the floor with his infant son, John Scott Harrison, when a prowling Indian shot at him through the window. The shutter however, impaired his vision, and the shot missed its mark. The bullet hole in the shutter is a matter of great interest to tourists.

The Love-seat in the living room belonged to the Harrison family, also the straight chair standing beside it. On the wall hang pictures of Harrison at different periods. Other pictures in the room are: The Francis Vigo Home where Harrison lived before his own was completed; The Harrison House as it looked when the open court extended to the veranda on the north side.

Many old houses had only a few closets, Not so the house at "Grouseland." There is a large clothes closet on the right of the rear fireplace and deep wine closets on each side of the door leading into what was formerly the open court.

Upon leaving the living room we cross this space, now enclosed, and enter the state dining room, small, compared with the other rooms in the house. A curved wall at the rear of the room furnishes space for the winding stairway going up from the outside entrance to the servants' sleeping quarters above. A small closet is beneath these stairs. Next to this room is the kitchen where the family meals were prepared. There is a built-in cupboard reaching to the ceiling.

On the left as you enter the main entrance is the Council Chamber from which the young Governor ruled all the "vast Indian Territory. High and spacious, it has one semi-circular wall overlooking the vineyard which grew bet-ween the house and the river. At the right of the fireplace is a false window, since plastered up, but still having its exterior shutters. It appeared to be a window on the outside, for all the front shutters were kept closed, so it would not be known which was the port hole.

Harrison1 s official desk stands in this room. The supposed secret drawer remains a mystery. A quaint rocking chair belonging to Harrison's mother is a valued relic; the center of the room is graced by a recent purchase, a round drop-leaf mahogany table, Duncan Phyfe type, which belonged to Harrison- Two semi-round table ends, parts of a whole dining table belonging to Francis Yigo; some period chairs, seats, an old table, a melodeon, and old square piano of later period complete the furnishing of the Council Chamber. Resting on the piano is the original deed to Mr. Sam Thompson in payment for the bricks used in the house. It is interesting to note the scalloped out edge title, called “indenture" to tell if the deed were legal. Each party kept his half of the scallop, this being the procedure of the time in lieu of seals. Another old deed is signed by John C. Symmes, Harrison's father-in-law. (Since writing these papers, these deeds have been removed to another part of the house.)

Among the pictures, we have here two of especial value, Washington and his Generals, and Washington's Funeral.

And now that we have completed our tour of the first. floor, let us pause a few minutes in the Council Chamber to review briefly its historical significance.

Of first importance are the documents and treaties signed with and concerning the Indians-a vital question of that day, with which the young Governor of the Northwest Territory had to cope. Other interesting items; are: In 1806, the first Presbyterian sermon in Indiana Territory was preached in this room. Likewise, Methodist tradition states that the first Methodist service was conducted in this room. Governor Harrison himself holding a candle for the preacher. It is said that the first Indiana Masonic Lodge was organized here in 1808. But the most important function of the room was its use by the Governor and the Judges who shaped the policies of the pioneer country.

Both in Harrison's time and in that of his son to whom he deeded the property, the Mansion was a social center of the town. The first Public Library was kept here in the son's occupancy. As stated before, the house passed into other hands than the Harrisons' in 1843.

But we still have many things to see, so we shall hasten up the lovely stairs, past the narrow window, once wider, and here we are on the second floor.