Madison, Ind.; The town that slept for a century - and the man who woke it up

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

In 1848, the Rev. Thomas Craven founded the integrated Eleutherian College, a college for men and women, black and white. The college only lasted until the 1880s, presumably because it had no endowment, most of the alumni having been killed in the Civil War.

But back on a hill behind of the town of Madison, Ind., there is an old yellow stone building. On its front lawn sits a more recent but shabbier house. The stone building, the only leftover of Craven's enlightened effort, looks elegantly out of place in this overgrown back lot. The windows are vacant and the bell in the tower has not rung for 100 years, but it is not forgotten.

John Windle remembers it. Windle is president emeritus of Historic Madison Inc. HMI owns Eleutherian College, among other old Madison buildings. Windle himself lives in Shrewsbury House, one of Madison's first mansions, down by the Ohio River, and he doesn't seem to have forgotten anything that went on in the old houses of Madison since they started putting them up in 1806.

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John Windle and Madison seem made for each other. Madison is a town time forgot, and Windle, an architecture expert and former librarian, is a history buff's history buff. It is hard to say whether Windle made Madison what it is today or Madison made Windle who he is today. It is easier to say they are both unique and that to meet up with one is to be introduced to the delights of the other.

He is white-haired and hawk-nosed, and is wearing, for the visit to Eleutherian College, a little black boatman's cap and blue blazer. On this outing, he is our captain. Windle had John Galvin, present president of HMI, stop the car on our way over. ''Look up,'' he instructed us, ''just above a place where a creek cuts through the hill. That was the men's dormitory. Can't think why they were so far away.'' We can't find it, but Windle won't be corrected. If there is a creek, it's there. Sure enough, after gazing into thick trees that grow on the hillside, the straight outlines of a stone pediment over a window could just be seen peeking out of the confusion of twigs and shrubs. Windle nodded as we excitedly announced this and we drove on.

Windle had always wanted to be an architect but didn't have the mathematical ability. ''Today it doesn't matter at all,'' he chuckles, ''you're probably better off.'' Instead, he became director of the reading room at the Newberry -Library, a humanities archives in Chicago. He was second in command, in charge of 50,000 volumes and artifacts. He ''had the fun,'' as he puts it, of organizing some of the first concerts of Renaissance music since the Renaissance using some of the old manuscripts in the collection and some of the best musicians in Chicago. In the 1940s, he was one of the few who acknowledged that there was any music before Bach.

Likewise, he bought the Shrewsbury House in 1948 and opened it as a house museum in Madison in 1950, before anyone had given much thought to restoration. The town was known by architecture scholars, but its only other house museum was the James F. D. Lanier mansion, given to the state by Lanier's granddaughter in 1925. Windle organized Historic Madison Inc. in 1960 to buy the Sullivan House, a Federal style mansion, which was in peril of being redone. HMI now owns a former pork-packing plant, an old herb warehouse, and several houses; it has a nationwide membership of 700 people, and cash assets of $600,000.

Visiting Eleutherian College with Windle, Galvin, and Frank Hurdis, who is just starting as director of HMI, you can see that the great love for the town's history that moved Windle to come down here in the first place still thrives. Madison was named a ''Main Street Town'' in 1977 -- part of a federal program run by the National Trust for Historic Preservation to revitalize the economies of three small historic towns by restoring their downtown areas and fighting the predations of out-of-town shopping malls on their revenues. In Madison, the National Trust didn't send a director; it hired HMI to do the work. Tom Moriarty , already recruited by Windle to direct HMI, ran it. The three-year federal program ended in 1980, and Moriarty joined the National Trust. HMI continues, and though Windle is president emeritus, he is still the dean of historic activities in Madison.

And if Windle represents the powers that be, Galvin, who sprints up the bell tower of the college to make sure it isn't ''taking water,'' is being curried to take over, and Hurdis, who is a Main Street employee but is also directing HMI, is so far still an observer.

John Windle walks up to the disused college the way a man might approach his racehorse. He seems to savor the very air around it with a quietly exultant look on his face, as though this relic of an idea whose time hadn't come makes him feel rich. It is a treasure to him, and if you look at him and then at the building, it glitters for you, too. You see the nice, true lines of the corners. This shows good craftsmanship, even though the building is just ''crick stone,'' Windle says. You admire the still-level front steps and the handsome tall doorway; and the dusty windows and grass growing on the doorstep don't matter. The yellowish stone glows quietly in the thin sunlight. Galvin and Hurdis range around, yelling out when they have found something interesting. Windle stands in the foyer, taking it all in contentedly.

Seeing something so old without helpful signs describing it and restrooms around the back, you feel the thrill of discovery. You have to figure out what they did here, and when you get close enough to see, you are enthralled. This is history in the rough. The big assembly room is empty except for some wrecked desks, county ledgers, and two little stoves, cast in Madison, which say ''Frost Killer'' on them. The windows are high, narrow, and graceful, expressions, no doubt, of Craven's hopes to give the illumination of a classical education to his integrated student body.

''It has a nice profile,'' says Windle with stolid affection as we trudge back to the car, turning our backs on this almost-lost memento of an era that just barely happened.

As we return from the expedition down a broad asphalt road that cuts through the strip of light industry and fast-food joints, he mentions in passing that this was the Michigan Trail -- a trail already beaten across Indiana by the Indians when the pioneers first struggled up the bluffs of the Ohio in the late 1700s. An ordinary-looking little house on the side of the road with an aluminum front door and a swing set was the first stone house in the area. Windle can't see very well anymore, so he doesn't bother to look out the window as he mentions what went on here. But he seems to be equipped with X-ray vision. Sitting with him as we speed along the back roads, you begin to see the 20th century as something you can peel back as easily as you could open an aluminum door. The place seems heaped with the leftovers of a century before.

Madison is particularly well endowed with old things. From its founding in 1809 until the 1850s, it boomed. Pioneers came down the Ohio River and got outfitted here before striking northwest along the Michigan Trail. An important river port, it was bigger than Indianapolis at one time. Then the railroads took over. In the 1840s, the population was around 40,000. Now the town has about 15,000 residents, and, still snuggled under the bluffs of the Ohio River in a finger of warmth that seeps up the valley from the South and allows magnolias to grow, it seems sleepy and Southern. Kentucky is just across the river.

It is not a bustling, thriving, go-getter of a town, and it is hard to say, from looking at it, how much effect the Main Street program has had here. The program is similar to downtown revitalization in cities. In small towns, ''downtown'' is usually just Main Street. The threat is not crime or urban blight but the ubiquitous shopping malls which have been drawing shoppers and their dollars out to their preserves at the intersections of large highways. If allowed to fall into disuse, the Main Streets and the towns themselves lose their value as social centers. The Main Street program encourages towns to fight back, using the same tactics as the malls to compete with them. A National Trust brochure explaining the program points out that malls have unified advertising promotions and sign design, coordinated hours, and security. A single management decides on a proper mix of stores. The unified management is seen as the answer for Main Street as well. And public relations plays a big part. ''Image -- the crucial factor in selling anything. The mall has to manufacture it. Main Street already has it!'' the brochure enthuses. ''Variety. Local tradition. The most effective image for Main Street is its own past.''

Thanks to Windle, Madison's ''own past'' was already important to it when the project began. In fact, Windle's influence has kept the accent on history, not on commerce. To some, he is the genius who saved Madison. Others feel too much emphasis on preservation has kept the town as quiet and slow as a museum. The all-important image the brochure touts is also a mixed one.

Madison's Main Street is broad, edged in old brick buildings, and washed in sugary sunlight. There are some new small signs that don't get in the way of the architectural details. The fancy brickwork has been treated kindly, and ironwork tendrils twine everywhere. The buildings' facades are all dressed up in brick garlands and gewgaws and plaster flower bunches and rosettes, as if they were all going to a fancy Victorian ball. But people around here stopped carrying on like that in the 1870s. In a lofty glass window surrounded by elegant pilasters and topped with ornate capitals hangs an immense pair of denim overalls -- the standard sign for a work clothes store. This is not a tourist town by any means. There are few boutiques. There is an appliance store, some drugstores, a five-and-ten, and so on. Serving several rural counties in Kentucky and Indiana, it offers good, solid, inexpensive items such as appliances and distressed freight.

Working all day between such elegant pilasters, you would expect the shop attendants to wear white gloves, high collars, and top hats, but mostly they're in polyester and Caterpillar caps and don't seem the slightest bit distracted by the finery around them. They are the heirs of a town built in a spurt of wealth by a new aristocracy that faded out as quickly as it sprang up. Likewise, the economic challenges of 1980s Madison contrast with the 1850s, when Madison got rich quick; the steamboat era when America was still hurtling toward what looked to the pioneers like a limitless frontier.

John Galvin, besides taking over the running of Historic Madison Inc., owns the movie theater. He sits in his office overlooking the street, the venetian blinds drawn against the afternoon light. ''What did you think when you first came in?'' he asks. ''Did you wonder what all the fuss was about?'' I admit I did. That's just what he wants to hear.

''When you first come in and look at it, you don't see anything unusual. It's not cutesy,'' he says. What I see as a mix of the mundane and the glorious, he calls ''the purity of the place. This is not a Williamsburg.''

Galvin is a businessman, not a history buff. He points out how it made sense for him in terms of ''sheer economics'' to keep his movie theater on Main Street rather than build a bigger one on the ''strip'' up on the bluff -- where all the chain stores, fast-food outfits, and industry in Madison have developed. For one thing, building costs are too high. For another, business with Kentucky, right across the river, might be lost if he removed to the bluff. The third reason is that powerful image of the past. To Galvin, aesthetics is fine, but this makes sense in a practical way. ''Cincinnati has its riverfront stadium; Columbus, Indiana, has its 'Athens of the prairie'; Greensburg (Ind.)m has its tree growing out of the courthouse roof. . . . So what does Madison have? Madison has significant architecture, so let's utilize that, tell people about it, and hopefully they will find it's a more pleasant place to shop. . . .''

There are those who say this practical attitude has been too long in coming, that Madison has been in John Windle's pocket for too long and that the historical image is thriving at the expense of business. Harold Gossman, executive vice-president of Madison's Chamber of Commerce, says HMI's policies are too conservationist, too binding on businesses and homeowners. The city's new master plan, he complains, doesn't allow enough flexibility in tearing down or reusing old buildings. Having been the vice-president of Indiana's Historic Landmarks Commission, he says, ''I came to Madison to learn from them.'' In Indianapolis, he says, he was considered a conservationist, keeping valuable buildings from being torn down. Here, he feels the opposite. ''I don't think too many people have thought about the economic side'' of the Main Street project, he says. He feels that Madison's high unemployment rate -- like that of many other Midwestern towns -- has been ignored too long. There is a Cummins -Engine Company plant coming next month, but Madison could have used it a year ago. Madison works too slowly, he says, losing all its young people because of lack of opportunity.

''The town was dormant for 100 years,'' says Tom Moriarty. Poverty hit Madison in the 1870s when the railroads passed it by, and again with the 1930s' depression. This was provident for historians -- there just wasn't enough money to tear down all the lovely brick storefronts and old houses with their curlicues of iron, even if people had wanted to. A doctor's office was closed in 1903, when the doctor died, by his daughters. It stayed closed until 1973, when HMI opened it as a museum. It displays hand-woven linen sheets and wool blankets , medicines, and equipment, all of which had merely to be unpacked.

But Madison could never hold its young people. Now, they are beginning to come back, partly because of the Main Street project, partly because they, like others across the country, don't want to live in big cities. Jeff Garrett, who came back to work with his father in a TV and appliance store from a job in hotel management in West Lafayette, Ind., took an 80 percent cut in pay to do so. He's glad he did. He's happy that he has so many friends that it takes him an hour to get to the bank. He says he and his wife get along better now they are back in their hometown and involved in church and civic activities. In Tom Moriarty's opinion, Windle's generation is passing the power to Garrett's.

Garrett's friend Kevin Walker, who moved here in 1980, would disagree. At least, he doesn't feel power is being passed. He, like Gossman, feels that the ''old guard'' was interested in getting help for historical efforts in Madison, but not in following the advice of financial and land-use reports that suggested spending money and changing business practices. ''Miller, Wihry & Lee, the consulting firm that did it (the land-use report), came and gave 12 copies to 12 people in town and they just stuffed it in their back pocket or on their shelf and never said high, low, or turkey about it. So basically the community wasn't aware of what was offered to them.''

Tom Moriarty says the Miller, Wihry & Lee study and the economic study were put on file in the library, and that the real reason nothing was done was that there was a hiatus after he left and before Frank Hurdis arrived. He points out that Jeff Garrett and other young businessmen stepped in and took over the tree-planting project and began studying up on the business suggestions. But Walker and Gossman are still exasperated that things haven't moved faster.

Perhaps if you live in the Shrewsbury mansion you have a different sense of time. The mansion, built in the Classical revival style by the architect Francis Costigan, who studied with Benjamin Latrobe (he designed the Washington Monument and built the Capitol Building, among other things), had only been owned by three others in 100 years when the Windles bought it in 1948. It is one of the most important pieces of architecture in the old Northwest Territory. It has a free-standing spiral staircase that curves up three stories to a skylight, which, in the summer when the skylight is open, acts as a chimney for hot air. The fireplaces are designed in the most modern, efficient way -- the way they made them during the Napoleonic era in France. Through a little opening at the back, they draw cold air off the floor and up the ceiling, circulating the heat. On the outside the house is a venerable red brick that was hand polished, brick by brick, to make it impervious to water; so the original paint in the drawing room, which Costigan mixed himself, is still there.

I sit in one of its lofty, dim parlors with John Windle while visitors traipse in and out, look up the stairs and gasp, and tread the red carpeted steps up to the ballroom, with one or the other of the Windles in attendance.

It is a stunning piece of craftsmanship. Rather than adopt a lordly manner, Windle likes to step back and let you admire the details. He is the perfect curator for a house museum, a combination of wise guide and cordial host. He seems to judge by how people come in the door how much they will want to know, and treats one and all with the best of manners, even the ladies who, he remarks after coming back to the other side of the velvet rope and settling back down, ''aren't interested in history'' -- something unimaginable to him.

He is a wonderful teacher, interrupting the interview to take me into the beautiful drawing room and have me stand in it to get a feeling for how high the ceiling is; then he took me out into the hall. Both ceilings were the same height, but Costigan's pilasters lined up in the drawing room make it look at least five feet higher. An optical illusion. I am amazed. Windle smiles. ''He's working, oh, he's working,'' he says.

Living in such a work is ''very exciting. We keep learning what the architect did. The paper work that went into it is prodigious. They knew exactly where they were going, long before they started. We don't anymore. We draw up rough drawings and work from those. . . .'' The doorbell, which still works, has a wire that goes down to the basement and comes back up to ring a bell in the kitchen. The basement walls are 27 inches of masonry, brick, and stone. ''When they were laying those masonry foundation walls there wasn't a stick of wood anywhere in the house, and yet they knew exactly where the wire was going through, and they left a little hole about an inch in diameter for that wire,'' says Windle.

Such delights can be overlooked if you grow up next door to them. ''You see, '' Windle says, ''Madison went through a period of poverty. The poverty lasted until World War I, and it meant that the people living in town up until that time were tired of not being able to buy new things. They were depressed by old things. They wanted something new. And it sort of took a reversal of public opinion to get rid of that feeling of lethargy and discontent to develop an appreciation of what actually is here.''

The house was built at a propitious time. Costigan had at his command 100 highly skilled workers who had learned their trade making riverboats, so they were used to fine, detailed work. And there was so much yellow poplar, Windle says, that builders working on big houses like the Shrewsbury mansion would have a bonfire burning the whole time. Anything a mite less than perfect was tossed in. ''If we had today what went into the bonfire, we'd be so much better off than we are,'' Windle says.

What we do have is 12-foot-high doors that haven't warped, unpainted window frames that are still in good shape, tokens from a brief and glorious past that can still be appreciated. Most important, Madison does appreciate it, and its mansions are still standing.

The town is like Rip van Winkle. But most real-life Rip van Winkles wake up and, as quickly as possible, trade in their old homespun clothes for polyester. Madison stayed old-fashioned, and is still waking up. The Windles convinced Madisonians that they had something here before they got a chance to wreak 1950s havoc on 1850s buildings. ''We have brought in outside speakers from every place over a period of 20 years, and those speakers have talked about what Madison has and what it could do. That whole process, that infiltrating of a 20 -year period, I think probably has been of some use,'' he says, playing down his part in Madison's salvation with the manners of any good host.

Some would say that Windle, far from saving it, kept Madison asleep. But Tom Moriarty says ''He's the only authentic genius I've ever met.'' Windle, he explains, decided a long time ago how he was going to change Madison, and doesn't worry about people's opinions of his methods.

''This was a typical river town,'' says Joe Eckert, a retired sheet-metal worker, or ''tinner,'' as he calls himself, who lives in a little house down by the river. We are sitting in the shed behind his house where he makes copper steamboat models. He remembers the old days: ''Nobody was interested too much in progress, you know. They just went along, take it as she comes. She was a good place to come back to. You'd leave and you'd get away from it, then, no work, and you'd head back to Madison. You couldn't make much money, but you could make a living.'' He misses the times of poverty, because he and his friends were so happy hunting, fishing, and visiting.They always had enough to eat -- ''no frills,'' he says, but that didn't matter.

He doesn't like the way Madison is so ''crowded'' and ''nobody has time for anything.'' But he likes Windle's idea of progress. ''I never did care too much for the new.'' His mother liked old furniture, and ''after you get it in your blood, you have a warm feeling.'' Besides, the old houses gave him work; he put in the first furnaces some of them ever had. ''Until Windle came to town, nobody paid any attention to 'em,'' he says. ''That man came to town, and they were tearing these old houses down, one right after another. He got them interested in preserving them and you'll find right in this town today, guys'll knock him instead of give him credit. He achieved recognition all over the country. We're in the National Register and stuff.''

Everyone always knew Madison was old, he says, ''But as far as anybody doing anything about it, it took Windle to wake 'em up.''

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