News and Tribune

February 12, 2013

New Albany Bicentennial Week 7: Culbertson Mansion

By AMANDA BEAM
newsroom@newsandtribune.com

NEW ALBANY — Editor’s note: This is part of an ongoing series about the people and events that have shaped the 200-year history of New Albany. Read all installments by clicking on the bicentennial link under the “seasonal content” header at newsandtribune.com

Houses that are haunted demand a lot of attention. Even in New Albany, rumors abound about spirits of the dead spending their postmortem existence in the upper levels of Victorian mansions like the one owned by William Culbertson. After a time, these old manors start to be known more for their alleged ghost stories than their actual real-life history. That is, until someone sets the record straight.

Culbertson Mansion Program Director Jessica Stavros is such a person. During the week, she spends most of her waking hours all over the house, sometimes alone. She’s even stayed the night in the building with some ghost hunters. 

So has Stavros witnessed any signs of the ghosts that supposedly lurk in its halls?

No. Not a one. And she hasn’t seen any other type of evidence of any phantoms either. Even though the dead might not rise, the history of Victorian architecture and culture sure does come back to life at the legendary Culbertson Mansion.

“I think Culbertson Mansion is part of New Albany’s identity,” Stavros said. “As far as New Albany’s culture, Culbertson Mansion is the crown jewel.”

Construction started on the mansion in the summer of 1867. Culbertson, a local businessman, built the three-storey brick building as a wedding gift to his second wife Cornelia. Stavros suggested that he always had plans to build on the land that spanned roughly a city block. After his first wife’s death and his subsequent remarriage, she believes Culbertson might have wanted a fresh start.

If a fresh start is what the businessman needed, Culbertson Mansion had more than enough room to provide it. Local architects James and Williams Banes designed the house in the Second Empire architectural style. Area artisans and builders worked two years to erect the 25 room, 20,000 square foot mansion which cost Culbertson $120,000 at the time to construct. 

During the Victorian era, Stavros said Americans began to shed their puritanical roots. Culbertson Mansion reflects this new age. Elaborate frescos adorned the ceilings and walls. Elegant furniture, especially chairs, filled every room. Hundreds of little displays best described as bric-a-brac-crammed, wallpapered walls. A conservatory was built to house exotic plants. Later, elaborate fireplaces were bought in Europe for the mansion during Culbertson’s honeymoon with his third wife Rebecca.

“Victorians were very in to material culture. It’s a term called conspicuous consumption. They liked to show off what they could afford. They liked to buy,” Stavros said. “Things that are typically Victorian, this house has in spades.”

After Culbertson’s death in 1892, Rebecca stayed in the house for another seven years. With no heirs wanting to buy the aging home, the mansion was auctioned off to John McDonald for $8,000 in 1899. He and his family of four lived there until 1946. The Bonnie Sloan Post of the American Legion in New Albany then purchased the house and would maintain its upkeep until 1964. During this time, the financial strain became too much on the organization. A buyer in 1961 asked the local zoning commission to allow a gas station to be built on the site. The community responded with a grassroots effort to save the old home, and the request for rezoning of the land was denied. 

In 1964, the historic preservation group called Historic New Albany bought the mansion. After evaluating its finances, the organization then donated the mansion to the State of Indiana in 1976 to be run as an Indiana State Historic Site. This remains its designation today. 

“I think it’s important for the people of New Albany to know that this house exists because of them. The citizens of New Albany saved it in 1967. It is here for them,” Stavros said. 

Years of renovations have returned the mansion to its Victorian splendor. The mansion is open to public tours and can also be rented out for special occasions. In addition, the volunteer group Friends of Culbertson Mansion helps to raise funds for its upkeep with several events, such as the Halloween Haunted House, throughout the year. Other opportunities also exist so that people can learn the true history of the house and about Victorian society as a whole.

“It’s not just about the pretty things on the wall or the paintings on the ceilings. It’s about a man and his family and the time and culture in which he lived. That’s what’s important, and how it relates to today,” Stavros said.