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March 24, 2014

A stroll through New Albany’s past

Event teaches residents about restoration benefits, history of downtown homes

NEW ALBANY — On the eve of a statewide historic preservation conference to be held in New Albany, people filled the formal parlor room at the Culbertson Mansion Sunday to standing room only to learn more about the city’s past and how to preserve it during the free “Historic Houses of New Albany” presentation.

Floyd County Historian David Barksdale, Indiana Landmarks’ Southern Regional Director Greg Sekula and Louisville Historical League President Steve Wiser shared their research on the origins of some of the more notable buildings in the area as well as some of the misconceptions.

“Most widow’s walks were built for ventilation in the building, not the romanticized [story of the] widow up there, looking out for her long lost husband,” Sekula explained after a visitor asked about the feature located on a downtown New Albany home.

The three presenters talked about the architects behind New Albany’s oldest homes and buildings, including Isaac Smith, who built the Floyd County Jail, original New Albany City Hall and the Town Clock Church. Brothers William and James Banes are credited with many homes in downtown, including the Culbertson Mansion, located at 205 E. Market St. The works of Stephen Day and his sons were also featured, which included the now Schmitt Furniture and River City Winery buildings.

Barksdale said Wiser was the main person to bring this event to New Albany. Wiser’s latest book features the Culbertson.

"I felt we needed to highlight New Albany,” Wiser said. “We wanted to spotlight the great things here.”

That spotlight will be magnified April 9 through 11, when New Albany hosts Indiana’s Statewide Preservation Conference.

“I hope [this event] keeps that momentum going with people getting into the history of the community, the historic homes and downtown,” Barksdale said.

Area residents agreed.

“I’m so thankful that people do want to restore things. We want to keep our history. We learn from history,” said Donna Glass, Jeffersonville. “New buildings are nice too, but we need to preserve some of the historic ones as well.”

“It’s a wonderful idea to share the history of New Albany and make it available to everyone,” said former New Albany resident Linda Webb, who now lives in Pleasureville, Ky.

“I saw a lot of houses I’ve seen over the years [during the presentation],” Mary Lou Kavathas, Clarksville, said. “It was nice to hear [their history].”

Following the presentation, visitors were invited to tour the mansion. Tour guide Chuck Lockman greeted guests on the second floor, telling them about the home’s history and design, including that it had 25 rooms to house about 14 people, but only had one bathroom. He said residents had “chamber pots” in their bedrooms to use as a toilet, as well as a wash basin to freshen up. Lockman said it wasn’t uncommon to only bathe once a week in the summer and once a month in the winter, making sharing the common bath bearable.

He told visitors that the restoration is a work in progress, pointing to the stairway leading to the third floor that is being refinished, changing from the painted black to the natural wood color it once was.

"I haven’t been here since I was a child and I wanted to see if they’ve done more restoration to it,” Webb said. “I love old houses. I think they’re beautiful. I could come here every week and still not get enough of it.”

“I’ve always been interested in this mansion and I’ve never been inside,” said Jewell Hodgens, Sellersburg. “It’s a real treat.”

Wiser hopes the event will make people think twice before making changes to a historic building.

“Hopefully people will understand that when they renovate or remove houses to consider the history of the landmark and the aesthetics,” Wiser said. “Make New Albany better and don’t lessen the quality of New Albany.”

 

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Barbara Brewster has been the organ player at Faith Lutheran Church in Jeffersonville for the past 50 years. Brewster began playing organ with the church in August of 1964 at the age of 17.

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