As an interior designer, each night as I fall asleep I pray that “people with money will wake up with good taste, and people with good taste will wake up with money.” I do jest, but there is something to be said about the Victorian era, when people’s fortunes seemed to demand that they build some sort of monument to their wealth—and no expense was spared to ensure that it was detailed with the finest of the fine, from the cellar to the attic. That time period reflected a real respect and appreciation for those who were experts in fine carpentry, hand-painted finishes, custom furniture and passamenteri, that in many ways, has been lost today, not because people don’t care, but because our desire as a nation to have instant gratification overrules the joy of the journey to beauty.
Thankfully, in 1867, William Culbertson (1814-1892), was employing the finest of tradesmen to construct his 20,000-square-foot French Second Empire mansion in New Albany, Indiana. Culbertson, who had amassed a great fortune, hailed from New Market, Pennsylvania, and arrived in the New Albany area at age 21. He began his career working in a dry-goods store and eventually opened his own establishment with partners and later, his brother, resulting in Culbertson & Bro. in 1840. As Culbertson’s fortune grew, so did his financial interests in the expanding railroad business, as well as utilities and banking. This was a good thing, as he had a total of three wives: The first two died, and he had a total of five living children by his 1884 marriage to Rebecca. Certainly, the Culbertsons required the 25 rooms for their large family, as well as at least six servants at any given time to help maintain the mansion.
In 1899, the family sold the house for the very depressed price of $7,100. John McDonald, who purchased it, had planned on building a hospital on the grounds. But his family decided to move into the home instead, and it remained in their family until 1946.
Eventually, some preservationists became involved in restoring the mansion, and what you see today is the wonderful result of their research, hard work and tenacity to showcase the property in all of its original glory!
The interiors have been painstakingly excavated layer by layer. The conservationists have carefully removed years of paint and wallpaper (not to mention coal dust that had accumulated) to discover what the original surfaces were. The spectacular end result is the most elaborate trompe l’ oeil ceilings, walls, floors and woodwork. The staircase is one of the most curvaceous and elaborately patterned installations. The attention to the gilded cornices that suspend above the windows crowning the elegant drapery treatments could take one’s breath away. The period furnishings demonstrate the skill and pride the craftsmen took in their design and construction.
This home is one of the finest examples of high Victorian design you will ever see—a “masterpiece of Victorian artistry,” if you will. And truer words have never been spoken. It is a short drive; plan a trip to step back in time to elegance and beauty. For more information go to: indianamuseum.org.