Territorial capitol has witnessed 213 years of history

The territorial capitol building at the Vincennes State Historic Sites looks practically brand-new from the outside, but visitors who stop by the site discover a surprising secret.

The original, wood-frame structure actually dates all the way back to 1805, making it the second-oldest building in Vincennes.

Grouseland, it‘s neighbor just down the way, takes the top spot.

“I think a lot of times they‘re surprised at the fact that this building is still around, that it‘s still standing and it‘s sound, with it having the age that it has,” said SHS manager David Weaver. “And they‘re surprised at how many times the building has moved.”

SIGN UP

Never miss a local story.

Sign up today for a free 30 day free trial of unlimited digital access.

The two-story building was constructed 213 years ago on Main Street, where Jewel Craft Jewelers is now located. It was built by a tailor, who operated his business on the first floor and lived upstairs.

The story of the structure itself is just as remarkable as the history that took place within its walls.

THE EARLY YEARS OF GOVERNMENT

In 1805, Indiana was a territory, and the territorial government that formed in 1800 was quite small. There was a territorial governor, William Henry Harrison, three judges and a secretary who also acted, to a certain degree, as the lieutenant governor, Weaver explained.

In the early years, they‘d meet whenever and wherever they could until the government progressed into the “second stage.” The bicameral, or two-house, legislature then consisted of a five-man Legislative Council — what we‘d consider as the Senate — and a nine-man House of Representatives.

With the government growing, legislators decided in 1807 to start renting a formal meeting space in the Knox County courthouse.

Four years later, though, they hit a wall: When the legislators arrived in Vincennes for their session, Weaver said, they were locked out of the courthouse because they owed about $80 in back rent to the county.

With hardly any financial reserves to speak of, they had to find another option — and that‘s where the red building at the SHS comes into play.

Beginning in 1811, it started serving as the territorial government‘s meeting place. The House met on the first floor while the Legislative Council met upstairs.

“That‘s why we refer to it as the ‘territorial capitol‘ today,” Weaver said.

But legislators only met there for two years because, in 1813, the territorial government moved to Corydon.

MOVING DAY(S)

Once the legislators moved out, the Red House, as it had been known by locals throughout its history, served all sorts of purposes. It was a business building, grocery, private home and boarding house. And in 1856, the building started moving.

Around that time, the city of Vincennes experienced a series of fires on Main Street, where the Red House was originally located. With so many wooden buildings, it was a veritable tinder box, Weaver said, so city officials passed an ordinance stating that all wooden structures had to be eliminated from Main Street and eventually replaced with brick.

So the Red House was taken apart, piece by piece, and relocated over to Third Street, just two blocks from its current location at the SHS. It was put back together, just as it had stood on Main Street, and started serving as a boarding house.

Over six decades later, in 1919, the women of the Vincennes Fortnightly Club set their sights on the building, realizing its historic significance, and wanted to see it preserved.

By that time, Weaver said, not only was it the last official meeting site of the legislature before they moved to Corydon; it was the only meeting house still standing.

The Fortnightly members purchased the building, had it deconstructed, and moved it across the street onto what‘s now the Vincennes University campus, right between the administration and admissions building.

And it was again put back together just as it had originally been built.

Then, in 1949, when the campus expanded, the building was taken down and moved yet again to the SHS location, where it was rebuilt and finally found a permanent home.

At some point, the building had been painted white, but in the 1990s it was returned to its original red.

“If it hadn‘t been for the women of the Fortnightly, the building most likely would have been torn down and lost,” Weaver said. “Just because, you know, it‘s a simple little wooden structure.”

CONSTANT TLC

Simple though it may be, the building has certainly stood the test of time — and it continues to be preserved as part of the Indiana State Museum system.

Precisely 13 years ago this March, a museum-led refurbishment and renovation project breathed new life into the territorial capitol, bringing new siding to the exterior walls and new floors and plasterwork to the interior.

“When they took the siding off, they found that the beams were marked with Roman numerals,” Weaver said. “So our best guess is that when they first deconstructed the building and took it apart (in 1856), they marked it all so that when they set it back up, they put everything back in place.”

During the 2005 renovation, a core sample of its framework was also taken and analyzed, confirming that all the materials within the walls were original.

“The wood dated to 1804, which is about right because if you were going to build a structure like this, you‘d want that wood to have been seasoned some, otherwise it would shrink,” Weaver said. “So everything that is the actual frame structure of the building, everything within the walls, is original.

“That‘s something that people are always kind of astounded at: that it‘s original and it‘s been moved so many times, but it‘s still standing.”

With the territorial capitol being an original, 213-year-old wooden structure, it does require constant TLC. One of the main things that needs monitoring is the temperature, so there‘s a digital thermometer on the fireplace mantle downstairs that helps staff maintain some consistency.

“With older structures, once you get the temperature fluctuations, it hurts the joints,” Weaver said.

Both the downstairs and upstairs fireplace mantles also include a small preservation management device called an Onset HOBO Data Logger, which monitors light, humidity and temperature fluctuations.

At the end of every month, Weaver explained, the data from the HOBOs is downloaded and sent to Amanda Bryden, collections manager at Historic New Harmony, and she compiles them into a database.

Because the territorial capitol is part of the state museum system, staff also have to be careful about what they use to clean the building.

The Indiana State Museum tends to follow similar guidelines for historic preservation set by the National Parks Service, Weaver said, so staff can‘t just whip out some harsh cleaning chemicals to wipe down the capital after a visit from school kids on a rainy day.

Instead, they‘ll just use a damp mop to clean the floors and use cloths to dust off everything else.

“There are certain things that are approved to use,” Weaver said. “So we‘re not going to get in here with heavy-duty cleaning materials.”

And it‘s all in an effort to make sure the territorial capitol stays around for another 213 years.

___

Source: Vincennes Sun-Commercial

___

Information from: Vincennes Sun-Commercial, http://www.vincennes

This is an Indiana Exchange story shared by the Vincennes Sun-Commercial.