Living in History
Hiding in plain sight, rarely seen by most of Evansville, is one of the city’s most historically significant homes.
“Once you get in tune with, and outside of, what would have been for me my West Side and suburban culture, you see beautiful homes in all sorts of urban settings, and you realize how you can live — that you can live in town, in a very urban setting,” says the home owner, designer Pete McCullough.
The son of legendary local designer Harry G. McCullough, Pete bought the home on Indiana Street, just a block from the Lloyd Expressway and Fulton Avenue, in 2007. He and his wife, Vera, had lived for a few years previously in a historic home they leased in the Riverside Historic District of Downtown Evansville. Pete always wanted to restore a historic home of his own. The Mater Dei High School graduate and former Army reservist grew up learning from his father. “In grade school, I was putting dots on paper for my dad,” says Pete, who continues to draw plans with pencil and ink. (The dots represented concrete in architectural renderings.)
The McCulloughs searched homes for sale in the historic district, not finding exactly what they wanted to restore. Widening their search with a map in hand, they drew a circle around an area just outside the district — again striking out. Driving west on the Lloyd Expressway one day, Pete glanced toward Fulton Avenue and noted the roofline of the very old home on Indiana. Taking a detour, he saw the home was for sale. A purchase soon was transacted, and Pete and Vera began the yearlong restoration process on their new home — the only remaining above-ground structure in the city associated with the Wabash and Erie Canal, which would inspire their redesign.
According to Dennis Au, Evansville’s historic preservation officer, the Wabash and Erie Canal was built in two sections through Evansville, the first terminating where the Old Courthouse now stands, and the second, built by the founders of the city of Lamasco, went from the Old Courthouse block to Indiana Street to just short of Pigeon Creek. The original construction dates to 1838; however, the canal was not fully operational until 1850. Raised bridges were built across the canal at several locations in Evansville, among them Fulton Avenue near the McCullough’s house, as well as at Main and Walnut streets.
“As suggested by its federal architectural style,” Au says, “the McCullough’s house on Indiana Street was built in the 1840s or 50s when the canal was in operation. Indeed, it has changed little since it was built. It is the only above-ground remnant along the canal route through Evansville reminding us that the canal was there. As such, it is an important part of our history.”
Though the home had changed little over the years, it wasn’t in great shape. A tree, for example, had taken root in the entryway, Pete says. Restoring the home to modern standards required nearly a total gutting and redesign.
“Structurally, it’s probably a good thing they don’t build them like they did,” Pete says. “I think the first thing the builders did was take their level and square and throw them in the canal.”
As the McCulloughs began the home’s restoration, Pete became immersed in its historic details. “The structure and how it was put together had far more interest to me than the original, finished product,” Pete says.
Showing guests through their house — where the couple is known for hosting inventive, themed parties (Vera recently planned an Italian-focused party) — Pete points out details that tell the home’s story. Stone used on the window heads and sills is sandstone, likely quarried from nearby (homes built here later in the 19th century tended to use limestone, by then easily available from South Central Indiana). Windows, Pete notes, were built on site into the brick, and it is clear, also, that the brick layer and carpenter worked alongside each other. Further dating the home is its hand-split lath. (Lath and plaster is a formerly common technique to build interior walls.) A salvaged section of lath and plaster is incorporated into the family room.
“I like all the texture,” Pete says. “The old pumpkin brick, for example, is a porous brick.”
Vera, who has worked as a special education job coach for the Evansville Vanderburgh School Corp. for 15 years, let the home tell its own story when decorating it. “I love red,” she says. Original red buttermilk paint on the home’s well-worn stairs and wood floors serves as a canvas for pops of scarlet throughout the home, which she describes as “homey and comfortable.”
“Everything has a meaning,” Vera says.
The McCullough’s home is further defined by Pete’s self-described habit of collecting architectural salvage. “It goes down in packrat history,” he quips. When the old Central High School was razed in 1973 (the only remaining part is the gym that is now part of the YMCA), Pete salvaged windows from the school’s iconic tower, built in 1888, and stored them until they ultimately were used as a mirrored window in the living room. He used wainscot boards, also from the tower, for cabinetry and drawer stacks.
Though the McCulloughs do not know the home’s complete lineage of owners, there is speculation that the house may have been built for an employee of the canal, such as a toll collector. “Geographically it is in the right location,” says Au. “However, no documentary evidence has been found that I’m aware of.”
Another claim is that, at one time, the house was the site of the largest dairy in the city. Though it is unsubstantiated, still the idea served as inspiration for the barn-style design of the McCullough’s garage.
“People in the neighborhood have thanked us for saving this house,” Pete adds. “It’s a comfortable place to live and a good place for this time of our lives.”
Fourth Grade Indiana History Lesson: The Wabash and Erie Canal
At 468 miles in length from Lake Erie at Toledo, Ohio, to Evansville, the Wabash and Erie Canal was the largest fabricated structure in the U.S. when the connection with the Evansville segment was completed in 1853. The first boat, The Pennsylvania, arrived in Evansville in September 1853 with much grandeur, but already the canal was obsolete and structurally defective. Its limited use (the canal was disabled by freezing temperatures, drought, or flooding) couldn’t compete with the reliability of the railroad. By 1860, most of the southern section was no longer used, and the entire Wabash and Erie Canal from Terre Haute was abandoned in 1861. Only two boats ever completed the entire voyage. Though it is viewed as a failure, the events of the canal kicked off a new era of growth for Southwestern Indiana. Learn more about the Wabash and Erie Canal in Indiana and Evansville at www.canals.org, www.wabashanderiecanal.org, or www.indcanal.org.
Old Central High School
Evansville High School, also known as old Central High School was built in 1868 as the first high school in town at 203 NW 6th St. in Downtown Evansville. It closed in 1971, and was razed in 1973. The gymnasium is the only remaining part of the school, and is currently occupied by the YMCA. Pete McCullough salvaged several items from Central and has repurposed them in his Indiana Street home. You can view photographs and postcards of the school here.