When Tess Grimm first entered the Reitz Home in 1973, the water-damaged First Street mansion was without electricity and covered in dirt and dust. The home’s previous resident, the late Bishop Henry Joseph Grimmelsman, had painted the canvassed artwork, patterned wallpapers, and intricate friezes white. The drab dwelling looked nothing like the former French Second Empire home of one of Evansville’s wealthiest families, but Grimm looked at the bleak surroundings, imagined the home’s former grandeur, and envisioned the building as a museum paying tribute to River City history.
After the tour, Grimm and Junior League of Evansville volunteers — with the help of other nonprofits and philanthropists — formed the Reitz Home Preservation Society and bought the home in 1974 for $1. Their mission: restoring the home and preserving the legacy of the Reitz family, which began with John Augustus Reitz. In the late 19th century, the lumber baron branched into other industries, including telephone companies and railroads. His descendents have contributed thousands of dollars to community institutions such as Reitz High School and Reitz Memorial High School.
When Grimm moved to Evansville in 1956, she was unaware of the Reitz family legacy. But the New York City native refers to museums as her “childhood playground,” and after she and her husband, Ron, sold their lumber business in 1989, the civic-minded Grimm applied for the position of executive director at the Reitz Home. She landed the job, became a nonprofit staff of one, and took on the responsibility to return the estate to its original 1890s grandeur.
After raising funds for at least 25 home restorations and expanding the staff to three fulltime members, Grimm will retire Jan. 31. “I can’t imagine I’ve been here for this long,” she says. “The children I knew who came here with their parents at 4 or 5 years old all have grown up and graduated from college.” We talked to Grimm about the Reitz Home and her long career as its executive director.
What were the office conditions like when you first started?
My office was (last surviving Reitz daughter) Christine’s bedroom. I was greeted every morning with the canvas on the dirty ceilings — in a bunch, sort of falling down — on the southwest wall. The carpeting had so many holes in it that I tried not to trip. I didn’t have a desk, but I had an antique table that was always cluttered with things volunteers brought in.
What is unique about Evansville’s only house museum?
This house stands out because you’re not going to see too many historic houses that are complete. It’s as if the Reitz girls have gone out riding in their carriage — you can see their clothing, accessories, and books — and they’re coming home. There are beautiful crystal and decorative centerpieces in the dining and breakfast rooms. There are also ornate fireplaces, a Tiffany’s onyx mantelpiece in the drawing room, original artwork, parquet floors, and stained glass panels throughout the home. We’re really known for having the original Reitz family Victorian furniture.
So it’s as if the home is frozen in time?
Precisely. You don’t feel like it’s abandoned.
What are the biggest changes you’ve made with the Reitz Home?
Just raising the money for the restoration and working with the conservators has been huge. Our entire complex of the Carriage House has been the envy of all the directors that come here. There’s also been the job of restoring everything in the home — the ceilings, the walls, and the floors — all of which have cost almost $1 million in restoration projects.
During your time at Reitz Home, what kept you motivated?
There constantly is something going on around here. It’s not a routine kind of a job. There’s always another deadline to make; there’s always another exhibit, event, or restoration to work on. And of course, the people and the committees — there are always surprises with donations.
What will you miss the most?
The excitement and the friends I’ve made along the way. I’ll miss seeing the completion of the events and how successful they were. I’ll miss the visitors and volunteers of the museum.
What do you plan to do in your retirement?
I plan to write a book about my life for my children. It would also be nice to spend more time with my three children and nine grandchildren. I want to include photography, and my husband and I plan to travel. I will not be bored — I can tell you that.
As of press time, Matt Rowe, a longtime community volunteer and librarian, was named the new executive director of the Reitz Home. To learn more about the Reitz Home Museum, visit www.reitzhome.com.