living with history
The Cyrus Allen Building, constructed sometime between 1805 and 1830, is located in the Historic District of Vincennes, Indiana, at 521 Main Street. According to the property’s abstract, records of the exact date of construction were destroyed in a fire. The land was originally owned by Francis Vigo, an important figure in Vincennes’ history.
The building’s style has Neoclassical roots. Its symmetry suggests Palladian influence (from the Venetian architect, Andre Palladio). The style, however, is Greek Revival, even without typical features like columns, pilasters or a large triangular pediment. Other features qualify it as Greek Revival. It has many tall, narrow, double-hung windows with six panes to each sash. They are arranged symmetrically on either side of a centrally located door. A modest cornice with temple-like decorative molding finishes the eaves.
The interior layout of the building probably is its most distinguishing and gratifying feature. A hallway runs through the center of the structure, from the front to the back entrances. It divides four cubical rooms into pairs. The symmetry of this arrangement and the 10 foot 6 inch ceilings provide a stately, elegant space. Each window and doorway is framed with an unadorned and typically Greek post and lintel motif. In this motif, the lintels or beams extend slightly beyond the top of each post. This simple design emphasizes the voluminous beauty of each room.
Original hand-planed woodwork reminds us that long ago a one by six board was really one by six inches, unlike today’s commercially prepared lumber. The irregularities in the surfaces record the human-held plane of the builder of about 200 years ago. The stairway in the hallway features a rail, also made by hand, an example of fine woodworking with a lovely spiral and knob at opposite ends. These curved punctuations are built with only one seam, as opposed to the two seams used in mass produced rails of today.
The historic significance of this building for our city lies in the spiritual connection between Vincennes, which played an important role during the Revolutionary War, and the ancient Greeks, who invented democracy. After the United States won its independence and particularly after the War of 1812, architects, including Thomas Jefferson, abandoned the Palladian style, which was popular in England at the time. They looked to Classical Greece instead. Jefferson influenced other architects with his idea that the Greek Revival style served as an important metaphor for the ideas of Democracy, the Separation between Church and State and Religious Freedom. He advocated a style that echoed the civic edifices of the former, enlightened, Hellenic culture. This association grew in popularity from 1825, as the Greeks fought for their independence from Turkey. The style in our country rapidly spread into new settlements as people migrated west.
This building has undergone many changes in its two hundred year history. In the mid-19th century, it was popular to decorate buildings with gingerbread. When the second floor was added about 1850, additions included plenty of gingerbread details and a peaked roof. Later the roof was truncated midway up the peak and the gingerbread removed, restoring the building to its more sober, understated, elegance.
As new owners, my spouse, Amy, and I intend to maintain the historic integrity of this landmark within our means as we develop it as a contemporary art gallery called ArtSpaceVincennes to open next fall. We believe that respectfully melding the old with the new can contribute to making Vincennes a unique destination. Finding positive ways to live with our history can add value and the potential for economic and cultural growth to our community. It can enrich our understanding of our nation’s history and generally improve the quality of life in our community.
It is not surprising, considering the history of Vincennes, that both the Cyrus Allen Building and the Old Cathedral (the Basilica of St. Francis Xavier) are based on Greek Revival Architecture. They remain two notable examples of such in Indiana, both listed on the National Register of Historic Sites and included on the Knox County Public Library architectural walking tour.
This article is also published in the April-May 2013 issue of Hoosier Family Living magazine. Watch for future articles about art in the Knox County area by Andy Jendrzejewski in Hoosier Family Living magazine published every other month.