Lesson Learned

Demolition of Sullivan home
shows property rights dilemma

Preservationists want to educate
property owners before they demolish

(July 2013) – Amy Schmidt of Canaan, Ind., remembers well the day her husband proposed to her. He chose the Daniel Sullivan house, knowing it was one of Schmidt’s favorite spots in Jefferson County.
The 1825 stone home, located on Thornton Road in northern Jefferson County, Ind., represented the focus of Schmidt’s life to that point – studying historic structures.

Sullivan House

Photo courtesy of Amy Schmidt

The home of Daniel Sullivan in Madison is pictured here before it was recently demolished by the property owner.

In writing an honors thesis for the Indiana University Department of Anthropology, Schmidt drew heavily from information she gathered on the Sullivan home. She also remembers well the day she drove by the Sullivan home, only to find a bulldozer amidst a pile of stones. “This house told a portion of our county’s history – a very important and unique portion. Now it’s gone forever. Something must change in order to preserve our heritage,” says Schmidt.
Very little is known of Sullivan. There are records of his service in the Indiana militia as early as 1811. He served as Lt. Major in the Battle of Tippecanoe in Decker’s regiment. It is believed that he was given property in Indiana as payment for his service.
Schmidt notes that a wide variety of protections have been put into place to preserve the historic district of downtown Madison. She hopes this incident will cause implementation of similar measures to protect buildings located in the countryside.
“These stone structures are unique to this part of our country,” says Schmidt. She notes that generally stone must be quarried before it can be used for building. “Only the upper crust of families could afford the cost of quarrying the stone, so in most regions only the upper crust had stone houses. But eastern Jefferson County offered a unique geology – stones just lying on the ground.

Amy Schmidt

“Daniel Sullivan emigrated from Scotland, a geographically similar area, and came with the building skills to create homes from available stone. These common, ordinary people had houses like the upper crust.”
Schmidt contends that a study of historic structures gives insights, not just into the architecture, but also into the different factors that shaped people and society. “People like Sullivan helped erase class differences just in the houses they built. That made a new kind of society and helped form our American identity. When we lose the structures, we lose insights into how we became who we are,” says Schmidt.
Jan Vetrhus, president of the preservationist group Cornerstone Society, echoes Schmidt’s desire to preserve the county’s history. “We are one of the oldest settled counties in the state,” she says. “As we approach the state’s bicentennial, I hope this incident shines a light on the opportunity to show how important Jefferson County has been to our state and to preserve that history.”
She notes there are many efforts to preserve cemeteries and more public structures. These include Eleutherian College. But the houses, barns and other structures that hold the stories of the more common people are being lost. She gratefully acknowledges the work of many to offer tours of homes and churches to educate the public about the great history we possess. “I believe education is the key,” says Vetrhus. “Once people understand the treasures we have, they will be more inclined to help preserve them.”
Vetrhus notes that structures tell two different stories. The most obvious is the story held in the building techniques and architecture used. But go a little deeper, and you find the stories of the people who lived there. “These emigrants brought skills, dreams and a vision for the future when they came to Indiana. They settled and shaped our state. Their story is our story. If we lose the structures, we lose the story.”
John Nyberg, Executive Director of the Jefferson County Historical Society, works hard with his team to preserve that story by collecting artifacts and making available the information about the history of the county to the public. “We are not a preservation organization, but we genuinely desire to partner with preservation efforts through information,” says Nyberg. “Our hands are full just maintaining the artifacts within our collection. We can’t take on the work of a preservation organization.”
He notes that because of the age of the county, many people have artifacts lying in the front yard and don’t even know it. “A farmer may have a crumbling, run-down spring house that looks like an eyesore to him but contains tremendous history,” says Nyberg.
He hopes to educate the public about what they have and why it’s important. “We can’t save every building. Farmers have to be able to use their land and make decisions that balance more factors than just historic preservation. Our role is to help them see what they have so they can make an informed decision.”
Schmidt says she would like to see county officials implement a process requiring some sort of demolition permit that would allow for an historic analysis before buildings are demolished. She contends this would enable the county to preserve the most significant structures. Both Vetrhus and Nyberg, meanwhile, focus more on education efforts than regulation.
“I learned in my days in manufacturing that you want to make it easy for people to do the right thing,” says Vetrhus. “More rules typically don’t inspire people to do the right thing. I’d rather focus on educating people on what they have and why it is important.” Nyberg echoes that sentiment aware of the tough position property owners may face in balancing significant history against current needs.
All the parties hope this incident inspires discussion and awareness. Awareness of the significant treasures contained within Jefferson County and the need to preserve the history as we move forward. “I would urge anyone tearing down a building to first learn about what you already have and measure whether what you are losing is worth what you will gain,” Vetrhus says. “Be informed. Know why you are making the choice. If we can all see the story as something worth preserving along with moving forward, that will be the best protection.”

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