Each week I will take a look into the history of Indianapolis through the eyes of a different Circle City Monument or Museum. If you have any comments, questions or would like to suggest your favorite Indy house of history, drop me a line below or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Even though the air was crisp and the mercury well below freezing on Thursday, the sun was shining bright; so I decided to walk east from the President Benjamin Harrison Home to the Morris-Butler House. Less than 10 minutes later I again found myself waiting on the front steps of my destination, ringing a bell and waiting to gain entrance. If you missed Thursday’s part 1 on the Benjamin Harrison Home, go ahead and take a minute to catch up by reading this.
I walked into the front hallway of the M-B House and was greeted by my tour guide Aimee. As we exchanged pleasantries, I noticed tour guide Aimee was putting on a pair of white gloves. Thankfully I am still younger than the recommended age for a proctology exam so this was just a sign that tour guide Aimee meant business.
The Morris-Butler House is a Victorian era home built in 1865, and is presently owned and maintained by the Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana. The original owner, and man who paid for the home to be constructed, was a gentleman by the name of John Morris. A speculator by trade, Morris was the son of an early Indianapolis settler.
The home is also a residence with split personalities so to speak. You see, money was tight for Morris, yet he found this no reason to live within his means. He had much of the downstairs furnished extravagantly so as to present he and his family as wealthy upper-class.I suppose a nineteenth century version of keeping up with the Jones’.
The rest of the home is furnished in a much more basic style I would best define as necessity. If they didn’t absolutely need it, they didn’t have it. In fact, when Noble Butler bought the house in 1881–Morris had to move the family due to financial issues–he soon found that rooms on the second floor still had exposed brick where Morris could not afford to complete building. Now you know where the house got its two names from, but to learn a full history on the property I defer to more qualified professionals, such as tour guide Aimee.
Pretty much everywhere you look downstairs you will see something outstanding. The parlor has a Belter furniture set that is so remarkable I can’t do it justice. I’m sure someone can, just not me. The room is grand in both size and ornateness. From the molding on the ceiling, to the gold-leafed mirror that hangs over the fireplace, this room just screams opulence and snobbery.
Across the hall, in the informal parlor and dining room, is where the only two pieces of original furnishings can be found. The first, a light fixture complete with flying cherubs. And second, an ordinary looking buffet that would have been hidden from company’s view due to its plain style and look. The Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana was able to procure a second fixture of almost the exact same style to match the original. By no means would I consider myself to possess a decorative flair, but these fixtures are stunning.
Downstairs is where the Morris-Butler House really shines and gives you the personal gratification that your admission was worth it.
Earlier I said that the behind the scenes view of the M-B House was devoid of furnishings to keep costs down, perhaps I was a tad untruthful. There is still plenty of furnishings and antiques upstairs to view. It is just old, rather than old and pretty like its downstairs counterparts. I noticed a large collection of chamber pots of various shapes and sizes. This struck me as odd since the home was originally constructed with indoor plumbing, albeit a very rudimentary style of indoor plumbing. I guess it would be better to over prepare for any possible mishaps.
If I could have taken just one thing home with me, it would have been the original Wooten patent desk that came from the days of the home’s second owner Noble Butler. Again, it is not the original Wooten desk Butler himself owned, but it is an original Wooten that someone locally owned. It is one of only two Wooten originals in the entire downtown Indianapolis area.
There were warm golden rays of sunshine calling to me from a rickety stair case leading to the attic. But, when I asked tour guide Aimee if I could sneak a quick peek, she threw me a look that clearly said no dice. Even when I tried to “influence” her with several not so crisp George Washingtons, she stayed the consummate professional and told me we were moving on. Curiosity be damned.
One of the many things I did not know about this historic house is that the Morris-Butler House takes part in the Indianapolis art galleries First Fridays presented by the Indianapolis Downtown Artist and Dealers Association (IDADA). MBH has been the long time home of the Hoosier Salon‘s latest offerings. This is a great way to take in some Indianapolis art while basking in the rich history of Indy.
Also, if throwing a party in someone else’s home is your idea of a good time–man that brings me back to high school–check out the Morris-Butler House for your next event. They handle anything from private tea parties to rehearsal diners and weddings.
Things I didn’t know before my visit…
I once was blind: I hate to admit it, but I really didn’t know much of anything about the Morris-Butler House before my visit. I made the typical mistake of just assuming that the Butler associated with this house must have had some affiliation with Butler University. You know what happens when you assume something right? Anyway, the Butler whose name is attached to this house is Noble Butler. He made his money as a high end bankruptcy lawyer, and made his claim to fame as one of the founding members of the American Red Cross.
Noble was apparently a bit anal. He tried to keep current on all things clean, and was a strong supporter of the sanitation movement in America. While I’m sure it had its drawbacks, Butler’s penitent for preciseness was possibly the biggest aid to the Historical Landmarks Foundation of Indiana. He kept such detailed notes on everything that the HLFA new exactly what they were looking for when it came time to refit the home in antiquated furnishings.
But wait, there’s more: As for the Butler who is associated with the Indianapolis University located just a stones throw away from Broad Ripple Village, his name was Ovid Butler. In nothing more than a coincidence, he and his family lived just four houses up the street from the M-B House. And, he was the original owner of the property that the Morris-Butler House was built on. Ovid Butler’s home is used as a private residence today, but there is a large plaque outside recognizing the man’s contribution to capital city of Indiana.
Its all in a name: Now that I know the name of Butler University’s founder, it brings the grand total of Ovids I’ve ever heard of to two. One was a Roman poet whose work is still read the world over nearly 2000 years after is death. The other started one of the countries finest institutions of higher learning. So it appears to me, if you want your child to grow up and do great things, name them Ovid.
Crazy cat ladies throughout history: The final tenant of the Morris-Butler Home before it became property of the HLFI, was Noble Butler’s youngest daughter Florence Butler. She was a world class concert pianist until she broke both of her wrists. She moved back home and live out her days until her death in 1957. At the time of her death, it was learned that Florence kept her living to only the first floor. Most of the second floor fell into severe disrepair and was occupied by birds, squirrels and anything else that could find its way through the broken windows. She also had a large pack of dogs she cared for.
Apparently they don’t just save lives: As with many of the historical sites in and around Indianapolis, the Morris-Butler House is still standing thanks to Eli Lilly. The famed grandson of Colonel Eli Lilly, is just one of the many Eli Lilly Company namesakes that had dedicated much of their life of preserving Indianapolis society. Before Eli the grandson got involved, Interstate-65 was going to be paved right through the home’s front parlor.
A for effort: Even though only two pieces in the Morris-Butler House are from the original owners, a tip of the cap has to go to the great work the Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana did in gathering replacements. As stated earlier, they had a good idea of what they were looking for thanks to Noble’s notes. They also tried to use only rescued and donated items from the city of Indianapolis. Many of the pieces in residence today–including the awesome mirrors hanging downstairs–were recovered from other Northside homes of the once rich and affluent suburb the Morris-Butler House resides in.
A museum within a museum: When it came time to deck them halls, the HLFI found themselves in a unique position. They started receiving artwork donations from collectors all over the country of one particular Indiana artist. So the Morris-Butler House is now in possession of the largest collection of Jacob Cox artwork in the world.
Tour Guide Aimee’s favorite part of the museum…
Aimee took a minute to really think about this one and finally told me that the dining room is her favorite part of the home because of the history in there, and the connection to the original owners the buffet adds. A close second is the Wooten desk upstairs. You can’t argue with that, after all the desk has its own mailbox.
I learned a great deal of Indianapolis history from my visit, which is alway a sign of a good museum. I am not so sure how powerful it is as a stand alone though. I believe the combination visits to both the President Benjamin Harrison Home and the Morris-Butler Home on the same day works best. It will take you anywhere from two to three hours depending on your tour timing. Start at Harrison’s Home on a tour that begins on the half hour. It will run about an hour long, which then gives you time to get down to the Morris-Butler Estate and start one of their tours within 15 minutes. It keeps the historical flow rolling right along. These two historic homes create a perfect little Indianapolis day trip that everyone can enjoy.
I am always more impressed when the artifacts and antiques are originals, but in cases such as this, not much could have been done to prevent it. I think it’s great that so many of the pieces that do reside there are of local origin. I am not a student of carpentry or architecture, but I could easily appreciate both forms of craftsmanship that went into this house. The combined tour of the President Benjamin Harrison Home and the Morris-Butler House is the first of many great things to do in Indianapolis I will key you in on.
All in all, it was a good first week for this thing of ours. I’ll be back next Thursday with another article on the monuments and museums of Indianapolis.
The Morris-Butler House Museum
1204 North Park Av
Indianapolis, IN 46202
Who is Mark Cline?