The house at 511 West First Street, designed and built by architect-builder Francis Costigan for Madison's famous banker, James F. D. Lanier, is now nationally known. It was constructed during the years 1840-44, and its design came from various sources, particularly Minard Lafever's carpenters'handbooks. Costigan was strongly influenced by the great Baltimore houses which he had studied before coming to Madison. It was, however, his deep sense of proportion, coupled with his own fertile imagination, that distinguished his work and differentiated it from that of his contemporaries.
Classic, cubic, and massive, the Lanier house is not quite a temple form. It has no pediment, and the roof is not visible from the ground level. Instead, a slightly pedimented fascia board or shield board, which goes around all four sides and is decorated by a molding similar to those that appear around the windows, hides the roof. Anthemion carvings occur at the centers and at the corners of the four sides. A massive cupola that is reminiscent of a Greek choragic monument or the Tower of the Winds in Athens rises some sixteen feet above the stairwell in the center of the house and crowns the building. The whole gives an impression of grandeur hitherto unknown in this river town.
A number of architectural features serve to increase this feeling of splendor. The first is the great height of the columns on the river facade. These reach from the high basement above the ground level to the cornice two and a half floors above, The wing at the side of the house, which rises one full story from the ground on a high foundation and is topped by a second story behind a mansard roof, was added somewhat later.
A double divided staircase on the terrace facing the river at the garden entrance added to the estate like effect, as did the two greenhouses, which supplied both flowers and fruit for the Laniers. The foundation of one of these can still be seen in the garden near the house. This effect was heightened at a later date by a wall between the garden and the river and the rather high iron fence with gates on the three sides of the garden.
The street facade must have seemed equally imposing to guests arriving by carriage. The house was built only a few feet back from the street at a time when First Street continued through the block. That street was not closed until a few years ago when the park between First and Second streets was created. Guests arriving by carriage would alight on the sidewalk and be completely overwhelmed by this vast masonry facade looming above them. Much of that effect was lost when the street was closed.
On the south face of the house toward the river the windows on the first level are tall and narrow, being six over nine. On the second level they are six over six, with a triple window above the entrance. On the third level round windows ornamented with wreaths of carved leaves pierce the frieze. On the sides of the house windows are all six over six, but those on the first floor are two feet longer than those above. This arrangement exemplifies Costigan's sensitivity to space relations. The windows on the street side duplicate those on the river side. Window caps are further decorated with carved rosettes. There are no exterior shutters but only wide Classic window framing. Ironwork decorating the house is heavy and elaborate and includes a railing around the portico, down the steps, and around the balconies at the street windows on the first floor.
The porch at the entrance on the,street side has capitals on the columns that do not match those on the river side, for which reason it has been suggested that this porch was a later addition. Early photographs show that the mansard roof was added at a later date, and that the ceiling of the second floor in the wing was raised at the time the mansard roof was constructed, probably in the early 1870s. A lithograph from 1876 shows the bay window and the roof, proving their existence by that date. A photograph dating from the 1860s shows the service wing as a one-story structure.
The central hall contains a cantilevered spiral staircase, recessed into a side wall, making a full turn between floors. The hall is flanked by a double parlor on one side and by a dining room, stairs, and a library on the other. A small transverse hall between the dining room and the library leads to the service wing.
The double parlor is divided by sliding doors flanked by columns with Ionic capitals. These parlors are ornamented with cornices and heavy window casings. The cornices are plaster and decorated with egg-and-dart mold'mgs and dentils. Windows on the east and west walls have panels beneath them extending to the floor, making them compatible with the floor-length windows on the other sides. Upper and lower inside shutters on these windows provide excellent heat control in the summer and winter. These shutters are solid panels and fold back into the ' dow framing when not in use. At an early period South windows had awnings. These were not the large Victorian awnings covering half of a window but rather were small multiple awnings, one above another and at least three or four on a window.
Fireplaces heated the double parlors, dining room, library, and the bedrooms on the second floor. On the first floor the mantels are black Italian marble, and on the second they are black 'in the two south bedrooms and almost white in the two north ones. The fireplaces in the bedrooms have been altered since the building has been owned by the state. The third floor rooms were heated by stoves.
Door and window casings on the second floor are decorated with ogee or cyma recta moldings, centered on a raised V-shape member, and surmounted by bulls' eyes at the corners. Dressing rooms between the bedrooms on the second floor occupied nearly five feet, and a water closet was added to one of them in the 1870s. The water for it had to be pumped daily from a cistern.
In the transverse hall at the foot of the curved stairs Costigan placed one of his now famous curved doors, which opens into the service hall. Another curved door opens from the stairwell to the third floor hall.
Vents in the cupola represent Costigan's early efforts at heat control and ventilation. They can be opened or closed and thus can control the movement of warm air from the house. Costigan's School for the Blind 'in Indianapolis better demonstrated such controls. See also the discussion of the Shrewsbury house.
Drusilla Cravens, granddaughter of James F. D. Lanier, later owned the house. In 1925 the State of Indiana acquired the residence and opened it in 1926 as the state's first historical memorial. The Indiana Department of Conservation is its Present owner.