An Unpretentious Residence: Lew and Susan’s Home

Isaac Compton Elston, Sr. died unexpectedly in October of 1867 shortly after returning to Crawfordsville from a trip. For many years, his daughter Susan and son-in-law Lew Wallace had lived in homes owned by Isaac. The last home that Lew and Susan lived in, in the 1860s was located on the corner of Market and Water Streets—although just which corner is not made clear in the sales ads placed in the local papers in 1869. It appears from the ads that Lew Wallace may have actually owned this home.

There may have been a family settlement of the estate of Susan’s father that included land along Wabash Avenue and perhaps some money for the Wallaces. A little over a year after her father’s death, Lew and Susan began construction on the two story house at the corner of Wabash Avenue and Elston Street that would be their home for the rest of their lives. It was a nice home, but certainly not a grand mansion. It was one of several family homes on the Elston family property but did not compete architecturally with the elegant Elston Homestead where Susan grew up, with the charming Gothic cottage built by Susan’s sister Helen, with the impressive home of Joanna Lane—another sister, or with the architecturally dramatic home of her brother Isaac, Jr. built in the early1880s.

Even after achieving great success and wealth, the Lew and Susan did little to modify the home they built in the late 1860s. In spite of their world travels and exposure to the homes of some of the most important men and women of the 19th century, they were comfortable with their two story wood frame house on the corner of Wabash and Elston.

Lew Wallace died at home in 1905 and Susan passed away there in 1907. Within a year, there were discussions about preserving the home as a tribute to Lew. The house remained in the family until sold by their son, Henry, in 1919. At that time there was renewed interest in using the home as a public shrine recognizing both Lew Wallace and the Tribe of Ben-Hur. These plans to preserve the home intact did not come to pass and the home was significantly remodeled in the 1930s with select details of the original Wallace home retained.

In 1888, prior to the construction of Lew’s Study, the Indianapolis News described the home life of the Wallaces. The home was described: “His residence in Crawfordsville is a plain unpretentious brown frame house, two stories, with wide verandahs, and is hidden from view by overhanging trees, in front of which is a broad lawn sloping down to the street. Behind the house is a grove of beeches, and under their shadows General Wallace may be seen about 5 o’clock in the afternoon walking to and fro, with long, swinging strides, taking an hour’s constitutional after being all day at his desk.  There are other trees whose boughs almost touch the windows of the dining room, swaying nearly to the ground, and it is here of a summer evening that he loves to receive his friends, entertaining them with conversation as delightful as anything he has written.

            The interior of the house is comparatively plain; the floors are covered with fine matting, over which are spread thick Turkish rugs; the walls are hung with drapery of the Turkish stuffs and there are heavily embroidered scarfs and table covers, inlaid tables, and other bric-a-brac here and there suggestive of his sojourn in Constantinople.

            Over the drawing room mantel is the magnificent picture presented him by the Sultan—a Turkish Princess, . .

            Among other interesting souvenirs are the written agreement relating to the walking match with Charles Dickens arranged during his last visit to Boston, in his own hand writing, which was given Mrs. Wallace by Mrs. Field, and perhaps literally the last fetter broken from the wrist of a slave. This was a young mulatto woman who ran away from her master near Baltimore, and came to General Wallace’s headquarters and he had the chain removed by a locksmith. It hangs under a tattered battle flag in the library and constitutes a very significant object lesson.

            On the library mantle there is also a beautiful picture, a study in oil of “Thralapa” as he is descried in one of the opening chapters of “The Fair God.” . . .

            The study in which much of the novel was written is up stairs, a large, well-lighted, airy room with an eastern and southern exposure. The floor is stained a dark red, and is bare except the center which is covered with a rug—a table, not a desk—and is probably four feet in length, by four in width. It is covered with heaps of paper arranged with the greatest order and neatness, which is a peculiar characteristic of the General.

            On one corner of the table stands a magnificent majolica vase, which came from Florence, while reference books, dictionaries, pens and ink are placed within convenient reach. Near the blotting pad is a huge shell, a grim reminder of his military exploits, . . . On the day of my call, while talking with Mrs. Wallace I had heard the sound of a violin. He had gone when we had invaded his quarters; a bright fire was burning in the grate, a portrait of his friend, the Sultan, upon the mantel, seemed to regard us with a forbidden gaze, and the open music book on one corner of the table gave a clue to the identity of the player. . . “

Relatively few pictures of the Wallace home survive and even fewer of the interior so this description provides important insights into the domestic side of Lew and Susan Wallace. While the Wallace home was not architecturally distinctive it blended well with the other Victorian homes along Wabash Avenue. It was in this home that Wallace began drafting his plans for another building that would be architecturally unique. The plans for his free-standing Study incorporated aspects of buildings that Lew had seen in his travels. It accommodated his personal interests and creative passions. It also became home to many of the individual works of art and souvenirs highlighted in the 1888 description of the private side of a very public person. As mentioned in the article, Lew did play the violin. There is a story that has been passed down through the years regarding his violin. If Lew Wallace really did enjoy playing his violin at midnight as we’ve been told, much as she loved Lew, Susan must have been very happy that Lew’s new Study was across the lawn with thick brick walls!

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