VEVAY, IND. -- Come in from the cold and step into the gentlemen’s parlor of Donna Weaver’s 180-year-old Vevay, Ind., home. Oh, shiver. It’s even colder in here.
Yet in this chilly place, there’s a sense of magic, a sense that William Henry Harrison might walk in at any moment, carrying a shaggy wool blanket, a fat cigar and a bottle of whiskey to share in front of a roaring fire the Indian fighter and future president will politely insist that you build.
There’s no record of the great horseback-riding adventurer visiting the house, but it is possible. He probably knew of it, because its original owner, John W. Wright, was a successful flatboat captain and an award-winning farmer of wheat, corn and peaches. And Wright’s seven-room, two-story house was – and still is – a jewel along the bottomland of the Ohio River between Vevay and Madison to the west.
Wax miniature artist and Fort Mitchell native Donna Weaver and her late husband, Tom, met at the Art Academy of Cincinnati in the 1960s. They bought the Wright homestead, which includes 100 acres that stretch from the north shore of the Ohio up into the hill behind it, in the early 1990s. The rich history of Switzerland County and Vevay in particular drew them away from their Cincinnati home.
The land is protected as a certified forest by the state of Indiana, and the property, which had been a grain, fruit, tobacco and dairy farm over the years, was full of buried Indian artifacts the couple enjoyed collecting.
But the house was time-worn and weather-worn and lacked the basic mechanicals: plumbing, heating and electricity. Fixing it was going to take painstaking work, but the existing original craftsmanship that went into it was inspiring.
The restoration work facing the Weavers and the lifestyle they would have to adapt to in the process didn’t deter them one bit.
“I appreciate history; I always have,” Weaver said. “I like the way things were done in the past.”
History On The River
The Wright House gave the parents of two grown children the chance to preserve and experience history at an initial cost of just $70,000.
“You could see the house had potential, and it’s a nice location on the river. That was very important to us. It’s just an hour’s drive to Cincinnati and Louisville, and the town (Vevay) had everything we were looking for,” Weaver said.
“Actually, it’s one of the nicest houses along the river,” she said. “Its trim work is amazing. You’re not going to find anything like it.”
The Weavers, obviously, had to do a lot of work to the house. It included adding on a large kitchen, a studio with wood-burning fireplace, a laundry room, a mudroom and a bathroom off the back, rehabilitating the front porch, shuttering and re-flooring the west-side porch, clearing land for a vegetable and herb garden, building retaining walls and paths around the house and planting trees. A gum tree the Weavers planted early on shades the front yard along with two mature gingko trees.
But they didn’t add heat to the original house, opting instead to rely on its two fireplaces – one had to be rebuilt completely – and layers of sweaters to keep them warm at night in their upstairs bedroom.
There’s no air conditioning in the old house either, but the way its doors and windows are situated optimizes summer breezes, and the thick brick and plaster walls are efficient insulators, Weaver said.
Her husband died more than a decade ago, and she has a successful career designing and engraving models for the U.S. Mint in her library-like studio. But Weaver felt she needed a smaller place, so recently she purchased a six-room home with a small yard in Madison that was designed by renowned Indiana architect Francis Costigan (1810-1865).
“It took me a good year to decide to sell it,” Weaver said. “I like this house, but I don’t think I ever used it to its full potential.”
Constructed By Shipbuilders
John Wright hired shipbuilders Bruce and Thomas Freeman of Massachusetts to construct the house as they saw fit. They built the rare Egyptian Revival-inspired structure on a bluff a few hundred yards from the Ohio River, which can be seen through the bare trees this time of year.
“Wright told the Freemans to knock yourselves out,” Weaver said. “It’s crazy work, but it’s lovely.”
The house’s facade features matching porches on each of the two stories with spindled railings and Chinese lattice transoms, and its interior details are a nod to the Freemans’ nautical past. Rope-like molding, wave-patterned interlocking chair railing, faux tiger maple grained built-in cabinetry, salmon-colored woodwork, rose plaster walls, two-inch thick ash floors and a ship’s star carved into the parlor’s wooden mantel are all as they were in Wright’s day.
The house has two front doors: One opens to the gentlemen’s parlor and was used by visitors, and the other leads to the dining room and original kitchen and was used primarily by the family, which at one time included seven people. Unlike many 1800s houses, Wright’s has no central hall with a staircase.
Instead, its 180-degree, winding staircase is in what was an open porch beyond the parlor. Almost all original, it features ash steps, cherry spindles, a walnut rail and a repeating, swirl pattern at the base of the rails that is copied on the vertical sides of the steps.
While the staircase was in good shape when the Weavers bought the Wright House, the porch room was not. A lot of sweat equity went into restoring its floor, replacing eight-foot, interior shutters and windows behind them, Weaver said. Fortunately, the eight-foot tall, 24-pane sash window between the porch room and parlor, as well as a matching one in the parlor that faces the river, needed only minor restoration.
Portrait Of The Owner
Two pieces of artwork – a portrait of Wright and his survey map of Louisiana and Mississippi where he traded – hang in the parlor.
“One day,” Weaver recalled, “we were lucky enough to have people come to the door and say they were relatives of John Wright, and they were kind enough to give us that portrait.”
Weaver said it’s likely she will copy the portrait and leave the original with the house for its future owners to enjoy.
The house’s original kitchen is located through a doorway near the bottom of the staircase. A door across the kitchen lines up with one in the porch room, so that when open, they create a wind tunnel that cools the house in the summer.
The ceiling drops significantly to seven feet in the old kitchen, giving the slanted-wall nursery room above it more headroom. The Weavers had to recreate the kitchen’s missing fireplace, building a new hearth and firebox and topping it with a period mantel they bought.
The 1990s Addition
When the Weavers bought it, the Wright House had an attached narrow mudroom across the back and the second of two buildings used as summer kitchens standing near the hillside in the backyard. Both were taken down in the 1990s when they added onto the house.
“It was kind of a little here and kind of a little there – piecemeal,” Weaver said of the project, which coincided with ongoing restoration of the old house.
Excavating for the addition and a crawl space below involved knocking 20 feet out of the hill. Weaver didn’t get a cistern until 2004.
“We went a long time without water,” Weaver said. “We had to bring it in from Cincinnati.”
The addition took five or six years and created “a muddy mess,” Weaver said.
“The main goal was to be able to walk to my car without getting my feet muddy,” Weaver said, a task eliminated in 2006 with the completion of her pathway system.
The finished addition provided the Weavers a comfortable place to eat and gather and for her to work. And there’s plenty of room to display their collections and Donna’s wax figures and historical silhouettes as well as works by members of her artist communities in Cincinnati and Indiana.
Today, Weaver works in her studio surrounded by hundreds of books shelved in two cases they built and five floor-to-ceiling Globe-Wernicke lawyer’s bookcases they purchased from the Cincinnati company’s defunct warehouse for $35 each, Weaver said.
Still Work To Be Done
Weaver said she won’t attempt to complete all of the mostly cosmetic restoration projects that remain in the original house, but she will make sure the walls have fresh paint before moving to Madison next spring or early summer. By then, the Wright House and its land will be on the market.
Weaver said finding a buyer for the Wright Homestead could take some time, but eventually “somebody else will enjoy this house like I have.”