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T.C. Steele State Historic Site
An iconic figure of early-twentieth-century Indiana, Theodore Clement Steele was an Impressionist painter who facilitated the transformation of part of rural Brown County into an artist’s colony. A member of the “Hoosier Group,” along with Indiana artists J. Ottis Adams, William Forsyth, Richard B. Gruelle, and Otto Stark, Steele moved to Brown County in 1906, and made the surrounding landscape the primary subject of his work.
Growing up near Gosport, Indiana, Steele’s artistic aptitude was on display from a young age and propelled him through school. He attended Waveland Collegiate Institute and graduated in 1868. Following brief stints of study in Chicago and Cincinnati, during which Steele worked as a portrait painter, Steele made a study trip to Europe to further hone his skills. Art supplies merchant Herman Lieber of Indianapolis supported Steele on this venture, which he began in 1880.
After five years of study, Steele returned to Indianapolis, establishing a small studio focused on capturing the Indiana landscape. Acclaim for his work came rapidly; Steele exhibited in Chicago, Indianapolis, and Atlanta, and was instrumental in organizing the Society of Western Artists, a mechanism through which the Indiana artist was able to exhibit his work for audiences throughout the region. Well known and popular in the 1890s, Steele’s success was darkened by the passing of his wife in 1895. From this, though, emerged Steele’s focus on the landscape, a cause she had always promoted.
Steele’s relocation to Brown County was prompted by his renewed affection for the landscape of the rolling countryside and cemented by his pending marriage to Selma Neubacher, a fellow artist. In 1907, Steele purchased land on the outskirts of Nashville, Indiana, south of Belmont, transforming it into a haven for his work and spurring the development of the Brown County Art Colony, where regional artists made the community their muse. Between 1906 and 1926, the Steeles constructed five buildings on their property, situated amidst diverse vegetation, ravines, and streams that crossed a gently contoured landscape, providing endless views to capture amidst dynamic plays of light and shadow.
At the center of the property was a rambling dwelling cast in natural tones, which also initially provided studio space for Steele. However, this function was later turned over to dedicated studios, from which the artist could work uninhibited. With the floor plan for the new dwelling derived by Selma, work commenced over a period of approximately seven weeks. With one large room serving as a gathering place and studio, private and functional spaces such as the bedroom and kitchen were allocated to the opposite side of the house. The north side, off the gathering room and studio space, was illuminated through a large bank of windows providing open view to the surrounding countryside while the remainder of the house was encompassed by a series of screened-in porches, serving as outdoor sleeping rooms and integrating the house into the landscape. Inscribed below the mantel of the house’s prominent fireplace was a quote specifically selected by Selma, representing the view with which the Steeles’ approached life: “Every morning I take off my hate to the Beauty of the World.”
The property was also dotted by guest houses, providing space for visiting students and artists. Balancing the architecture was Selma’s imprint upon the landscape; her gardens were planted along native stone pathways and buildings, integrating the manmade into the natural setting. Among the most significant of the buildings was the large studio, built in 1916 to replace the smaller studios in which Steele had perfected his craft. The building served not only as a sanctuary for work, but also as a gallery for the display and sale of Steele’s work. Of simple construction, the wood frame, barn-like structure is clad in board-and-batten siding and gently nestled into the foreslope extending from the core of the property into the wooded acreage to the north. While seemingly vernacular, the studio has a striking window bay on the north side—a series of fixed and casement sashes that occupy most of the wall. A critical element of the design, the assembly provided ample natural light and also allowed for full views of the adjacent house and gardens that were frequently the subject of Steele’s paintings.
Steele maintained the property until his death in 1926, at which time it passed to his wife. Upon Selma’s death in 1945, the property was transferred to the State of Indiana. Since then, the State has supported management and interpretation of the property, converting buildings such as the studio for use as a museum, showcasing Steele’s work, and restoring the house and grounds to their appearance during his lifetime. Today, the property functions as the T.C. Steele State Historic Site and continues to inspire countless artists who come to the site each year. A new visitors’ center is scheduled to open in summer 2018.
Ball State University. Historic Structure Report for the Large Studio: T.C. Steele State Historic Site. Muncie, IN: Center for Historic Preservation, 2008.
Hiller, Nancy. “The Life and Legacy of T.C. Steele.” Bloom Magazine,August/September 2011.
Perry, Rachel Berenson, Wilbur David Beat, and Selma N. Steele. The House of the Singing Winds: The Life and Work of T.C. Steele. Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society, 1996.
Starrett, Robert D., “T.C. Steele Home and Studio,” Brown County, Indiana. National Register of Historic Places Inventory–Nomination Form, 1973. National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, D.C.
“T.C. Steele.” Indiana Historical Society. Accessed March 14, 2018. http://www.indianahistory.org/.
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