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James Whitcomb Riley Museum Home
Built in 1872 for baker John R. Nickum, whose company had supplied the Union Army with hardtack during the Civil War, this house reflects the postwar boom that made many fortunes in Indianapolis. Nickum’s daughter, Magdalena, and her husband, Charles Holstein, inherited the house and in 1893, the couple invited prominent Hoosier poet James Whitcomb Riley to live with them. Riley remained in the house until his death in 1916, and the Holsteins’ residence became known as the “Riley Home.”
Born in Greenfield, Indiana, just east of Indianapolis along the National Road, Riley rose to prominence in the 1880s through publication of his poems and through speaking tours, often in company with humorist Edgar Wilson “Bill” Nye and other popular entertainers. Riley was a key figure in Indiana’s “Golden Age” of the 1890s to 1910s, being one of a group of Indiana authors to achieve national prominence. Many of his works were illustrated by Howard Chandler Christy. Riley’s poetry, often written in the dialect of rural Midwestern farmers, was wildly popular during his lifetime and he enjoyed wide celebrity.
The Riley Home sits within what is now the Lockerbie Square Historic District, a dense neighborhood of worker’s cottages and larger middle-class residences on the near east side of downtown Indianapolis. The neighborhood’s narrow streets, mostly offset from the adjacent grid of Indianapolis’s Mile Square original plat, made it a comparatively quite enclave within the bustling late-nineteenth-century city. Riley’s four-stanza poem “Lockerbie Street” begins “Such a dear little street it is, nestled away / From the noise of the city and heat of the day,” and closes with “For no language could frame and no lips could repeat / My rhyme-haunted raptures of Lockerbie street.”
The two-story Italianate house has a stone foundation, brick exterior, and a low-pitched hipped roof with wide overhanging eaves and brackets. The house features a pair of glazed doors and arched windows with limestone hoods. The interior reflects the tastes of the Indianapolis business class during the 1870s, with varnished hardwood moldings, Aesthetic Movement–influenced decorative painting, as well as up-to-date technology such as gas lighting and speaking tubes.
On the first floor are a long entrance hall, drawing room, library, formal dining room, small dining room, and kitchen. The drawing room contains an Italian marble fireplace against the east wall and an elaborate glass gasolier, which was later electrified. Within the library stands another Italian marble fireplace and gilded cornices line the perimeter of the ceiling. On the second floor are five bedrooms, the largest of which was occupied by Riley. This bedroom featured a study and adjoining bathroom with cherry woodwork and a copper bathtub. The woodwork on the second floor is of butternut.
The house was the scene of many of Riley’s public events, including large gatherings of children who would come to hear him tell stories on the lawn. When Riley died, he was a revered figure, perhaps the individual most identified with the Hoosier State in the national consciousness. Writing in the 1940s, historian John Bartlow Martin noted of Riley that “the worship of things he and his poems had touched approached idolatry.” Following Riley’s immense funeral, the house passed to William Fortune. A few years later, proposals to pave Lockerbie Street in front of the house were met by angry public protest that such improvements would destroy the quiet neighborhood Riley had celebrated. In 1921, bestselling Hoosier novelist Booth Tarkington urged Fortune to donate the house to the James Whitcomb Riley Memorial Association, which sought to commemorate the poet’s life and legacy. The Riley Home opened to the public in 1922 as a shrine to Riley’s life and works. In 1924, the Memorial Association also opened the James Whitcomb Riley Hospital for Children on the west side of downtown Indianapolis.
The Riley Home has remained largely unaltered for generations and continues to operate as a historic house museum. The house’s immediate context was damaged by the mid-twentieth-century demolition of the neighboring Italianate houses, which left the Riley Home isolated in the middle of open lawns with Victorian-inspired gardens, giving a false sense of history that contrasts with the dense setting known and celebrated by Riley.
Lockerbie Square suffered decades of disinvestment during the twentieth century. In 1958, a plan was developed to demolish the remainder of the neighborhood’s historic buildings, leaving the Riley Home as an attraction within a Disneyland-inspired park called Lockerbie Fair. The park would have featured large surface parking lots, miniature replicas of various historic buildings, and a Victorian-themed village with shops, along the lines of Disneyland’s Main Street, U.S.A., which had opened in 1955. This plan never materialized and Lockerbie Square became the focus of the historic preservation movement in Indiana during the 1960s, led by the Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana, now Indiana Landmarks. In 1967, the Indianapolis Historic Preservation Commission was established and Lockerbie Square became the city’s first local historic district. Indiana Landmarks’ efforts to buy, stabilize, and sell buildings with historic preservation easements triggered substantial private investment in the neighborhood during the 1970s and 1980s. Lockerbie Square was promoted as a historic urban neighborhood and key neighborhood services were provided by preservation-based redevelopments of surrounding buildings, including a former Sears Roebuck store that became Indianapolis’s first new downtown grocery store in 1987. By the 1990s, Lockerbie Square had become one of the preeminent addresses in Indianapolis and revitalization spread to surrounding historic neighborhoods.
The Riley Home remained a key tourist destination throughout Lockerbie Square’s decline and revitalization. In 2014, a new neo-Italianate visitors’ center was built on the lot east of the house, loosely modeled on a brick stable that once stood north of the house. The Riley Home is now owned and operated as a house museum by the Riley Children’s Foundation.
Conn, Earl L. My Indiana: 101 Places to See. Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society Press, 2006.
James Whitcomb Riley Man of Letters. Indianapolis: Riley Memorial Association, 1973.
Malone, Dumas, ed. “James Whitcomb Riley.” Dictionary of American Biography. Vol. 15. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1935.
Nicholson, Meredith. The Hoosiers. New York: Macmillan, 1900.
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