The significance of the Debs House lies not in its architecture (its Queen Anne grandeur has been greatly modified over the years), but rather in its first occupant, labor activist Eugene V. Debs. At the age of 19, Debs joined the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen (BLF) as a charter member and was immediately named secretary. With his gift for fiery oratory and writing, he rose rapidly to leadership on the national level as BLF’s Grand Secretary/Treasurer and editor of its magazine. His tireless efforts increased union membership and made Debs a prominent figure in the fledging American labor movement. Although Debs was often off traveling all over the country on behalf of the union cause, during the 1880s he served two terms as City Clerk of Terre Haute and a single term in the Indiana General Assembly as a Democrat. Ultimately rejecting the concept of craft unionism, Debs founded the first industrial union in the United States in 1893, the American Railway Union (ARU), which organized all railroad workers as part of a single union for greater solidarity.
In 1890, Debs and his wife, Katherine, built a house in Terre Haute. Their fine middle-class dwelling fit well in a neighborhood full of similar late-nineteenth-century residences. It is believed that Debs himself drew up the plans for the house based on prevailing Queen Anne designs popular in the Midwest at the time. The two-and-a-half-story frame dwelling was substantial and ornate. The original wooden front porch with its turned posts and spindled railing was replaced in the mid-1910s with one of concrete and brick pillars.
By the turn of the century, Debs had turned to democratic socialism as the answer to the problems of labor. Although the ARU had been a strong union, it had proven powerless when the federal government crushed the Pullman Strike of 1894. While in jail for his actions during the strike, Debs became convinced that political and social change would be necessary before the movement for workers’ rights could succeed. In 1897 Debs announced, “I am for Socialism because I am for humanity,” and he and other leaders of the dissolved ARU founded Social Democracy of America with Debs as chairman. In 1901 the party renamed itself the Socialist Party of America. While Debs had no personal political ambitions, he accepted the nomination to run as the party’s candidate for president in 1900, 1904, 1908, 1912, and 1920. Under no illusions of winning, Debs used his candidacy to educate the public and lay a foundation for future socialist efforts.
Eugene and Kate Debs lived in the house until their deaths in 1926 and 1936, respectively. They had no children, and the contents of the house went to various relatives, but many items have since been returned to the house. Professor John Shannon of adjacent (and today, encompassing) Indiana State Teachers College (now Indiana State University) purchased the house in 1938 and lived there for ten years with his wife, selling it to Tau Sigma Alpha Fraternity in 1948. The Fraternity sided the house with cedar shingles (since removed) and remained in it for thirteen years. It was then briefly owned by a contractor, who converted it into small apartments, but the Eugene V. Debs Foundation, established in 1962, purchased the house and restored it as a memorial to Debs. In 1966 the Debs House became one of the first National Historic Landmarks.
The house’s original context was entirely demolished with the expansion of Indiana State University (ISU) in the late twentieth century. ISU’s fifteen-story Brutalist Statesman Towers (1968–1969, Ewing Miller and Associates) were built immediately north of the house but were demolished in 2015. Today, the house stands surrounded by a sea of asphalt parking lots and open lawns at the perimeter of the ISU campus. Although the exterior has lost most of its ornamentation, the interior is largely intact and restored with seven fireplaces, including one in the foyer, and much of the original wood trim. The rooms today are furnished with many original pieces of furniture and bric-a-brac that had graced the Debs home, along with other period pieces and artifacts that interpret the story of Debs’ life.