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Gregarious Greeter

Lanier Mansion guide Lackner
receives state hospitality award

His tours are never the same,
he says, adding fun for all

(June 2013) – “Don’t you get awfully bored giving the same tour every day?”
When a little girl asked Lanier Mansion State Historic Site guide Bill Lackner this question, it gave him the chance to share what is actually one of the most interesting parts of his job.

Bill Lackner

Photo courtesy
of the Indiana
Lt. Governor’s  Office

Madison, Ind.’s Bill Lackner receives the Indiana Hospitality Award from Lt. Gov. Sue Ellspermann during a ceremony held in early May at the Indiana Statehouse.

For the fact is, Lackner never really gives the same tour twice. Each time he meets with a new group of guests to the Lanier home, “I try to get an idea of what kind of things they are interested in. I get to meet new people every day, I try to adjust and make it as personalized as I can.”
The Lanier Mansion is located on the Ohio River in Madison, Ind., Part of the Indiana State Museum and Historic Sites, the Lanier Mansion boasts a heroic story and superb architecture. This Greek Revival home belonged to J.F.D. Lanier, who helped finance Indiana’s part in the Civil War.
The intricacy of the architecture and history of the Greek Revival mansion gives Lackner an unending source of material. “That’s the thing about this home – you have to go through about 50 times before you start seeing everything. There’s just so much to see it’s hard to take it all in.”
On May 8, Lackner’s dedication to providing guests with a unique and memorable visit to the historic site was recognized with a statewide award. Indiana Lt. Gov. Sue Ellspermann presented Lackner with a Hoosier Hospitality Award in a ceremony recognizing outstanding contributions to Indiana tourism.
“Indiana has a national reputation for Hoosier Hos-pitality and the men and women we acknowledge today exemplify excellence in service,” said Ellspermann in a press release. “I am honored to recognize the best of the best in an industry vitally important to Indiana’s economy.”

Lanier Mansion

File photo by Don Ward

The Lanier Mansion State
Historic Site hold many stories
for visitors taking the tour, led
by guide Bill Lackner. The mansion
is the city’s top visitor attraction.

Linda Lytle, executive director of VisitMadison Inc., points out that there were only 20 Hoosier Hospitality Awards given this year, putting Lackner in a very select group. “I think it says a lot about the hospitality level in Madison,” she said.
Lytle highlights the importance of having quality guides at the high profile Lanier Mansion, saying that, “In surveys that we’ve done, it is always one of the top three attractions in Madison. We always refer to it as the ‘crown jewel’ of Madison.”
Lytle says Lackner is a something of an ambassador for Madison. “We have people from out of town all the time telling us what a good job he does. I think the thing is he doesn’t just do the tour. He’s willing to answer questions and he knows what’s going on in town.” Lanier Mansion Site Manager Gerry Reilly said of Lackner “He’s a great tour guide. He’s very pleasant and helpful to others.”            
Lackner’s willingness to help visitors extends beyond the doors of the mansion. Despite his five years working as a guide, guests still come up with questions that he is not able to answer right away. “We say ‘I don’t know’ a lot,” Lackner said, laughing.
Yet, Lackner doesn’t just leave it at that but rather starts asking others connected to the house right away for answers. Sometimes he is able to uncover more information through additional research and will pass that on to the guests through e-mail. One thing he never does, however, is pass off a guess or a good story as the truth.
Lackner reflects, “That is I think one of the best parts of the tour – we keep it as accurate as possible. We don’t embellish things. We think it is interesting just as it is.”
Lackner said he enjoys the fact that he is able to meet people from around the world through his work. “That’s the best part of this job. I get people from everywhere.”
He is particularly pleased to note that there he has been able to take visitors from China through the house. The dining room in the mansion is decorated in Chinoiserie style, reflecting the way 19th century Europeans imagined Chinese art. He laughs, saying that he asked if there were really “pink vultures” in China like the birds on the magnificent wallpaper. One of the visitors said “no” but did identify one of the flowering trees as a flowering peony tree.
He says that while the age of the 1844 mansion does not impress Europeans because “they live in homes older than this.” But they are awed with the grandeur of the home.
While Lackner effortlessly conveys his enthusiasm for the Lanier family and their majestic home, he does not give a falsely romantic view of history. He reflects that while the tour is “as accurate as we can make it, it is still idealized to a degree.”
“We are so lucky today,” he says. “They faced diseases, poverty, things we can’t imagine. We’re tying to accurately reproduce everything here, but we can’t reproduce the hardships, the heat, the cold.”
Lackner says that the letters of James Lanier’s daughters give a glimpse into a time when Madison was a rough river town, with their accounts of pigs in the streets and even a murder standing in striking difference to the elegant, cultured home. “This was the far west when it was built; this was the wilderness,” he says.
Lackner particularly enjoys giving the once-a-month “behind the scenes tour,” which gives visitors a special look at places and secrets of the site that are typically not covered, such as the unfinished east wing, and the cupola. He explains that he is fascinated by glimpses into how the mansion was built, pointing out places in the walls where the internal structures are visible. He reflects that the home is the result of “a lot of very skilled artisans and a lot of brute force.”
Lackner’s hospitality is not limited to out of town visitors alone, and he encourages local residents to come and enjoy one of the most fascinating sites in Madison.

“Many local visitors are amazed at the architecture, the decor and the artifacts in the house. They often express that they wished they had visited earlier."

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