Making Progress

Eleutherian College upgrades on track

Once complete, the college
will be available to rent for events

LANCASTER, Ind. (October 2016) – First phase renovation of Historic Eleutherian College in Lancaster, Ind., should be completed by year end, officials say, and the college is on track to be available for rent starting in the first couple of months of 2017.
“We are restoring the first floor, and once it is finished, we can rent it for weddings and other functions to help cover the cost of upkeep,” said Project Manager Nick Ellis of Madison, Ind. “We need to add heat and air conditioning and other modern things, but do it in a way to preserves the 1850s feel and look of the building.”

Photo by John Sheckler

Eleutherian College board members (from left) Nick Ellis, Jan Vetrhus and Camille Fife pose at the Lancaster, Ind., historic site.

During the final phases of renovation, orderly stacks of old growth hardwood lumber sit neatly arranged on saw horses in the center of the huge main auditorium. The wood waits to replace worn areas in various parts of the building. All around the main room is intricate wainscoting. A tall ceiling allows room for a balcony to overlook the room.
“The building is an amazing feat of engineering,” said Ellis. “There are no sags in the ceiling; it is built like a bridge.”
Much of the interior work on the Greek Revival building is being done by contractor Scott Baldwin.
“Scott has done extensive work on Indiana historic sites,” Ellis said. “He is sensitive to the historic fabric of buildings of this time period. He lives in the neighborhood and has seen the building in different stages of repair. He is eager to put it back together. Scott tries to get old growth wood when possible to return the building to the same era when it was built.”
Historic Eleutherian College Inc. Board Members say they want visitors to be able to take a step back in time when they visit the college.
“We want people to walk into the room and feel like a college student walking in to a first class in the 1850s,” said Ellis. “First and foremost, we want to preserve the historic feel of the space.”
Preservation-minded Jae Brietwieser of Hanover, Ind., and the late Dottie Reindollar of Madison bought the building at auction in 1990. They were bidding against a contractor who wanted to tear it down and use the raw material. They formed Historic Eleutherian College Inc. in 1994.

Photo by John Sheckler

Pictured is the large main room of the college building.

“I can’t fathom this stone being a retaining wall in someone’s garden in Indianapolis,” said Ellis. “It is a horrible thought.”
Historic Eleutherian College Treasurer Camille Fife agrees.
“Dottie and Jae saved it from demolition,” said Fife. “When you think that could have happened, it is just horrible.”
The college was founded in 1848 by members of the Neil’s Creek Abolitionist Baptist Church. Members of the church quickly became conductors on the Underground Railroad and provided shelter and supplies to runaway slaves.
“The building is worthy to be saved for the architecture even if the history wasn’t there,” said Board President Jan Vetrhus.
“The detail they put into it is extraordinary,” added Fife. “There is a belief that the students helped with the interior construction work.”
“At first, nobody even knew about the history of the Underground Railroad,” said Vetrhus. “In 1853, African women were being educated here, and just 10 miles to the south was Kentucky, a slave state. This is the most amazing place. It was a symbol for people wanting to be free. It served black and white, but also men and women. It was unusual for that time to have all of those together. Education was the key to freedom and a new life.”
Eleutherian College was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1997. It was the first college in Indiana to admit students without regard to race or sex.
Its name comes from the Greek word “eleutheros,” which means “free.”
In 1856, the college had 18 African-American students, 10 of whom were born slaves. In 1860, 200 students were enrolled, 50 of them African-American. This was at a time when the Indiana Constitution prohibited African-American immigration into the state.
Historic Eleutherian College Inc. is a non-profit 501c3, and members of the board have been working hard to secure grants and other support to cover renovation costs.
“The Jeffres Foundation chooses projects they want to support with two to one challenge grants,” said Vetrhus. “We raised about $60,000, then they gave $30,000 match. Jefferson County Commissioners contributed $25,000 because they could see the tourism value. The Jefferson County Community Foundation gave us $25,000.”
Not all the support given the organization is financial. The freshmen class at Hanover College and the Madison Consolidated High School wrestling team donated time to work on the renovation.
“Everyone who comes to help likes to ring the bell,” said Ellis. “The bell was cast by Franklin Foundry in Madison and can be heard by pulling on a rope that reaches all three floors.”
There are other historic reminders scattered around the building. There is old graffiti from students on many walls and closets. The earliest dated scribbling is from 1858. That small square was preserved when the closet frame was painted.
The college was recently nominated to be inducted into the Green Light Legacy Hall of Fame of Sustainable Indiana 2016. That organization celebrates the green movement in Indiana. The college is the only historic landmark included in this round of inductees and will be honored during the Bicentennial Green Light Celebration on Oct. 11 at the Hanover College Science Center from 7-9 p.m.
There were several times through the years when the college could have been abandoned or destroyed.
“After the Civil War, in 1878, the reason for the school to exist changed because the blacks were emancipated,’ said Fife. “It then continued as a township school until 1938. Since then it was often abandoned but sometimes served as a church or had other uses before being saved from decay by Dottie Reindollar and Jae Brietwieser.”
The new life for Historic Eleutherian College begins in early 2017 when it will be available for events such as weddings and graduations. A few events have already been held here, most notably performances of “Madison Where Art Thou,” a show by the Madison Cultural Continuum. Now, the future holds no limits for this piece of Indiana history.

• For more information, visit the Historic Eleutherian College page on Facebook.

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