A $1.2 million restoration of Grouseland is underway.
Crews with Durable Restoration Company, based in Columbus, Ohio, have officially moved into the U.S. Presidential site, once home to William Henry Harrison, located at 3 W. Scott St., to begin work on a restoration that will focus on the mansion’s main floor, specifically the study and dining room, as well as some exterior masonry work and a complete reconstruction of both its front and side porches.
The work also includes new windows — exact replicas of the original wood ones — as well as a restoration of its first-floor fireplaces, new period-appropriate wallpaper and the revealing of some original wood floors in the dining room.
The list of pending improvements is a long one — and it’s only about half of all the Grouseland Foundation hopes to eventually accomplish.
“This house is the real deal,” said Grouseland Executive Director Lisa Ice-Jones from inside a makeshift plastic tunnel meant to keep dust down inside the rest of the mansion.
“Everything in this house will be real. The history that happened here is real. And I’m so excited for people to come back and see it once its completed.”
The restoration is a project more than six years in the making.
The foundation’s board of directors in the spring of 2014 hired New York’s Mesick Cohen Wilson and Baker to do a Historic Structure Report of Grouseland.
The firm has done work on James Madison’s Montpelier in Orange, Virginia, George Washington’s Mt. Vernon as well as Thomas Jefferson’s Popular Forest, his retreat outside Lynchburg, Virginia, and his Monticello near Charlottesville, Virginia.
They recommended a $3.5 million project, but the foundation opted to take the work in phases.
Shortly thereafter, Ice-Jones began work to raise the matching dollars for a $400,000 grant from the Thomas Jefferson Foundation. For every $1 given, $2 needed to be raised, or $800,000 — and raise it, she did.
Grouseland officials also led the charge to see the county’s innkeepers’ tax increased by 1%, money meant to help fund the various phases of restoration, although the recent COVID-19 pandemic has stifled revenue for now, Ice-Jones said.
Architects with Mesick Cohen Wilson and Baker were back inside the mansion this summer as the board prepared to hire a contractor to do the work.
Architects worked for weeks, paying periodic visits to the mansion, to look for clues as to what the home might have looked like — the finishings it would have had — when it was first built in 1804.
They also looked to Susan Buck, an art conservator with an extensive history of working on the restorations of presidential sites, ones like Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, and other historic homes, like the Owens-Thomas house in Savannah, Georgia, in a search for original paint colors and wall coverings.
As the Grouseland Foundation then looked to hire a contractor to oversee the restoration, Mesick Cohen Wilson and Baker connected the board to the Durable Restoration Company.
They have a “long history” of doing historic sites, Ice-Jones said, even presidential homes.
Ice-Jones said they vetted the contractor well and “everybody talked about their quality of craftsmanship, which was important to us.”
The foundation also wanted to hire a company that would be willing to enter into a long-term relationship with Grouseland, crews that would stay in touch and be prepared to return, should the need arise.
“Everything just clicked,” she said.
Durable Restoration expects this first phase of the restoration project to take at least six months; it’s likely to finish sometime in June.
In the meantime, Ice-Jones said they are still conducting tours. But instead of coming directly to the mansion, they are asking visitors to contact the Vincennes Tourism Bureau at 812-886-0400 to schedule an appointment.
Doing so also limits the number of people inside the mansion as the community continues to battle COVID-19.
But seeing the mansion in this somewhat dressed-down state, she said, offers a completely different experience.
Everything had to be cleared out of the study and dining room, a daunting process. Many of the most precious and delicate artifacts have remained somewhere else in the mansion during the restoration; other things are in storage.
“But once you take out the chandeliers and take the big portraits down and the draperies down, the rooms look shockingly huge,” she said.
“This is going to be a new experience for everybody. Just like Harrison said, ‘Times change, and we change with them.’ ”