Today, the Charles Bierhaus home at Sixth and Seminary streets, although suffering years of neglect, remains one of Vincennes’ iconic buildings. Constructed 125 years ago, in 1893-94, even today it is an imposing edifice. When the home was completed, newspapers of the day were almost lacking in superlatives to describe it.
Bierhaus, a partner with his brother, John, in their father’s wholesale grocery business Edward Bierhaus & Sons, certainly had the means to erect such a grand home, although there is no record of exactly how much he spent.
He chose that location for the house, it being the most fashionable part of Vincennes in those days. Many fine homes would be built in that neighborhood at the turn of the century. Each had an immaculate lawn that stretched down to what were then unpaved streets. There are even early post card views touting the beauty of that part of the city. The imposing home of J. L. Bayard (now Klein Real Estate) stood just across from the Bierhaus lot.
Bierhaus selected a prominent out-of-state architect, Samuel Hannaford of Cincinnati, to design the house, which would be of brick in the Queen Anne/Colonial Revival style. Hannaford was architect for many important buildings in Cincinnati, as well as others throughout the Midwest, New England, and South.
His work also included a number of courthouses, among them the Vigo County Courthouse.
John Hartigan and Peter Sertel, both local contractors, got the construction contract. It would be Sertel’s last job, as he became seriously ill during construction. He died in 1899.
Ground was broken for the Bierhaus home in the summer of 1893 and the family moved in just over a year later. Charles and his wife, Helen, had two daughters, Ida and Helen. They would have at least one live-in domestic worker, which was common for wealthy families at that time.
The Vincennes Commercial called the house “A Palace” and “A Queen Among Dwellings,” further describing it as “grandly beautiful” and “stately and magnificent.”
From the reception hall, the grand staircase, the pocket doors, carved woodwork, marble bathrooms, leaded glass windows, and chandeliers, every feature of the house inspired awe. It was illuminated by both gas and electricity and there were speaker tubes and call buttons to communicate between rooms.
One of the most talked about parts of the home was a large conservatory on the first floor, filled with plants and flowers that imbued the entire house with their scents.
Many elegant events were held there. Helen Bierhaus was a prominent member of the Vincennes Fortnightly Club and the Fortnightly often had functions there prior to the purchase of their own clubhouse on Buntin Street in 1915. Construction of their present clubhouse at Sixth and Seminary streets took place in 1928.
It was an honor for the Bierhaus family when, in 1909, a photo of the house appeared in the book “Art Work of Central Indiana,” which featured prominent homes and natural features in the state.
Charles Bierhaus died at the home in 1911, at the age of 56, but his widow lived on there until the mid-1920s before moving to California where she died in 1941. The house then stood vacant for several years. In the mid-1930s, it was converted into an apartment house by Clyde Richardson and it would remain apartments, with different owners and under different names, for most of the remainder of its history. It would be Tower Apartments, Madson Apartments, and Michael Jordan Apartments. Many local people will recall that, in the 1980s, a small restaurant called the Peach Tree Palace, along with a gift shop, also operated there.
Although today the old Charles Bierhaus home is a sad relic of an earlier time, fortunately, the house did not meet the fate of some of the other opulent homes that once lined North Sixth Street. Charles’ brother, William, had an equally impressive house next door just across Seminary Street. It was torn down in 1966. That once grand home, with a ballroom on the third floor, had also been turned into apartments prior to being razed.
Lumber yard owner M. A. Bosworth had an ornate Victorian home on the southwest corner of Sixth and Hart streets, which was also torn down. At one time, three homes stood on Sixth Street between Seminary and Hart streets. Piankeshaw Place Apartments now takes up the entire portion of that block. Ground was broken for Piankeshaw in 1971.
Brian Spangle can be reached at email@example.com.