This old house

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Fishers’ Historic Ambassador House is alive and well

By Beth Clark

A lovely, restored farmhouse surrounded by gardens and a white picket fence sits at the peak of the winding drive into Fishers Heritage Park at 106th Street and Eller Road. The house, a proud part of Fishers history, has garnered public attention in the five years since its restoration was completed, yet it remains unknown to many residents.

Visitors to Heritage Park might appreciate the beauty of the house but wonder what purpose it serves. The house and gardens are owned by the Town of Fishers and managed in a cooperative agreement by the Town and a nonprofit organization called the Historic Ambassador House and Heritage Gardens, Inc., which operates with an all-volunteer Board of Directors and two part-time staff members.

The Ambassador House opened to the public five years ago in May 2009 as a community resource center and heritage site for the Town of Fishers. The site’s mission is, “To preserve and promote the Ambassador House and Heritage Gardens by engaging people in history, gardens, and culture.” Named for its most notable owner, Addison Harris, U.S. Ambassador to Austria-Hungary from 1899-1901, the house is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

It has undergone an amazing transformation from its origin as a log cabin to its present state.

The house that today greets visitors to Heritage Park is a large Greek Revival-style farmhouse. Its beginning, however, was a humble four-room log cabin built in the 1820s by the West family, early pioneer settlers to Hamilton County.

The cabin was eventually purchased at auction in 1880 by prominent Indianapolis attorney Addison Clay Harris (1840-1916) and his wife India Crago Harris (1848-1948), an educated woman who is credited as a founder of the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

The Harris’s used the cabin as their summer residence to escape the heat and congestion of Indianapolis, while maintaining the land as a working farm with the help of a tenant farmer. They expanded the structure around 1895 into the elegant home that exists today to better reflect their wealth and status and to accommodate more summer guests.

The house originally sat on farm and woodland on the northwest corner of 96th Street and Allisonville Road. After India’s death in 1948, the house changed hands twice before being acquired by the Washington Park Cemetery, who gave the home to the Town of Fishers in 1996.

At that time, the house was considered for demolition, but just days before its scheduled demolition, the house was rescued by the Fishers Historic Preservation Committee and Indiana Landmarks (formerly the Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana) who proposed relocating and rehabilitating it.

Thanks to extraordinary fundraising efforts and a generous loan from Indiana Landmarks, the house was split in two and moved north on Allisonville Road to land designated to become Fishers Heritage Park.  From 1997 through 2009, the house was painstakingly restored and refurbished.

Jeff Wilson, Fishers Rotarian and a direct descendent of the pioneer West family, was Ambassador House Board President at the time of the May 2009 ribbon-cutting ceremony to open the house to the public. He cut the opening ribbon with then-President of the Fishers Town Council, Scott Faultless.

Jeff remembers that the hardscaping and some landscaping had just been completed in time for the ribbon-cutting.

“When I came on board in 2006, the house was literally bare bones outside and especially inside,” Jeff said. “There was no drywall, flooring was in disarray, windows were broken still. It took so much work just to set the house on a new foundation and make it structurally sound. Today the interior of the House is beautiful. In the five years since it opened, it is remarkable how far the Ambassador House has come. The strength of the relationship with the Town of Fishers, the friends, volunteers, and Board members and all of their passion and dedication for the house – it has been incredible to watch how that has blossomed.”

Since 2009, the Ambassador House’s ability to sustain itself, make interior improvements and contribute to the regular maintenance an almost 200-year-old house requires primarily comes from event rental income. Kim Jones, the Special Event Sales Representative at the Ambassador House, has been instrumental in the dramatic growth of the Event Rental Program. Kim is confident that, “the continuing success will enable the house to become a true cultural asset for Fishers. It’s very rewarding to be a part of this unique project. The private event rentals are gaining popularity and exposure in central Indiana. We have a unique setting that lends itself very well to many types of events. Of course we host many weddings, but we are also a great location for fundraisers, company retreats, and family parties.”

The Ambassador House’s function as a heritage site is not to be overshadowed by the success of its event rental program. Kelly Gascoine, Chair of the Ambassador House Historical Committee, and Beth Clark, newly-hired Curator and Programming Coordinator, are working to continue the Historical Lecture Series, conduct free guided tours of the house and grounds, maintain its historical photograph collection and Victorian furniture pieces and expand current public programs like the Victorian Family Christmas event.

The Friends of Heritage Gardens Club at the Ambassador House is also thriving. It conducts garden work days, sponsors a popular Heritage Gardening lecture series at the house and coordinates volunteer hours for Master Gardeners.

Pete Feeney, Ambassador House Board President whose daughter Laura was married at the house in 2009, affirms that the Ambassador House has improved every year and that he intends to keep that momentum going.

“We are extremely lucky to have a solid partnership with the Town of Fishers,” Pete said. “And lucky to have such a talented and involved Board of Directors to keep us moving in the right direction.”

The Historic Ambassador House and Heritage Gardens is poised to serve the residents of and visitors to Hamilton County in an even greater capacity in the days ahead.

Open House Sunday, June 1; 2 – 5 p.m.

Refreshments from Sweet and Savory Catering, live music, guided tours

Free and open to the public

Inaugural Fishers Heritage Garden Celebration co-sponsored by the Town of Fishers 

June 7 and 8

Featured guest: internationally-acclaimed topiary artist Mr. Pearl Fryar

Harvest Wine Tasting

Sept. 6

Contact: info@ambassadorhouse.org or 845-4265.

10595 Eller Rd; inside Fishers Heritage Park.

Beth Clark is the Curator and Programming Coordinator for Ambassador House. She can be reached at bethm@ambassadorhouse.org.

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