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Michael Heinz | Journal & Courier
The north room at the Moses Fowler House in Lafayette is seen in the this photo from Aug. 9. The Tippecanoe County Historical Association is seeking to divest itself of the 160-year-old home.

Historic Lafayette mansion seeks new owner, use

LAFAYETTE — A 160-year-old mansion in Lafayette is looking for a new owner and use after local preservationists determined they can't continue to maintain the structure.

The Fowler House was built in 1851 by Moses and Eliza Fowler. Their descendants sold it to the Tippecanoe County Historical Association in 1940, and the group featured the mansion in its logo and once had a museum and offices in the building.

But rising maintenance costs and dwindling community support forced the association to close the museum in 2005, and organizers say they can no longer afford to maintain the building.

"The simple fact is that we can't afford to expand our mission, nor do we have the resources to maintain an empty and unused building which can no longer effectively help us fulfill our core missions," said board president Colby Bartlett.

Fowler House's plight isn't unique. Historical organizations across the nation are bowing under the weight of steep declines in museum visitors and deep cuts in funding.

"Since the downturn in the economy, a number of county historical societies are receiving less money from local and county government," Jeff Harris of the Indiana Historical Society told the Journal & Courier. "That causes them to make difficult decisions."

Terry Davis, president and chief executive of the American Association of State and Local History, agrees.

"More historic houses are let go to private use because it's very expensive to keep them up," Davis said.

Kathy Atwell, executive director of the Tippecanoe County historical group, said many residents have suggested possible uses for the house, including a coffee shop, bed and breakfast or a retreat for small groups.

She said many think the building, which is primarily rented for weddings now, belongs to the community, yet support has diminished. In 2005, an exhibit titled "A Century on the Wabash" failed to draw the visitors it was designed to attract, Atwell said.

"The old model of operating a museum is stagnant, even with new exhibits," she said.

Jim Shoemaker, a member of the historical association, said it could cost $50,000 a year to properly maintain and upgrade the building. That's a daunting prospect for a future owner.

But Marsh Davis, president of Indiana Landmarks, said potential buyers aren't put off by the cost of maintaining century-old properties.

"It is a niche market, but the type of person drawn to purchase a historic house wants to preserve it," he said.

John Harris, the association's collections curator, said the key to saving Fowler House is finding another use for it. The property's future also could hinge on allowing changes inside while preserving the exterior, he said.

"If it is sold, I'd like to see covenants that preserve the structure and any money from the sale to be earmarked for space to store and display artifacts," he said.

Bartlett said the group has no timetable for selling the property and that he wants to meet with government and business leaders to discuss future uses for the site.

"With the attention this is getting, I hope it will bring awareness to the public that, as a community, we all need to participate in the preservation of our local history," he said.