Brief History of the Wylie House
Indiana University purchased the Wylie House in 1947. Herman B Wells was then the university president, and he knew the house held great potential as an educational resource. Wells envisioned the home as a teaching museum and a lasting tribute to IU’s humble roots. He hoped the university would one day also purchase the surrounding properties, tear down the neighboring houses, and re-create the 20-acre homestead that existed in Wylie’s day. At the very least, Wells hoped to create a buffer around the museum, to border the home with parkland, and to create near downtown Bloomington a greater sense of the pioneer homestead.
Budget constraints, however, stalled Wells’ vision. Instead, the IU Press occupied the house from 1951 through 1959. Indiana University undertook a major restoration of the historic home in 1961 that lasted nearly five years. The furnace and most of the indoor plumbing were removed and the walls replastered; a back porch was also removed and the front porch and entry were returned to their original configuration. The house opened as a historic house museum in 1965. Under the direction of Mary Craig, then university archivist, the home was well-loved, but struggled nevertheless: it had limited hours of operation, displayed few nineteenth-century furnishings, and lacked a focus for interpretation.
In 1977, the house was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Between 1985 and 1998, however, the museum truly began to blossom. Curator Bonnie Williams refined the educational goals and began to furnish the house as it might have looked in the 1840s when Andrew Wylie and his family lived there. “It’s a home,” she said, “not a re-created exhibit of a home, but a place where babies were born, people worked and grew up. It’s real.” Williams added an heirloom garden, which today is one of the museum’s most popular features. She and others also conducted extensive research: they transcribed and published more than 300 Wylie family letters; studied papers such as store receipts, bills, and recipes; and conducted genealogical research and identified Wylie descendants.
The Museum Today
Jo Burgess became director of the Wylie House Museum in 2000; the next year the university completed a historic structure report that documented the history of the house and made recommendations for the work necessary to preserve it.
Landscapers cleared the front yard so that the house more closely approximated its nineteenth-century appearance. Two local artists who specialize in historic paint treatments stenciled the parlor walls and marbleized the wooden mantelpiece. Furnishings, either purchased by Burgess or donated by Wylie descendants and museum friends, began to fill the rooms.
Dr. Wells, an avid collector of antiques, specified in his will that the Wylie House Museum staff should have access to his collection of furnishings. Following Wells’ death in 2000, numerous pieces of his furniture filled the gaps in the collection. A wing chair, footstool, and 14 dining room chairs were eventually reupholstered in period reproduction fabric.
Burgess renewed programming and rotated exhibitions to attract first-time and repeat visitors. Special exhibits of antique quilts and coverlets drew large numbers. She displayed portions of the university’s Elizabeth Sage Historic Costume Collection several times, bringing authentic nineteenth-century clothing into the house. She also produced exhibits featuring antique musical instruments and toys.
A New Beginning
Today, the elegantly appointed rooms and working gardens provide inspiration and historical reference for students of architecture, photography, design, literature, history, education, folklore, anthropology, and sociology. In addition to hosting classes from IU, the museum attracts interested visitors from Bloomington and across Indiana, including elementary- and middle- school students.
The Wylie House Museum also hosts a number of special events, including concerts, open houses, seed and plant sales, and garden fairs. In 2006, more than 1,900 visitors experienced the way in which Andrew Wylie lived on the property with his wife and children.
Enriching the Future
Recent acquisitions from the estate of Morton Bradley Jr., the great grandson of Theophilus A. Wylie, will significantly increase the Wylie’s family presence in the house and the new education center. Family china and glassware, furniture, jewelry, photographs, books, and textiles made their way back to Wylie House from Bradley’s residence in Boston. Hundreds of family letters, which Bradley saved in his attic, will enrich understanding of the second Wylie family to inhabit the house.