Heritage Steward: Libby Cierzniak

Written by on November 16, 2012 in Heritage Steward - 5 Comments
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NAME: Libby Cierzniak

TITLE: In my day job, I’m an attorney and a lobbyist. But in my free time, I write the Indianapolis Collected articles for HI and serve on the board of the Old Northside Neighborhood Association.

SINCE? I’m a late bloomer in the historic preservation arena. Even though I decided I wanted to move to the Old Northside in 1980, it took me 22 years to get here. I’ve been contributing to HI for about a year and a half.

ORIGINALLY FROM? Kokomo

YOU WORK HOW MANY HOURS WEEKLY? I don’t really how much time I spend on my hobby, which is researching and writing about Indianapolis history. In my day job, I have to measure my working time in six-minute increments. So when I get home, I take off my watch and just enjoy my free time instead of counting it.

OTHER PROJECTS WE MIGHT RECOGNIZE? Not yet, but ask me again in a year. We’ve just started the process of tracking down old photos of Old Northside buildings, businesses and families for a potential book.

WHAT YOU LOVE ABOUT WHAT YOU DO? The people, both dead and alive. It’s their stories that give meaning and context to the historical buildings and objects that surround us.

WORST PART OF WHAT YOU DO? Too much information! It seems like every minute of every day someone somewhere is digitizing something I need to know RIGHT NOW and posting it on the Internet. I never know when or where to stop looking for information.

ADVICE TO SOMEONE ELSE WHO WOULD LIKE TO DO WHAT YOU DO? If you want to write about history or start a blog about antiques, just do it. Social networking has made it ridiculously easy to connect with people who share your interests.

WOULDN’T HAVE MADE IT TO WHERE YOU ARE WITHOUT? When I was growing up, the three most common words spoken by my parents were not “I love you” (that went without saying), but “Look it up.” At our house, the encyclopedias were in the dining room, the dictionary was next to the kitchen counter, and the meals were often excrutiatingly long as our parents made us look up the answers to every single question we asked. Their relentless efforts to make us actually think has left me and my siblings with a passion for lifelong learning and has made our lives infinitely more interesting.

WHAT MOTIVATES YOU? Curiosity

WHAT SPARKED YOUR INTEREST IN HISTORY? My mom’s twin sister, Mona Rodefeld, headed up the restoration of the 1858 Scott House in Richmond, Indiana in the 1970s. She would take us through the house while the work was underway and show us how people lived 100 years earlier. We saw the names of the Scott children that were found beneath the wallpaper, the bottles dug up from the yard, and other fascinating stuff that convinced me I wanted to live in an old house in an historic neighborhood someday.

MOST INTERESTING BIT OF INDIANAPOLIS HISTORY YOU’VE ENCOUNTERED?
One of the treasures we found in our house was an old title search from the 1940s that listed every owner of our property all the way back to Robert Culbertson, who held the original 1822 land grant from President James Monroe. Culbertson was prominent in the earliest days of the city – in fact, he won the contract to build the Governor’s Mansion on the Circle – but in the mid-1820s, he abruptly moved to New Orleans. As told by historian John H.B. Nowland in his 1870 book Early Reminisces of Indianapolis, Culbertson wore a wig but sincerely believed that that the ladies did not realize he was bald. However, during a cruise to Broad Ripple with two female companions, Culbertson fell into the water, lost his wig and moved to New Orleans to escape embarrassment. Some 15 years later, Nowland saw Culbertson in New Orleans, who told the author that the wig incident and his impulsive flight from Indianapolis had caused his ruin.

YOU CAN HAVE DINNER WITH ANYONE FROM INDIANAPOLIS PAST? WHO & WHY? Catharine Merrill. She was one of the first female professors in the United States and purchased the land where our house was eventually built from Ovid Butler in the 1860s. She was a nurse in the Civil War, an author of a book about Indiana soldiers in the Civil War, and a lifelong friend of John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club.

YOUR CAREER IN AN ALTERNATE LIFE? An antique picker

ANY INTERESTING FAMILY CONNECTIONS TO INDIANAPOLIS PAST? Last year I learned that my great-uncle John Kelley was one of the architects who designed the Meadowbrook Apartments, a low-income housing project with 620 units in 36 buildings spread out over a 50-acre site at Rural and 38th Street. I got to know Uncle John pretty well after he’d retired and moved to Florida, and although we often talked about his time in Indianapolis, he never mentioned his work on the Meadows. That’s probably because he realized that the experiment in public housing had become a dismal failure. I wish he were still around so I could tell him that that I am on the board of the YMCA branch that will soon be housed in a brand new building on the former site of the Meadowbrook Apartments.

FAVORITE VIEW IN THE CITY? The Statehouse atrium. As much as I grumble about the long hours and the grueling pace of the legislative session, it really is wonderful to go to work every day in such a beautiful building.

FAVORITE RESTAURANT IN INDIANAPOLIS? I would eat the French toast at Café Patachou every day if I could.

FAVORITE CITY BESIDES INDIANAPOLIS? Harbor Springs, Michigan, in late September. It’s charming and quiet – plus, there’s only one bar so you don’t waste a lot of time deciding to where to go at night.

FAVORITE HISTORY RELATED BOOK OR MOVIE? Booth Tarkington’s Growth trilogy – especially The Magnificent Ambersons, which really helps explain why families fled the old downtown neighborhoods in Indianapolis.

ULTIMATE BEVERAGE? Caffeinated beer. That way I could stay awake long enough to drink a second one.

COLLECT ANYTHING? I believe I have the world’s largest privately owned collection of breadboxes. But there’s really no way to verify that.

FAVORITE QUOTE? “For in the end, we will conserve only what we love. We will love only what we understand. We will understand only what we are taught.” I first saw this quote on a marker on the south side of 12th Street. It’s about conservation, but I think it applies equally to historic preservation. I love old houses and historic neighborhoods because someone took the time to teach me about them.

IF YOUR LIFE HAD A THEME SONG, IT’D BE? Probably one of the dozens of camp songs that I still remember and will occasionally sing with the much-younger members of my family. Just last week, I was doing laundry when “Black Socks – They Never Get Dirty” popped into my head and refused to leave for the next several hours.

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5 Comments on "Heritage Steward: Libby Cierzniak"

  1. basil berchekas je November 16, 2012 at 12:06 pm · Reply

    Will stay with this informative blog.

  2. Tiffany Benedict Berkson November 16, 2012 at 12:10 pm · Reply

    This website is so fortunate to have someone so talented, smart and TUNED IN as a contributor. The success of this site is in great measure due to its contributors. Libby makes Indianapolis better; I admire her and am grateful to know her.

  3. Gordon Durnil November 17, 2012 at 10:30 am · Reply

    Libby’s writings are always interesting. She’s pretty cool.

  4. Tom Wade June 9, 2013 at 8:30 am · Reply

    What a great piece Libby Cierzniak did on the “The Centennial Celebration of 1920” piece. I look forward to see more articles from her.

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