I had been thinking about the Horner-Terrill home all day. At work, I had been distracted— I’d allowed my mind to wander across the city, from downtown to the corner of Emerson and Brookville. The home was still on my mind several hours later when I opened my front door, removed my boots and catapulted myself onto the bed without even bothering to remove my winter coat. And so I lay there, hands behind my head, eyes to the ceiling. I thought about what homeowner Amanda Browning had told me about the dilapidated property.
“It’s a project, definitely,” she had said. “But we need to do right by it.”
The Second Empire-style home was in a reasonable state of disrepair when Amanda and her husband, Eric, purchased the property from Indiana Landmarks in 2011. Some of the home’s original features—fireplace mantles included—were missing, and it was not uncommon for one’s shoes to step upon broken glass or decades-old debris. But the Horner-Terrill home hadn’t always been vacant and forgotten. In fact, according to a Feb. 14, 1932, Indianapolis Star article by Agnes McCulloch Hanna, the home’s once-stately appearance was “an outward and very visible sign of standing and dignity and meant that [the] owner had literally and figuratively lifted himself above his fellows; could, as it were, look down upon them.”
Second Empire architecture, popular from 1855 to 1885, coincides with the reign of Napoleon III. The style is best recognized by its mansard roof, which can exhibit decorative patterns (the Horner-Terrill home includes hexagonal tiles in its slate roof). Ornamental brackets often appear, and decorative iron trim may also be used atop the roof. But what approximately a third of Second Empire-style constructions are known for, and what McCulloch Hanna was alluding to, are the towers. The Horner-Terrill home’s three-story tower houses both the front door and the spiral staircase. It contributes to the home’s regality, catches the eyes of passerby and encourages wonder and imagination—What would it be like to live there?
It is unsurprising, then, that Amanda and her mother, Mary, also daydreamed about the Horner-Terrill home. Mary, who had grown up in Indianapolis, had always loved the home. And on a winter day in 2011, when traffic was thin and the neighborhood was snowy and mother and daughter were stopped at the intersection of Emerson and Brookville, they stared and admired and dreamed. “I really wish,” said Mary, “that if the owner of that house isn’t going to fix it up, they would put it on the market so that someone else can.”
A few days later, Mary appeared in the doorway of the office, where Amanda and Eric were working. “We’re gonna buy a house!” she exclaimed to her daughter.
Amanda looked at Mary incredulously. “A house?”
“Yes! A house!”
“No,” said Amanda. “I have a house. You have a house. We’re not buying a house.”
Mary insisted that, yes, in fact, they were. She walked over to Amanda’s computer and pulled up the Indiana Landmarks website. And there, on the list of historic properties for sale, was the Horner-Terrill home. It was listed for $2,500.
“We’re gonna buy a house!” Amanda said excitedly.
Eric looked up from his desk. “I don’t know what you two are hatching, but no.” He was refuted by Amanda, who encouraged him to look at the listing. After a few minutes, Eric nodded, and was very calm. “We’re gonna buy a house.”
The Horner-Terrill home was more than 130 years old when the Brownings purchased it. It was constructed circa 1875 by druggist Abraham Horner, who opted to build his home on Lot 1 of the Downey and Brouse addition. The addition was one of Indy’s earliest planned suburbs, and was platted in 1875 and located just south of Irvington. According to Paul Diebold’s Greater Irvington: Architecture, People and Places on the Indianapolis Eastside, the addition was “the most fashionable and new landscape concept of the nineteenth century.” The addition didn’t necessarily build up as intended, but the Horner-Terrill home was not without affluence. McCulloch Hanna wrote that, while “few persons recall Abraham Horner, [it is] remembered that he had a handsome daughter Rose, with fine black hair, who went to Butler college and often had parties in this fine house.”
The Horners, however, did not reside in the home for an extended period of time. By the middle of 1876, there were more than 20 mechanic’s liens filed against the property. Later that year, the home was sold at auction and eventually assigned to the Franklin Insurance Company. By January 1878, the home was deeded to the Horners once more. Over the next two decades, ownership changed several hands—in fact, the Horner-Terrill home had eight different owners in its first 25 years of life. Bookkeeper Oscar Turrell, Marion County commissioner James L. Thompson, and real estate developer James Risley are all affiliated with the home. In 1897, the Mary Miller family purchased the property. However, Mary died the following year and, in March 1900, Mary’s three children sold the home to businessman Silas Fleece. Fleece called the brick mansion home until 1921, when he deeded the property to George and Mary Terrill.
Ownership of the home itself wasn’t the only thing that changed, however. One modification included the addition of a front porch around 1900. The porch is seen in a 1932 photograph—the earliest known photo of the property. The photo also shows the home as being painted a much lighter color. Furthermore, the original tower roof is still present. In the 1950s, the interior of the home was converted into apartments, and bathroom facilities were added to the second floor. By 1975, the tower roof had been removed, and the porch had been enclosed. (The porch was removed entirely approximately 15 years later.) By the time Indiana Landmarks listed the Horner-Terrill home, the property had not been lived in for nearly two decades, and the back wall—under pressure from the Feb. 2011 winter storms—had collapsed.
Amanda and Eric were eager to begin the $300,000 renovation. The Horner-Terrill home was, after all, just one of five remaining Second Empires in the city. But, as it sometimes happens, plans changed. Things happened. There were surprises—both good and bad—that were documented on the Horner House Project blog. There were illnesses and unexpected injuries. There was arson. (The circa 1930 garage, assumedly constructed by the Terrill family, was set afire and destroyed just three months ago.) And the neighboring bungalow—which had been included in the purchase from Indiana Landmarks—needed stabilizing as well. Priorities have changed. And so, at times, it’s less about keeping up with a timeline and more about keeping one’s spirits up.
On Halloween, Amanda and Eric purchased some black poster board, cut out a few ghosts, and taped them to the inside of the attic windows. Illuminated by a flickering light, the silhouettes cheerfully haunted the Horner-Terrill home.
“Maybe it was frivolous,” Amanda told me over the phone. “But we needed that, too. We needed to take that step back and remember, Why do I love this? What’s fun about it? You can’t get lost in renovations.”
I thought about all that they had seen and done. “After all this time,” I said, “are you able to believe that it’s actually yours?”
Amanda laughed. “I’m not sure if it’s sunk in for me. Some days, it’s, uh … mine. Uh huh. It just is.” She laughed again. “But, on other days, it’s a joy. I loved it in high school and now it’s mine. It’s an absolute joy.”
I didn’t doubt her. Her honesty overtook the static air between us. It filled my ears and my head and my heart with hope for the project. With faith.
“Our biggest goal,” Amanda continued, “even if we couldn’t finish it—was to leave it in better condition than we got it. Anything we do is going to help it toward survival … We need to do right by it. There are so many people in the community who’ve expressed like they feel it’s theirs.”
As the Horner-Terrill home presides over a prominent intersection, it’s unsurprising that so many people have grown attached to it. The home’s Facebook page has more than 600 fans, and the blog even has a handful of international followers. Individuals from the Irvington Historical Society and Indiana Landmarks have been incredibly helpful as well—they’ve provided research, and have also aided the Brownings in nominating the home for the National Register of Historic Places. Furthermore, members from both Irvington and the Christian Park neighborhood—where the Horner-Terrill home is officially located—have extended kindness. In fact, when Eric and Amanda attended their first Christian Park neighborhood meeting, they were welcomed with cake and punch and an outpouring of well wishes. Everyone was excited. Everyone was interested. And everyone wanted to see the inside of the home. And with curiosity came more kindness—Amanda received a message from a fellow historic homeowner, who offered to the Brownings a tour of her and her husband’s home. “Since everyone was asking to see the inside of the [Horner-Terrill home],”Amanda said, “[the homeowner] thought it might be nice for us to be offered to see the inside of someone else’s.”
The last two years have been challenging. Sometimes, Amanda and Eric have wondered if they need to reset a deadline, talk things over or question an ultimatum. There are the days they get a phone call from a neighbor about a fire, or hear an alarm going off going off going off. But they know the Horner-Terrill home is not without affection; the community—and even those who pass by—see it, fantasize, dream. It’s been two years, sure, but things happen, and sometimes you need to pray for more patience and more time.
The Horner-Terrill home will be a home again. A home with a tiled roof, a built-up back wall and a spiraling, winding staircase. It won’t be vacant; it won’t be forgotten. Instead, it will be loved and inhabited by those who decided to do right by it.
“It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity,” Amanda said, “And, when it comes to it, we’re surrounded by blessings.”
If you are interested in following the Brownings and their renovations of both the Horner-Terrill home and the bungalow, you can find them on Facebook. You can also follow their blog, The Horner House Project. The posts include photographs, historical information and other observations.
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