TERRE HAUTE —
Few things in Terre Haute cause people to stare upward.
Storm clouds, maybe. A murder of crows blackening the wintertime sky at dusk downtown. Fourth of July fireworks above the Wabash River.
Almost every Hautean has gazed at those scenes. Yet one equally riveting sight has probably eluded most locals. They would stare if they saw it, though. Guaranteed.
That rarely seen gem is the stained-glass dome in the rotunda of stately Fairbanks Hall on the Indiana State University campus. With a 28-foot span, the multi-colored dome depicts an eclectic collection of 16 men and women. Some qualify as earthly legends, such as Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, Mark Twain and William Shakespeare. A few remind you of the “Sesame Street” song “One of These Things Is Not Like the Other Ones” — Richard W. Thompson, a Hoosier who became secretary of the Navy, and Daniel Voorhees, a Terre Haute resident who became a U.S. Senator — simply because it’s pretty hard to fit into a lineup also featuring Beethoven, Ulysses S. Grant and Thomas Edison.
For whatever reason, the artist commissioned to design the dome chose these particular 16 people and permanently joined them in a piece of leaded glass art. The era — the early 1900s — probably influenced the designer’s thinking. So, if the fame of some hasn’t stood the test of time, the dome itself has. It’s hovered above the building at 222 N. Seventh St. since it opened in 1906 as the Emeline Fairbanks Memorial Library. The dome has been seen less often since 1979, though, when the building ceased to function as a library and ISU took it over. Today, Fairbanks Hall houses classrooms and a gallery for university art students.
Unless you’re old enough to remember Fairbanks’ library days, or you’ve studied art there since 1984 when ISU converted it, you probably haven’t seen the stained-glass dome.
Fortunately, its public access is about to increase. A $150,000 renovation project is under way and scheduled to be completed by Aug. 6. A wall between the public entrance and the rotunda, which once obscured a visitor’s immediate view of the dome, is being replaced with a frosted-glass divider. Heating ducts blocking the stained-glass are being moved.
When ISU took over the old library 32 years ago, a stipulation called for it to remain open to the public, said Fran Lattanzio, ISU professor of art and photography.
“People should be able to see it,” she said.
Year after year, art students ask Lattanzio, Nancy Nichols-Pethick and their art faculty colleagues about the faces shown on the dome. They often wonder why George Washington didn’t make the list. For the record, the 16 people are presidents Lincoln, Jefferson and Grant; writers Shakespeare, Victor Hugo, Washington Irving, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Harriet Beecher Stowe, James Whitcomb Riley and Twain; Hoosier politicians Thompson, Voorhees and Lew Wallace; Edison the inventor; Beethoven the composer; and, perhaps the most unique selection, 19th-century European artist Rosa Bonheur.
“It would be sort of interesting to know who was making those choices,” said Nichols-Pethick, who teaches painting. Unfortunately, the name of the artist is a mystery to people at ISU and the Vigo County Public Library (now located at Seventh and Poplar streets). The architects of the Fairbanks building were William Homer Floyd and Charles E. Scott, but it’s unlikely they crafted the delicate stained-glass artistry.
Whoever it was, they made some out-of-the-blue choices for the 16 faces, especially Bonheur, who died in 1899.
“She’s the one that amazes me — a woman painter, instead of Michelangelo,” said Nichols-Pethick.
Michelangelo created a pretty memorable ceiling in Rome. This one, while far less iconic, is also mesmerizing.
Men working on the Fairbanks Hall renovations stare at it, too. “The people that come in here during the summer to work on [the building] are just in awe,” Lattanzio said.
They’re not alone. “It still blows me away,” Lattanzio said, “and I’ve been here since ’84.”
Actually, the dome was more spectacular in its earlier years. The architects of the original Fairbanks library — funded by local philanthropist Crawford Fairbanks in honor of his mother, Emeline — positioned the dome as a sky light, using the sun to illuminate it. But, to protect it from weather and reduce water leaks, the dome was covered by a roof in the 1960s. While artificial lights let the stained-glass features show, the brilliant glow of sunlight is difficult to replicate.
In a column last month, I encouraged Wabash Valley residents to use their summer to see parts of the community they’ve overlooked. I included the Fairbanks Hall dome on a list of must-see local sights. The best moment will probably be on or after Aug. 6, when the renovations are complete. Lattanzio said the ISU art department hopes some sort of public reception will mark its new look. The rotunda, which serves as a student art gallery, would be ideal for small campus receptions or functions, she added.
If they look up, they’ll see something that fits the old phrase, “They just don’t make ’em like that anymore.”
The stained-glass piece represents “pretty much a lost art,” said Scott Tillman, university architect for the past 17 years. “I don’t know of anybody designing stained glass like they did at the turn of the century. It’s a very expensive process to do anything like that grand a scale anymore.”
Imagine an architect submitting a design for a new public library in today’s lowest-bidder era, with a 28-foot stained-glass dome. Not gonna happen.
Thankfully, Crawford Fairbanks gave this one his blessing. Why not check it out this August?
(One suggestion: View it while lying on the rotunda floor. It’ll spare you a stiff neck.)
Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or firstname.lastname@example.org.