Historical Treasure: The Terre Haute House: Ahead of its time

Submitted photoHistorical place: Items from the Terre Haute House on display at the Vigo County History Center.

The Terre Haute House, located at the junction of U.S. 40 and Wabash Avenue, was a landmark in downtown Terre Haute for well over 150 years. The first hotel on the site was called the Prairie House, built by local philanthropist Chauncey Rose and graced the heart of the city from 1838 to 1841. In 1855, renamed the Terre Haute House, the renovated hotel would flourish due to the success of the nearby Wabash and Erie Canal. As the premier destination in Terre Haute, many politicians and celebrities frequented the hotel.

One in particular graced the Terre Haute House in 1872: the great African American abolitionist and orator Frederick Douglass. His stay was historic and this year marks its 150th anniversary.

At a time when African Americans were being systematically stripped of the rights that were granted to them post-Civil War, that the Terre Haute hotel opened its doors to Douglass was remarkable. It is this researcher’s contention that Douglass’s stay at the Terre Haute House was the first time that a person of African American descent was allowed to stay at that hotel or any of the premier hotels in the city.

Four years earlier, in 1868, during his first of approximately nine visits to Terre Haute, he was denied admittance to the Terre Haute House or any of the other quality hotels. In 1870, while on a short stop en route to a speaking engagement in Rockville, Indiana, Douglass was allowed to dine at the establishment, an event deemed newsworthy by local newspapers. During his 1884 stay, Douglass signed a piece of the Terre Haute House stationery (on display at the Vigo County History Center). It should be noted that until his death in 1895, Douglass was still denied admittance to premier hotels across the country, a situation codified in 1896 in Plessy vs Ferguson which established the doctrine of “separate but equal.”

Eventually the hotel was acquired by Terre Haute entrepreneur Crawford Fairbanks whose family oversaw the razing and then establishment of the new Terre Haute House in 1927-1928. This week’s Historical Treasure is a collection of Terre Haute House paper items.

The first, a postcard depicting the 19th century Terre Haute House. The next is a postcard of the second Terre Haute House circa 1907. Notice the grand turrets and the Renaissance Revival style of the hotel. Pictured are several horse and buggies. The third item is a postcard depicting the last Terre Haute House which was razed in 2005. Today, the location of the various iterations of a once grand hotel is the home of the Hilton Garden Inn which opened its doors in 2007 and is now a very popular destination for visitors and celebrities alike. These items are just a small window into a hotel that a century and a half ago took the bold, progressive, and perhaps unprecedented, step when it came to race relations.

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