One of the things that make Evansville such an interesting place is its wealth of history. From the flowing river to the rolling hills, downtown to old town, the city offers a wide variety of places to learn, do, see and enjoy.
One of those places is the Reitz Home Museum. Touted as “one of the country’s finest examples of French Second Empire architecture,” the museum is situated in the heart of Evansville’s stunning downtown Historic Preservation District. This grand Victorian-era (1875 to 1910-ish) home plays a central role in the early history of the city.
An unusual aspect of the tour here is that it begins in the historic carriage house, built along with the house in 1871 and remodeled in the early 1900s, which housed the Reitz family’s horses and carriages, servants, coachmen and, later, automobiles. It is here that you gain your first sense of the impact that this founding family had on the cultural landscape here.
The patriarch of the family was John Augustus Reitz, a German immigrant who migrated from his native Prussia to the United States in the 1830s. Over the next several decades, Reitz earned a reputation as “The Lumber Baron” for his highly successful saw mill, which at one time reportedly produced more feet of hardwood lumber than any other in the country. Despite his success and wealth, Reitz placed great emphasis on sharing with those who were less fortunate and today is equally, if not more, known and respected for his philanthropic endeavors.
Because of Reitz’s economic status, the home had many of the “newest technologies” of the early to mid-1800s, including indoor plumbing and electricity, plus incredible architectural details, fabrics and patterns and craftsmanship. To this day, the home is still furnished with much of the original late period Victorian furnishings owned by the family, which encompasses awe-inspiring accoutrements such as beautiful stained glass windows, French gilt chandeliers, watercolor on canvas ceilings, white onyx fireplace mantels and, of course, Reitz’s signature, intricately patterned, hand-laid wood parquet floors.
Today, the home is mentioned in the same breath as other historic and influential American homes built and/or owned by tycoons such as John D. Rockefeller, Frederick Vanderbilt and others.
SERVING THE WORLD
One of my favorite attractions and one of the greatest sources of hometown pride in Evansville is the LST 325 World War II Warship.
Launched in October 1942 and commissioned in February 1943, the ship first sailed on the East Coast before embarking upon a mission in Algeria for training ops with American and English army units, with its first invasion being Sicily in the summer of that year.
Its deep and storied history includes numerous training and military sea, land and air confrontations in Europe as a transport for foreign ally soldiers and prisoners, including as a support ship for the D-Day Normandy Invasion on Omaha Beach. Although decommissioned in 1946, the LST was reactivated in 1951, serving along Greenland and the coast of eastern Canada, decommissioned once again along the way, then sailing with the Greek navy and finally decommissioned for the last time in 1999.
Today, the ship remains one of only two WWII LSTs to be preserved in the country, and when current renovations are complete, it will serve as a museum and memorial ship that exudes and illuminates a pivotal part of the history of the United States, World War II, ship building and sailing and the many, many soldiers and crew members who put their lives and careers on the line for so many decades.
Despite the renovation work, visitors today will find a magnificent amphibious vessel resting in a brand-new $3 million docking facility, manned by a dedicated cadre of volunteers whose commitment and love are revitalizing this important relic.
Your first stop on the LST is the weather deck, where wheeled vehicles are moved from and to the lower levels via a 22,000-pound load elevator. It is on this deck that you begin to get a true sense of the ship’s scale, though you may not realize that its dimensions are an astounding 328 feet by 50 feet, more than 25 feet longer than a football field, which, by the way, you will have walked twice by the time the tour ends. In total, it can hold 500 soldiers and a crew of 150.
Each aspect is even more fascinating than the next, encompassing the gunners, control room, officers’ and enlisted men’s quarters, equipment room, tank deck and more than a dozen compartments for the machine, battery and welding shops and water, fuel and other types of storage, all of which are still in use today.
Unlike most other military ships open to the public, the LST leaves its port occasionally for special events, attracting thousands of visitors of all ages.
MUCH ADO ABOUT EVERYTHING!
There are so many popular attractions in the Evansville area that one could go on for several more pages. Nevertheless, I wanted to mention several to keep in mind as you consider what to see and do, including the John James Audubon State Park and Museum; Grouseland, William Henry Harrison’s home; the Burdette Park and Aquatic Center; Wesselman Woods Nature Preserve; and the Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial.
An honorable mention goes out to the Evansville Museum of Arts, History & Science, which has been recognized as “one of southwestern Indiana’s most established and significant cultural institutions.” This year it will celebrate the 108th anniversary of its collections, which encompass a wide array of the arts, history, science and anthropology. The museum facility itself is stunning and a magnificent showplace for the works found in its numerous permanent and temporary exhibit galleries. The museum also has the Koch Planetarium and a hands-on science center.
In our next Evansville adventure, we’ll learn about the area’s African-American history and more.