A Return to the Past at Hillforest

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Ornaments made of human hair? Kids may feign boredom, but there’s lots to learn about the past at Hillforest Victorian House Museum.

High on a hilltop, up the curving, almost vertical, driveway, stands Hillforest, the beautiful mansion of Thomas Gaff and his family. Built in 1855, and designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1992, Hillforest welcomes visitors to enjoy its serene views of the Ohio River, its Italian Renaissance style and its stories.

Tours begin in the vestibule, where house “callers” of old once left “calling cards” with servants. A silver tray still awaits those cards, but today’s visitors simply sign in, pay admission, and learn about Gaff and the house’s other owners across the years.

We entered Hillforest through its stately front door, flanked by stained glass sidelights, and walked into the front hall with its grand flying staircase. Reportedly, a naughty cousin once rode his pony up it, and out the second floor door, an unforeseen possibility when architect Isaiah Rogers designed Hillforest to blend with the hillside.

No such horseplay happens now at the mansion: it’s a “don’t touch” kind of place, but made entertaining by the volunteer tour guides. My guide — Suzanne Ulrich — seemed to know details about Hillforest that might have escaped its owners, and she told the stories with authority and delight.

Hillforest’s stories begin in the parlor, where the Victorian furniture consists of authentic reproductions and original pieces, many donated back to the museum by descendants of the family. Coal burning fireplaces would have heated the rooms, and put out a lot of soot, too. The home needed frequent repainting to keep up appearances. During the home’s restoration, beneath layers of paint, experts discovered painted patterns. What they saw is preserved beneath a plexi-glass case in the twin parlor on the left, and recreated in both parlors by artists skilled in Trompe l’oeil.

From the parlor, we entered the dining room, set with china that travelled to Indiana by train, in its own seat, with a ticket purchased to ensure its safety. Dinner would have been by candlelight when the fine dishes first graced Hillforest, then by lantern, and then by gas. In fact, the dining room houses an original gasolier, a candle chandelier converted to gas in the 1890s. No doubt dinner guests would have enjoyed wine with their meal, with servants bringing a selection from the wine cellar through a doorway behind the staircase. We made a brief visit to the cool, stone room that now displays kitchen containers and gadgets of yesteryear, including oversized crank-powered appliances that cored apples and pitted cherries.

We next climbed the stairs to a breathtaking view of Hillforest’s architectural beauty and symmetry. Apparently, the area would’ve been breathtaking for its residents too, especially in winter, because with no fireplace in the area, it’s cold. The women’s breakfast nook provides sweeping views of the river, along with the most curious ornaments and wreaths I’ve ever seen: delicate, intricately patterned, and made of human hair.

No records show who slept in which bedrooms, but all are relatively large. One serves as Hillforest’s museum, with rotating exhibits of maps, heirlooms and family correspondence. Another is decorated with a children’s theme and features toys, including blocks found in the attic. The blocks have letters on their sides, and also Roman numerals. And finally, the room most likely to be the master has windows overlooking the Ohio River, a portrait of a female relation, and the energy and antics of a ghost.

Hillforest Victorian House Museum
213 5th St., Aurora, IN
812-926-0087
hillforest.org

Hours: Open for tours from 1 – 5 p.m. April 1 – Dec. 30 (last tour begins at 4:30 p.m.)
Admission: $6 adults and students ages 13 and older, $3 ages 7 – 13, free ages 6 and younger
A Victorian Christmas, featuring the house in traditional decorations for the holidays, runs Nov. 20 – Dec. 30; closed Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

Barbara David, mother of five and an award-winning columnist for Cincinnati Family Magazine, enjoys travel, writing, and restoring her century-old, west-side home.

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