Preservation heroes look at crumbling buildings that others write-off and see promise and possibility where others see despair. The winners of Indiana Landmarks’ 2021 Sandi Servaas Memorial Awards are such visionaries, groups who rallied like-minded people to preserve their community’s heritage, and who work to instill a love of history in the next generation.
Outside Vevay in Switzerland County, Musée de Venoge is a rare example of early French Colonial architecture in Indiana. Constructed in 1828 in a French-Swiss settlement, the diminutive cottage was targeted by the local fire department for fire-fighting exercises in the ’90s before Donna Weaver, her late husband Tom, and Paul Venard stepped in to save it.
The trio formed the nonprofit Musée de Venoge, Inc., named in honor of a creek on the property, renamed “Venoge” by the area’s Swiss settlers after a river in their native country. After nominating and securing listing for the crumbling structure in the National Register of Historic Places, they raised money to purchase it and the surrounding 30 acres and embarked on a nearly 20-year restoration.
“I cannot accept that a building is too far gone to be restored,” says Donna Weaver. “Venoge is proof of that.”
Undaunted by limited funds for the project, the all-volunteer group removed later additions, stabilized the building, reconstructed the exterior, rebuilt the hearth, chimney, and exterior stairway, and replastered the interior. Working with a dendrochronologist to study the cottage’s original timbers, the group was able to narrow down the building’s construction date. Donna conducted intensive research and located letters of the house’s first occupants, Jacob Weaver, his wife Charlotte Golay Weaver, and seven of their ten children. Her findings guided interpretation of the site as the home of a middle-class family in the early nineteenth century. Today, Musée de Venoge engages visitors through tours and living history events, inviting visitors to learn more about the area’s French-Swiss heritage and the cottage’s unusual architectural provenance.
As the pandemic limited in-person visitation in 2020, the group sought ways to bring the site’s story to new audiences, creating a YouTube channel with videos showing Musée de Venoge’s restoration and heritage. They also created a documentary based on the home’s history and Jacob’s letters written between 1813 and 1847. To Make a Beginning is available for sale on DVD. For the group’s herculean efforts to save the property and tell its story, Musée de Venoge, Inc., merits the organizational Servaas Award, which comes with a $2,000 prize and the original sculpture “No Doors to Lock Out the Past” by Evansville sculptor John McNaughton.
In 2005, Randolph County Commissioners voted to demolish the 1875 county courthouse in Winchester, sparking outrage and a grassroots campaign to save the landmark and earning it a spot on Indiana Landmarks’ 10 Most Endangered list. Even elementary school children collected pennies for the cause. Yielding to pressure, county officials reversed their decision and moved forward with a $8.2 million rehabilitation of the courthouse, including reconstructing a clock tower removed in the ’50s. The threat to such an icon and its subsequent rescue renewed the community’s desire to celebrate its heritage and inspire a love of local history and architecture in its youngest residents.
Beginning in 2019, the Community Foundation of Randolph County teamed up with Randolph County United—an economic, tourism, and chamber partnership—to bring every third-grade student in the county to downtown Winchester, where students tour the historic courthouse, monuments, and Randolph County Historical Society Museum housed in the c.1858 Carey Goodrich House. Students interact with artifacts and first-person interpreters throughout downtown to learn about Randolph County’s history, from its early pioneers to its more recent automotive heritage at the Winchester Motor Speedway. At the courthouse, students learn first-hand about the community’s extraordinary drive to save the building. In 2021, nearly 400 students participated in the program. Recognizing their valuable initiative, Indiana Landmarks awards the Community Foundation of Randolph County and Randolph County United the Servaas Memorial Award in the youth-serving category, which comes with the original sculpture and $1,000 cash prize.
“Seeing the courthouse and touching the monuments, memorials, clothes, and cars from long ago teaches us about our past so we can move forward into the future,” says Missy Williams of Randolph United, who started the program. “We want the children to strive to protect our buildings, homes, and ideals of our past.”
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