The Museum

John Augustus Reitz was born on December 17, 1815, in Dorlar, Prussia. He grew up in a German family that emphasized skill, thrift, and hard work. He came to the United States in the 1830s when many other Germans came, and for the same reasons: to find better business opportunities and a more “republican” form of government.
Many German immigrants were attracted to this area by the hardwood forests, but Reitz came because of the clay, which he had heard was excellent for pottery. He soon saw, however, that there were not enough residents to support the pottery industry, and so he turned to the sawmill industry instead. Reitz built his own sawmill on Pigeon Creek near the Ohio River in 1845, and, by the 1880s, his mill produced more feet of hardwood lumber than any other in the country. He became known as “The Lumber Baron.”
In 1839, Reitz married Miss Gertrude Frisse, also a native of Prussia. Between 1841 and 1863, the couple had ten children. Two of Reitz’s sons joined him in the sawmill business.
Reitz’s magnificent First Street home was completed in 1871. His family then consisted of Francis Joseph, Christine, Josephine, John Jr., Wilhelmine, Mathilda, Louise, and Edward. Two daughters, Julia and Mary, married in 1864, and were already in homes of their own by then. Ten years after the house was built, John Jr. married and moved into a home of his own. None of the other children ever married; they continued to live in the house together.
According to historian F.M. Gilbert in his History of the City of Evansville and Vanderburgh County, John Augustus Reitz was “permeated with the leaven of charity,” which led him to share his wealth with those who were less fortunate. “He indeed deserves to be classed with the philanthropists of Evansville.” Again quoting Gilbert:
The name of John Reitz is indeed a synonym in Evansville for that which is honorable and progressive in business, yet he never allowed personal interest or ambition to dwarf his public spirit. His breadth of view not only saw possibilities for his own advancement, but for the city’s development.
Reitz’s son, Francis Joseph, followed the example set forth by his father in business and philanthropy. According to C.B. Enlow, former editor of The Evansville Courier, Francis Joseph “regarded wealth, power, and brains as a stewardship and felt they should be used for the benefit of all mankind.”
John Augustus Reitz passed away in 1891, and Gertrude died two years later. Francis Joseph and his four maiden sisters redecorated the interior of the First Street house with late period Victorian furnishings plus some aesthetic movement style and arts and crafts style furnishings. They also incorporated the newest technologies, including electricity and indoor plumbing.
Today, the Reitz Home is noted as one of the country’s finest examples of Second Empire architecture. Authentic period furniture, much of it original, is arranged as if the family is about to return. Silk damask-covered walls soar to decorative hand-painted ceilings and delicately molded plaster friezes. French gilt chandeliers shine down on one of the home’s most beautiful features: the intricately patterned hand-laid wood parquet floors. The home has tile and marble fireplaces, walnut wainscoting in Moorish design, and glowing stained glass window panels.
Christine, the last member of the Reitz family, died in 1931. Two heirs, John Fendrich and Laura Fendrich McCarthy, took over the estate to assure that the house was preserved. In 1934, they donated the home to the Daughters of Isabella, a Catholic women’s organization. The Daughters of Isabella used the home as a community center and rented out the bedrooms to businesswomen working in the downtown area.
In 1945, the Evansville Diocese purchased the home from the Daughters of Isabella for $22,000 and established it as a residence for Evansville’s first bishop, Henry J. Grimmelsman. Bishop Grimmelsman lived in the house and used it for the Office of the Chancery.
After Bishop Grimmelsman died, the diocese considered putting the home up for sale. It was at this time that the Evansville Junior League started a movement to preserve the property and establish it as a house museum. The Reitz Home Preservation Society was formed in 1974, and the property was given over to its care by the Evansville Diocese. The home was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Reitz Home has gained national attention by being featured nine times in Victorian Homes Magazine and in Wendell Garrett’s book, entitled Victorian America. In 2000, HGTV produced a national television program, entitled “Homes of Our Heritage, American Tycoons,” which included the John Augustus Reitz Home, along with homes that belonged to Frederick Vanderbilt, Henry Clay Frick, Alfred I. Dupont, James Dooley, and John D. Rockefeller. On May 22, 2003 the Reitz Home Museum received a Commendation from The Victorian Society in America. This Commendation stated it was “for the preservation and careful restoration of the Victorian mansion and its carriage house constructed in 1871 by lumber baron John Augustus Reitz and open to the public since 1974.”
In 1993, The Publication Competition, given by The Ohio Museums Association, gave the Reitz Home Preservation Society an Award of Distinction for the “Reitz Interpretive” video.
In May 1999, the Reitz Home Preservation Society received a Historic Preservation Award from Preservation Alliance of Evansville for the restoration work on the exterior and interior of the Carriage House.
At the Annual United Way of Southwestern Indiana Volunteer Award event, April 23, 2002, Vectren presented the Volunteer of the Year Award to the Reitz Home Guild.