6 minute read

Selma and the House of the Singing Winds

All images from the collection of the Indiana State Museum and Historic Sites. "Selma in the Garden" by T. C. Steele

~by Julia Pearson

In the spring of 1907, Theodore Clement Steele made a trip to Brown County to look for property for a studio home. He preferred a tract of 60-plus acres about a mile and a half off the main road leading to Bloomington. In April he returned with his bride-to-be, Selma Laura Neubacher. The road was muddy with shelves of protruding rock. To make it easier on the horses, they climbed through the underbrush on foot. Theodore told Selma, “My dear, if you think you can manage to live in this wilderness, we will build our home here—on this hill.”

With the land purchased and local builder, Bill Quick, hired, Steele stayed in a one-room squatter’s cabin on the property to oversee construction of the house, while also working on a portrait of William Lowe Bryant.

Selma gathered items for the house design and made portfolios of stencils and drawings. Her eye for textiles and decorative arts gave her a distinctive flair.

Selma wanted a cellar built under the house— rather than a hillside pit. The studio, living and dining rooms were one, 20 by 30 feet with a beamed ceiling 14 feet high. Selma’s fireplace was in the middle of the long south wall. Except for the plastering, all the work was done by Quick and his two assistants. One of the carpenters, Ogle, built the fireplace and his father built the throat of the chimney. Payroll was $17.50 per day for three carpenters, two grubbers, and two teams for hauling supplies.

On August 9, a simple wedding uniting Theodore and Selma was followed by a train ride from Indianapolis to their hilltop home. The bride wore a soft gray jacket suit of silk crepe and colorful hat. Arriving in Bloomington, they took a wagon to Belmont Hill where their neighbor, Mrs. Parks, asked them into her kitchen. The neighbor’s sons took the luggage to the Steeles’ new home and stabled the horse for them. Under nightfall, the Steeles walked the final quarter mile in wedding clothes. Forest trees edged their sleeping porch.

Water was had from a rain barrel and hauled from a well in Belmont, then stored in the cellar. The kitchen had no storage, with doors and windows in all walls and the cookstove occupying most of the floor. Selma secured Bill Quick to build open shelves and hang strips of wood for utensils. A closet door was reset to open kitchen-side for dishes and linens. Adjoining the kitchen were small bedrooms and dressing rooms. A screened eastside porch was used as a dining room. The screens caught the wind, giving the house its name: The House of the Singing Winds.

In a collection of old Gaelic tales that Selma had given Theodore for a birthday gift was the passage: “Every morning I take off my hat to the Beauty of the World.” Gustave Baumann, a leading artist in wood-block printing, carved this salutation over the Steeles’ fireplace—his only stone carving.

Selma opened their door to the curious who wanted to see the “under-the-house cellar,” kitchen cupboard, open fireplace, screened-in porches, and ventilated outhouse. Selma’s paisley shawl collection, the player piano, stuffed peacock, and endless shelves of books were exotic to behold. Adult men and women got down on all fours to feel and see up close the oriental rug in the great room.

Passionate for landscaping and gardening, Selma secured wagonloads of manure and leaf litter to build the soil. Agricultural bulletins given to neighbors were used as fire starters or padding for their rag rugs. The formal garden and hillsides of daffodils inspired Theodore to paint garden and floral subjects.

Selma and Theodore in a field of irises, by Frank Hohenberger.

Selma and Theodore in a field of irises, by Frank Hohenberger.

At first, Theodore’s portrait painting made wintering in Indianapolis a logical pattern. But their hearts were with their Brown County hilltop. A neighboring farm was purchased, and additions made to the house.

The perfect studio was realized: a barnlike building with a gambrel roof and wall of north facing windows. Opened free to the public, Selma welcomed all visitors, as Theodore painted early in the morning.

Tragedy brought darkness to the Steeles in 1924. Selma’s sister Edith joined the household after several family deaths. Then an autumn fire spread across the hillside, threatening buildings and the house, prompting Selma to ban picnics.

Selma and Theodore in the living room, circa 1910.

Selma and Theodore in the living room, circa 1910.

Theodore died two years later on July 24, 1926, after a time of declining health.

During the Great Depression, Edith and Selma grew much of their own food and raised chickens. They charged 25 cents for studio tours and rented cabins to tourists. Selma sold six paintings to Indiana University in 1931.

Dedicated to keeping her husband’s artistic legacy alive, a proposed agreement with Indiana University to take control of the T. C. Steele artist sanctuary fell through. Selma contacted Charles A. DeTurk, director of state parks, lands and waters. He was instrumental in the completion of a warranty deed and instrument of gift to the Indiana Department of Conservation on July 11, 1945. Selma and Edith continued to live in a portion of the house and kept a garden.

Selma Steele died on August 28,1945. Her sister Edith lived alone on the Brown County art sanctuary for nine more years.

Selma poses in the patio garden, circa 1940.

Selma poses in the patio garden, circa 1940.

The property is now known as the T. C. Steele State Historic Site, located one and a half miles south of Belmont, between Bloomington and Nashville, at 4220 T. C. Steele Rd., off State Road 46. There is a Singing Winds Visitor Center offering tours of the house and studio. The gardens have been restored and are a must-see in the spring.

The book The House of the Singing Winds, originally published in 1966, and a revised edition by Indiana Historical Society Press, 2016, can be found in libraries and in Nashville at Fallen Leaf Books.