The History of 403 N Walnut: The Wylie Connection

Recently, I was a guest at a wonderful party at Topo’s Restaurant on 403 N Walnut. At the event I got to talk to members of the Topolgus family about their wonderful building.  During my discussions with Stephanie Topolgus and father James, the discussion turned towards the ultimate question: was 403 N Walnut one of the oldest buildings in Bloomington–or maybe even the oldest? While my immediate thought was “I doubt its the oldest,” I thought I better look into it a little more to get a grip on all the facts… A great starting point was the core research that was already done by Danielle Bachant-Bell of Lord & Bach Historic Preservation Consulting in 2007 which can be found here: http://www.toposurgical.com/topo/History.html

James Whitcomb bought the land din 1827 and would later become Governor of Indiana.

James Whitcomb bought the land in 1827 and would later become Governor of Indiana.

Danielle’s research starts with Addison Smith, which is probably appropriate, though I was able to find a report documenting that David Clements of Monroe County, Indiana, sold land and Lot 35 to Addison Smith of  Monroe County, Indiana, in 1827. The transaction was witnessed by William Roseberry. Addison Smith was a school teacher and had four terms as township assessor, and he served in the Union army during the Civil War. There doesn’t seem to be much evidence however that Addison ever built anything in particular on the land as he immediately sold Lot 35 to James Whitcomb in 1827.

James Whitcomb sold the land in 1836 before he left to work for President Andrew Jackson and eventually become Governor in 1843. There is no evidence that he would have built such an elaborate brick house so early on in Bloomington’s existence (though it is possible, I do not believe it is probable). Like most early settlers, Whitcomb’s home was probably made of wood.

William Moffat Millen bought the property from Whitcomb in 1836. It was during this time that the property value went from $500 to $1300 in 1845. This could mean that additions were made to Whitcomb’s original wooden house (back porch?). The Millens may have done this in preparation to sell the property in 1846, which they did to a Mr. William McCrum, of whom little to nothing is known. At least I couldn’t find anything at all.

Aaron Chase bought the land (and probably the wood house) in 1855. During this time the property value dropped significantly (usually the sign of a fire) in 1862. I believe Danielle’s research has the same assumption, and fires were very common during this time period for obvious reasons.

403 N Walnuts mirror image: the Redick Wylie House once stood on S Walnut near where the MCCSC Admin building is today.

403 N Walnut’s mirror image: the Redick Wylie House once stood on S Walnut near where the MCCSC Admin building is today. A mirror image of this view can be seen looking north at 403 N Walnut from 8th Street. Click to ENLARGE

John McCalla and wife Elizabeth WYLIE McCalla bought the property in 1870–and this is when the dots start to connect (and why I have all-capped Elizabeth Wylie’s maiden name). By the time John McCalla bought the land from Chase in 1870, the property value had gone back up to $4200–not an unusually high dollar amount at the time for a lot with a typical house on it.

I believe that during the time that Elizabeth and John McCalla owned the land that the current house as we know it today was constructed of brick.

Image showing that Redick Wylie and sister Elizabeth homes were mirror images of one another.

Image showing that Redick Wylie and sister Elizabeth homes were practically mirror images of one another. Click to ENLARGE

A few things lead me to believe this. Elizabeth was the daughter of the famous President of Indiana University, Andrew Wylie. She had a brother as well, named Redick Wylie who lived in nearly a carbon copy of 403 N Walnut south of town. Redick’s house was on S Walnut and would have sat in front of what is today the MCCSC administration building near Bloomington HS South. It was directly across the street from where the Herald Times is today and the foundations of the old home can still be seen in the grass there. The Redick Wylie house was demolished around 1963 after it was abandoned and became a public nuisance. Elizabeth Wylie McCalla’s (and John McCalla’s) house on North Walnut is almost a mirror image of Redick Wylie’s house on South Walnut, and made from nearly identical materials–namely brick.

You can still see the outline of the foundation of the Redick Wylie house today along S Walnut.

You can still see the outline of the stone foundation of the Redick Wylie house today along S Walnut. CLICK TO ENLARGE

My conclusion is that the Topolgus building is just as much a “Wylie” house as it is a “McCalla” structure. The fact that Redick and Elizabeth’s homes were near duplicates of one another is not a coincidence, and it seems as well that they were also built at roughly the same time (1860s-1870s). In many ways, Redick and Elizabeth were merely following in the footsteps of their father, who also had his home on 2nd Street built of brick. Various aspects of the Wylie house on 2nd Street also bare some strong resemblances to Elizabeth and Redick’s homes (especially the 2nd floor wood backside additions on Elizabeth’s and Redick’s homes, with a similar style being used on the east side of the Wylie house).

Its also important to note that Elizabeth and her husband John McCalla (an elected officer of the First National Bank) had the means to afford the construction of such a luxurious home, while there is little evidence that Millen and Chase before them were likewise as wealthy.

1913 Sanborn of N Walnut shows the McCalla-Wylie House and the wood house attached in yellow (probably built by Millen and/or Chase).

1913 Sanborn of N Walnut shows the McCalla-Wylie House and the wood house attached in yellow (probably built by Millen and/or Chase). CLICK TO ENLARGE

The family links between Elizabeth and Redick and father Andrew Wylie become even clearer when Redick and his wife Madeline Thompson Wylie purchase (or inherit?) 403 N Walnut after the deaths of John McCalla (1899) and his sister Elizabeth (dies 1900). Of course, Redick and wife Madeline were already quite familiar with the McCalla house, not only because their own house was a close mirror image, but also because they often stayed with John and Elizabeth during the worst parts of winter so they could be closer to town and tend to their business interests on the square:

Bloomington (Monroe County, Indiana) Republican Progress, March 29, 1893, p.1.Redick Wylie’s family has returned to the farm south of town. They spent the winter in town, occupying John McCalla’s house.

Brother Redick moved into the “Topolgus” building in 1900 and lived there until his death in 1909. It could be that some additions might have been made to the house at this time. His widow continued to live there with other family members until her death in 1923–after which time the house ownership changed to Guy and Mary Burnett from 1924-1926 (Guy Burnett would become the President of the Showers Brothers Furniture Company through some of its toughest years).

403 N Walnut is in the background of this 1915 photo looking north.

403 N Walnut is in the background of this 1915 photo looking north. CLICK TO ENLARGE

From 1926-1945 the house was owned by Arthur Day who used it for a number years as a funeral home chapel for his mortuary that operated on the NE corner of 7th and Walnut. Its use as a chapel seems to end around 1940 and afterwards the building is rented out until 1947 when Dr. James Topolgus Sr. purchased the building for his practice.

In light of these connected dots I would probably suggest that the main brick building should not be called the Millen-Chase-McCalla house in official historic records, but rather simply the McCalla-Wylie House, both in recognition of the likely fact that Redick Wylie probably did some additional work to the house, but mostly to acknowledge the likely contribution that Elizabeth Wylie’s lineage had to the eventual style and construction of the building.  If you consider the attached wood house on the north side of the structure as part of the total building, then Millen and Chase’s contributions should be added as well, as this home was most probably the original house.

Showers Brothers President Guy Burnett lived at 403 N Walnut for a few years in the 1920s.

Showers Brothers President Guy Burnett lived at 403 N Walnut for a few years in the 1920s.

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