At 35,000 square feet, the Barker mansion is one of the largest historic homes in the United States. The original mansion was built in 1857 by John Barker Sr., then president of the Haskell-Barker Car Company, a freight car manufacturing firm in Michigan City. John Sr. had moved to Michigan City from Andover Massachusetts around 1835. He originally ran a dry goods store in Michigan City before buying into the freight car company in the 1850s. In 1841 John Sr. married Cordelia Collamer at Trinity Church on Franklin St. Cordelia was originally from Sandy Hill New York and met John while she was visiting her brother, Danvers, who worked at a bank in Michigan City.
When John and Cordelia were first married, they lived in a small European Rural style home on Franklin St. There they had five children. Their first son, named John Henry Barker after his father, was born in Sept 1842 but passed away less than a year later in Detroit Michigan. In 1844 another son was born whom they also named John Henry. They had two other sons: George Tyler, who passed away at the age of six and Wallace C. Barker, born in 1848. In 1855 their only daughter Anna was born. As a teenager, John H. was sent to a boarding school and business college in Racine Wisconsin before later working in a number of grocery stores in Illinois and running his own grocery firm in the 1860s. In 1857 the family moved into the first Washington St. mansion.
Twelve years later in 1869, John Sr., Cordelia, and Anna moved into a mansion at 580 Michigan Avenue in Chicago after which John Sr. worked at the car company’s sales office in downtown Chicago until his death in 1878. Wallace also moved to Chicago and ran several businesses there included a wholesale hardware firm; Wallace tragically died in a yachting accident in Chicago in the late 1870s.
When the family moved to Chicago, John H. stayed in Michigan City and moved into the Washington St. mansion. Through the 1870s John H. worked in a number of positions at his father’s factory, ranging from floor manager to treasurer. In 1879 John H. was elected mayor of Michigan City and the next year he unsuccessfully ran for the state legislature.
In 1873 John H. married Jenny Brooks and together they had three children. Tragically all three children died in infancy In 1886 John H. and Jenny built Barker Hall, a college prep school on Franklin St. in honor of their three children who passed. Jenny passed away from a stroke after 18 years of marriage in 1891.
In the early 1880s John. H. had officially taken over as president of the car factory. Under the son’s management, the factory grew rapidly. By 1907, the factory had grown to be one of Indiana’s largest factories with over 3,500 employees producing upwards of 15,000 freight cars per year as well as supplying wheels, axels, frames, and other parts to factories across the Midwest.
In June 1891, a month after Jenny passed away John H. gave the commencement speech at Barker Hall. In the audience, that day was ‘Kate Fitzgerald’ a new teacher who had come to Barker Hall from New Hampshire. Kate/Katherine Fitzgerald was the daughter of Irish immigrants and she had been educated at a convent in Montreal. Sometime in the next two years, she fell in love with Mr. Barker and they married on Valentine’s day in 1893. Three years later their only child, Catherine, was born.
In 1905 John H. and Katherine commissioned Frederick Wainwright Perkins, a prominent Chicago architect to design an addition to the 1857 mansion. The additions Perkins designed took over four years to complete and expanded the modest 1857 home into the thirty-eight-room, ten-bathroom, seven-fireplace, 35,000 square feet English Renaissance revival style manor that stands today. Tragically, John H. and his wife, Katherine Fitzgerald both passed away in 1910, only one year after they moved into the mansion, leaving behind an estate worth sixty million dollars at the time to their 14-year-old daughter Catherine.
The family fortune was left to Catherine in the form of a trust overseen by the First National Bank of Chicago before his death John H. had served on the bank’s board of directors. The president of the bank, James Forgan, became Catherine’s financial guardian. In July 1915 Catherine married Howard Spaulding, a childhood friend, and Yale graduate. Their wedding took place at the Barkers’ summer cottage in Harbour Point Michigan. A week after the wedding, Catherine sold the factory to a group of investors who moved the plant’s office to New York City and listed the company on the New York Stock exchange. Those investors later sold the factory to Pullman standard in 1922.
Catherine devoted the rest of her life to philanthropy. Her parents had begun a legacy of philanthropy in Michigan City by partially funding to the construction of the first public library in Michigan City, the first YMCA, St. Anthony’s hospital, and many other civic institutions. Catherine carried on this legacy upon her parents’ passing; a few weeks after her father passed Catherine requested extra funds from the trust to complete the YMCA. At several points, teenage Catherine sued the trust to allow her to donate more to Catholic charities and other philanthropic interests than the trust allowed. During the First World War, she donated ambulances to the French and American armies, medical supplies, funded Liberty Theatres, and allowed the Red Cross to use the Washington St. mansion. In 1924 Catherine set up a pension fund for workers at Pullman Standard in Michigan City, even though her family had not owned the plant in nearly nine years. Ten years later in 1934, Catherine established the Barker Welfare Foundation to support nonprofit organizations and continue the Barker family’s legacy of philanthropy. Eight-five years later, the Barker Welfare Foundation still operates today and provides funding to a number of the community organizations the family started during the Gilded Age.
Catherine’s marriage to Howard Spaulding, unfortunately, did not go well and they divorced in 1928. Catherine and Howard had lived in the Michigan City mansion off and on during their marriage. After the divorce, Catherine moved to New York where she remarried to Mr. Charles Hickox. Catherine rarely visited the Washington St. mansion for the remainder of her life. In 1948 Catherine donated the home to Purdue University, which used the mansion as a satellite campus until the late 1960s. Around 1968 Catherine donated the home to the City of Michigan City to be used as a civic center and museum. Catherine passed away two years later in 1970.
Over the next few years, the mansion was fully restored the match the interior as it was in 1910/1911. All the original furniture, artwork, clothing, and other artifacts were brought back into the home. The original wallpaper and carpeting were either restored or replaced with exact replicas and the mansion opened up as a museum in the early 1970s. In 1975 the mansion was added to the National Register of Historic Places and in 2014 the surrounding neighborhood became the Haskell-Barker National Historic District. Today the interior of the mansion is over 90% original to 1910.
To learn more about the mansion, explore our previous posts and keep an eye out for upcoming posts. Barker Mansion staff post weekly on their latest research, freshest sources, and newest exhibits. The mansion archives are vast and new tales of the Gilded Age are stumbled upon every day. Here you can be the first to read our findings and experience the dynamic process of heritage interpretation. But to learn about us best, you should pay the mansion a visit sometime!
If you would like to request any of the sources for this brief history or any sources on the history of the Barker Family, please send a query to TJ Kalin at email@example.com