Eleutherian College: A Sustainable Heritage

A sustainable future will require green building practices for new buildings. But better yet, instead of a new building, repurpose an old. And if that old building drips with history, so much the better. For both those reasons, Eleutherian College in Lancaster, Indiana is worthy of notice.

Rev. Thomas Craven, an ardent abolitionist from Ohio, had a dream of a school where blacks and whites, men and women could attend classes together. He spoke of this dream on a visit to the Neil’s Creek Abolitionist Baptist Church which immediately set about making the dream a reality. Local citizens joined the endeavor and in 1848, Eleutherian College was founded, dedicated to freedom and equality. In fact, the school’s name is from the Greek word “eleutheros” meaning liberty or freedom. Integrating both races and genders was at the time a radically different concept.

The building itself was constructed in 1850. It is a solidly built limestone structure with a large hall on the main floor and classrooms on the upper levels. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1993.

Lancaster, located about ten miles from Madison and the Ohio River, was an active stop on the Underground Railroad. In 1860, 50 of the 200 students were black students, most of whom were born in slavery. A plaque in the building carries a resolution passed by the town council in 1852 condemning the recently passed Fugitive Slave Act and promising not to cooperate.

The school fell on hard times following the Civil War and closed in 1887. It was subsequently used as a grade school by the community until that too closed in 1937. The building fell into disrepair under several owners and it was proposed that it be demolished so the limestone blocks could be sold. To prevent that from happening, the Historic Eleutherian College, Inc. was formed and obtained possession of the structure. Gradually over time and with help from various grants and volunteers from the community, an effort was made to return the building to its original condition. Work is still underway and the goal is to complete the lower level by the end of 2016. It will be made available for events and with its exceptional acoustics, should become a real community asset.

Rehabbing old buildings rather than tearing them down and building new is an element of the sustainable future. Eleutherian serves as a model.

-by Richard Clough