James Franklin Doughty Lanier was one of Madison’s pioneers. As a result of his activities in banking and railroad development, he became one of the most important and influential figures in Indiana’s history in the first half of the 19th century.
Born in North Carolina in 1800, Lanier moved to Madison as a teenager with his parents in 1817, at a time when the town was just beginning to emerge as one of the most important population centers in the state. He and his first wife, Elizabeth Gardner, were married in 1819. After studying law at Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky, he entered practice as a lawyer. In the 1820s, he served the Indiana Legislature as assistant clerk, then clerk of the House of Representatives. During his tenure with the Legislature, he was involved in the relocation of Indiana’s government from Corydon to the new capital, Indianapolis.
In the 1830s, Lanier turned his career interests to banking and finance. When the Second State Bank of Indiana was organized in 1833, he became the president and major stockholder of its Madison Branch. After the passage of Indiana’s Mammoth Internal Improvements Act of 1836, Lanier assumed a new role as railroad promoter and was also a major stockholder in the Madison and Indianapolis Railroad — the first railroad in the state — which was completed in 1847.
Lanier’s good fortune in business allowed him to hire Madison architect Francis Costigan to design and build for him the grandest residence ever imagined in Madison. The home was built on the same riverfront property where he had lived with his family since the 1820s. The Lanier Mansion was completed and occupied in 1844. Following the death of his first wife, Elizabeth, in 1846, Lanier married his second wife, Margaret Mary McClure Lanier in 1848, but remained in residence in Madison for only a few more years.
In 1849, Lanier formed a new banking firm in New York City with partner Richard Winslow, initially trading mainly in railroad securities. Two years later, Lanier moved permanently to New York, leaving the Madison property in the care of other family members. Thus, railroads and banking first made Lanier’s fortune and established him as a key player in Indiana’s history. Then, the two ventures took him away from the state to live out the remainder of his life.
Although Lanier finally relinquished title to the Madison property, deeding it over to his oldest son, Alexander, in 1861, he still maintained close ties to his former home state. During the Civil War, he made unsecured loans totaling over $1 million, first to enable Governor Oliver P. Morton to outfit troops, then to enable the state to keep up interest payments on its debt. By 1870, these loans were repaid with interest. Lanier died in 1881.
The Lanier Mansion remained in family hands until 1917, when Lanier’s youngest son, Charles, donated the property to the Jefferson County Historical Society and provided funds to enable that organization to operate it as the Lanier Memorial Museum. In 1925, partly at the urging of the Sons of Indiana Pioneers, the Historical Society turned the property over to the State of Indiana — with the blessing of the Lanier Family — and it was opened to the public as Madison’s first historic house museum the following year.
The Lanier Mansion is one of the best examples of Greek Revival architecture in the country, and today is acknowledged as the "Crown Jewel" of Madison’s Historic District. The south portico, with its colossal Corinthian columns, overlooks the Ohio River. Other distinctive exterior features include the octagonal cupola, oculus windows and iron balustrades. Below the house, formal gardens developed by Lanier’s son, Alexander, after the Civil War, have been recreated with plant varieties authentic to the period. The interior, with its central hall and elegant spiral staircase, epitomizes the Greek Revival style. In recent years, restoration and redecoration — made possible largely by funding from private contributions — has recaptured the Mansion’s 19th century splendor. The Lanier Mansion was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1994.