John Palmer Usher's Mansion
The residence of the Alpha Nu's
John Palmer Usher was born in western New York on January 9, 1816, the third of his parents’ eventual nine children. His was a lineage of daring, dating back to Hezekiah Usher, the first printer of colonial Boston; thus, it seemed natural for John, at the age of twenty, to leave the East with only a few personal possessions to seek his fortune as a Western attorney. Usher had been educated in the meager public schools of early 19th century New England and began teaching before turning to the law. After a brief period in New York, Usher set out for Terre Haute, Indiana, where he established his first independent law practice and began trying cases in both Indiana and Illinois. In the 1850s, he was soundly beaten by his future employer, Abraham Lincoln, who had agreed to substitute for Stephen T. Logan, one of the finest attorneys of the era. Usher was impressed with Lincoln and the two became both friends and colleagues. It would be this connection with Lincoln and his politics that would directly or indirectly drive Usher for the duration of his life.
Usher was, by all accounts, good-humored and amicable, relying on his passion and legal pugnacity to compensate for his plain-spoken courtroom style. His congenial nature, youthful good looks and courtroom success made Usher a wealthy man and an eligible bachelor. In 1843, Usher met Margaret Patterson, whom he married in June, 1844. Between 1846 and 1855 the Ushers had four sons and John Palmer expanded his law practice, forming a partnership with his brother-in-law. Usher began accepting legal apprentices during this period, to whom he opened his legal library and granted his worldly knowledge. Among these was Joseph G. Canon, the future Speaker of the House of Representatives.
That year the Indiana Whigs defected to the Republican Candidate for President, John C. Fremont, action that effectively changed Usher’s political allegiance without affecting his ideology. Usher took to the new party tenaciously, helping to spread Republican clubs throughout Indiana and Illinois. He became especially interested in his old friend Abraham Lincoln’s repeated attempts at election under the fledgling party. Although Usher avidly supported Lincoln’s 1858 senatorial campaign against Stephen A. Douglas, he did not initially support Lincoln’s 1860 presidential campaign. It was only after a personal meeting with Lincoln during which they discussed a number of issues including a transcontinental railroad that Usher began to actively campaign for the future president. Thus, as a minor figure in that first campaign, Usher was not considered for any post-election patronage posts in the government. He did, however, support his former chief Caleb Smith for the position of Secretary of the Interior, support which Lincoln considered when granting Smith the cabinet position.
In March, 1862 Caleb Smith was granted permission to appoint a personal assistant to the position of Assistant Secretary of the Interior, with the understanding that upon Smith’s resignation his adjutant would rise to the Secretary’s position. Smith longed to return to Indiana, preferably to serve in a prominent judgeship; thus, when offered the opportunity to pick his replacement, Smith thought of Usher immediately and sent a summons in mid-March. Usher accepted his appointment to the Assistant Secretary’s post on March 22, 1862 and made for Washington immediately. When he arrived, Usher found Smith overwhelmed with his professional and personal responsibilities and often absent from Washington, an absence that allowed Usher to fill in for the Secretary and to exert his personal prowess to an extent not otherwise possible. Caleb Smith resigned as Secretary of the Interior nine months after Usher became his assistant and Usher was sworn in on January 8, 1863.
Lincoln’s assassination by John Wilkes Booth shook Usher to the core, for he had explicitly warned the president not to go to the theatre until his Head of Security, Marshal Lamon, could return to Washington from a covert mission to Richmond. Usher and his family attended all of the funeral services, but the Secretary was too shaken to attend Johnson’s inauguration.Usher served briefly in Johnson’s administration, but considered himself both a political lame duck and too moderate to succeed in the post-Lincoln Republican Party. He resolved to resign his office during the night of May 14, 1865 and was the next morning presented with a scroll from the department staff, thanking him for his “industry, ability and devotion to public service and to his chief.” Usher’s last action was to endorse James Harlan as his successor.
Ushers next step was to be a part of the Union Pacific Railroad Company, but instead of heading the Eastern Branch as he wished, the Pacific Railroad Company appointed him as the Solicitor for the Kansas Railroad. Though disappointed by this turn of events, Usher took to his new appointment with tenacity, doing his best to defend the expansion of the Kansas Railroad. As Solicitor, Usher conducted most of his business from Lawrence while his family remained in Terre Haute. Usher found this situation unacceptable and in 1870, purchased a lot on the 1400 block of Tennessee Street from former Kansas Senator Edmund Ross. The family established temporary accommodations in the Eldridge Hotel until Usher’s mansion was completed at 1425 Tennessee in 1873. The Usher Mansion was nothing short of spectacular: it contained vaulted ceilings, beautiful walnut paneling trimmed in gold leaf that was created by the craftsmen of the Pullman Palace Car Company, and was constructed of 18-inch-thick Vermont limestone walls to assuage Margaret Usher’s fears of tornados. Additionally, it served as a social gathering place for the nation’s elite whenever they had cause to come to Kansas.
Usher, who was appointed to the local bench, quickly became one of Lawrence’s most prominent citizens and a regular orator. He served as mayor for a single two-year term, but found himself too at odds with the local city council to seek reelection and was grateful to be done with the whole affair. The position, Usher had insisted from the outset, was to be a part-time engagement on his part and secondary to his work for the railroads. His experience as mayor, Usher’s first political involvement since leaving the cabinet, apparently soured his opinion of politics, for it was also his last. Nonetheless, though Usher soon retired from the railroads, he maintained an active interest in their expansion and continued to serve as a judge.
By 1886, Usher was being advised by his intimates to slow down the frantic pace of his lifestyle and to enjoy a well deserved respite. His eldest son, Arthur, died in June, 1886, an event which, combined with the mismanagement of affairs by his surviving sons, sent Usher into a depression. Though his health appeared to remain outwardly good, his memory was failing and his hands shook. Believing that warmer, consistent climates might benefit his condition, Usher and Margaret purchased twenty-five acres in City Point, Florida. Leaving the Lawrence mansion in the care of John Jr., the Ushers traveled to Florida until an intense pain in Usher’s throat forced them to travel to Philadelphia. Usher was checked into that city’s hospital on March 29, 1889 and underwent surgery to remove a growth, probably cancerous, from his throat. On April 13, 1889 John Palmer Usher died of blood poisoning and complications from his operation. His body was returned to Lawrence where he was given a grand funeral attended by a number of close friends and railroad associates. He was buried in a previously constructed mausoleum in Oak Hill Cemetery where his body resides to this day.
In July, 1911, Margaret Usher died at the age of 93. The wife of the late Hon. John Palmer Usher, Margaret Usher had maintained her residence in the mansion after her husband’s death in 1889. Her two sons, Linton and Sam, both eccentric young men, took little interest in retaining the home for their own purposes, and it was put up for sale. Having earlier acknowledged the need for a new chapter house, Alpha Nu had already established a Building Committee by the time of Mrs. Usher’s death and the body was quick to consider the Usher mansion as a possible residence. The grounds had been badly maintained and the Mrs. Usher had either lacked the resources or the desire to wire the house for electricity. As a result, the chapter was able to purchase the home and its lawns for $9000, while a real estate developer purchased several acres south and west of the home for $6000.
Despite the bargain, Alpha Nu was nonetheless faced with twin dilemmas: first, the new chapter house had so exhausted their resources that several loans had to be taken; and second, it would not be prepared in time for the spring rushing season. The chapter members responded by finding accommodations at a local brother’s home and by laboring vigorously to prepare the grounds and the interior of the home. In addition to cleaning the mansion and moving possessions from the 1527 Tennessee house, nearly $6000 was spent in 1913 to renovate the interior to facilitate chapter life, including the installation of electricity.
It was not until 1992 when the most influential modifications to the mansion would be made. As the pledge classes began to expand to twenty members Usher’s original mansion simply could not accommodate the demands and needs of Generation X. From 1992 to 1993 the mansion doubled in size. Two levels of living were attached to the west side of the house creating one coherent house that now expanding from Tennessee Street all the way to Ohio Street. The expansion is referred to as the Nu House, with Usher’s original mansion being dubbed the Old House.
In 2006, the newest addition to the house was built. An expansion and complete remodel of the outside patio, a new lit basketball court, gazebo, and fire pit were added to the south side of the house. This addition was not built out of need like the many additions to Usher’s mansion that have been seen over the century; rather this was an example of the continued support and devoutness that the alumni of the Alpha Nu chapter share for their fraternity.