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City demolishes Milligan structure

RAZE: A buldozer drops remains of a structure from the property of Lambdin P. Milligan, who was a pro-slavery man sentenced to death for treason but saved by a Supreme Court decision that ruled in his favor, findingit unconstitutional formilitary courts to try private citizens when civil courts are open. Photo by Andrew Maciejewski/Huntington Hearld-Press

by Andrew Maciejewski - amaciejewski@h-ponline.com

A stone structure built in 1860 by a proslavery Huntington man was razed Monday, sparking debate about the historic significance of the building.

Mayor Brooks Fetters said he ordered the demolition of the building because it has been repeatedly vandalized with racist graffiti, broken into and does not have any written record showing the significance of the building. The only known fact of the building is that it was owned by Lambdin P. Milligan, an infamous supporter of slavery who practiced law in Huntington before his arrest for charges of treason and conspiring to overthrow the U.S. government.

“There is no story, so the stories are widely varied – and to some extent urban folklore based on some logical supposition and thoughts of what’s true,” Fetters said. “Everybody is kind of left to their own opinion because there’s nothing there telling the story of what it is…. When it becomes a target for consistent graffiti and has racial overtones that are unwelcoming to people of color and diversity within our community, it’s an unproductive facility with an unproductive story on a piece of property owned by the city that happened to belong to, at one time, a colorful Huntington personality.”

The City paid around $1,500 for Zahm excavation to remove the structure, but Fetters said the most recent vandalism cost nearly $800, even though Protex “significantly discounted” the spray-paint removal. Fetters said the building was vandalized at least three times since 2012.

“The Case law that he was involved in that affects rights of citizens today is significant, but that stone structure is not.” Fetters said.

Ever since the U.S. Supreme Court case known as Ex Parte Milligan in 1866, which found it unconstitutional for civilians to be tried in military courts where civil courts were functioning, urban legends began circulating.

The Huntington County Bar Association formed a committee to preserve the Milligan structure in 1984 and held a dedication ceremony on Sept. 28, 1985, calling the structure the “Lambdin P. Milligan Slave House,” and that unfounded name began to catch on. It was moved from Milligan’s property near the Little River to public property between 1984-85, costing nearly $8,000, according to Chronicle-Tribune and Herald-Press reports.

The demolition never came before the Board of Public Works or the City Council, since Fetters said there was money available and it was part of a process to make the historic Sunken Gardens more accessible. 

Some citizens of Huntington took to social media to oppose and support the demolition. Supporters of the demolition said the building memorialized and acted as a trophy for racist ideals, while those opposed to the demolition said the decision erased the history of Huntington and warned that history could repeat itself if parts of history are erased because it puts a city in bad light.

Fetters said, as a history buff, had the building actually been verified as a prison for slaves, he would see the need to preserve the building, but he said, “It has to be rooted in fact.”

Huntington Alert, a non-profit organization that’s involved with historic preservation in Huntington County, released a statement saying they were not involved in the decision to raze the building, even though their organization was a part of the original push to preserve the building.

Huntington Alert secretary Shannon Zuercher, who has a master’s degree in historic preservation, said the building had to be removed from an application to have Memorial Park and Sunken Gardens added to the National Register of Historic Places, since it lacked proper documentation and was not an original structure. Zuercher said the stone building had at least one collapsed wall and that non-original material had to be used to recreate the structure.

Zuercher said the urban legend that Milligan actively caught and held slaves to be returned to their southern masters isn’t supported by documentation that is customary according to the laws during that time. She said court records and newspaper archives do not verify that Milligan ever caught or returned any slaves.

She also said preservationists and historians are conflicted about the use of the building since some people believe the thick walls and lack of windows are because the building was a prison, even though Zuercher said those characteristics often are associated with old smokehouses.

Zuercher said she wished the structure was preserved since it was likely one of the only buildings of that style and time period from Huntington County. 

The demolition was also part of the City Parks and Recreation Department’s plans to improve accessibility and amenities at the Sunken Gardens and Veterans Memorial at Memorial Park, according to a press release issued the day of the demolition.

Fetters said the City plans to work on making the gardens accessible for those with disabilities, with work scheduled for the reflecting ponds and other features of the historic park.