Much of what makes Madison a popular tourist destination is the impressive and abundant historic architecture. For this, Madison owes a significant debt of gratitude to the architect and builder, Francis Costigan. He oversaw construction of the Lanier and Shrewsbury-Windle mansions, both National Historic Landmarks, and the Costigan house. Born in Washington D.C. in 1810, Costigan trained in Baltimore, Maryland. He was heavily influenced by New York architect Minard Lafever, who was a carpenter and architect who published books in the 1820s and 1830s that served as patterns for Greek Revival buildings.
Listed in the Baltimore census as a twenty-five year old builder, Costigan arrived in Madison in 1837 alongside others who migrated west from eastern states in search of both cheaper land and opportunities. He built his house in 1850, perhaps as a farewell showpiece. The Costigan House is considered a marvel in design with Costigan fitting the grand stylistic details associated with Greek Revival homes onto a narrow twenty-two-foot wide city lot. The exterior proportions fool the eye into thinking it is an ordinary two story brick home. The red brick building is rectangular in plan with a sandstone foundation. The long windows are made of some of the most slender wood components found in any mid-nineteenth century home. A projecting cornice with dentils and beading creates an entry portico supported by Greek-inspired columns.
The interior of the house is fashioned with such skill and imagination that, even today, architects and historians consider it a masterpiece of design for a narrow lot. The entry is a pocket door which slides into a void in the brick load-bearing wall – an unusual feat of engineering. Notable interior design elements include a thirty-five foot long parlor with curved plaster walls and a curved door. In the parlor, which is sixteen feet wide with ceilings over twelve feet tall, one immediately feels the space and grandeur. It is possible to forget that the room is nearly the total width of the structure. It is designed to give the sense of a grand double parlor without the visual barrier of walls. The unique, nearly hidden staircase leads to spacious and bright bedrooms with unusual wall configurations that provide closet space, unheard of for the time period. To appreciate the beauty and cleverness of this construction, one must visit the property now operated as a museum by Historic Madison, Inc.
By 1852, Costigan and his family were living in Indianapolis where he built public and private structures. Unfortunately, all of his structures in Indianapolis were lost due to expansion and modernization; not one survives. Though he was a respected architect in the state’s capital, his death in 1865, coming only four days after Lincoln’s assassination, went almost unnoticed.