As soon as they witness the old stony façade as they pull into the parking lot and approach the large vintage wooden doors of restaurant’s front entrance, visitors of South Bend’s Tippecanoe Place should realize they are in not in for a typical fine dining experience.
Once the home of the powerful Studebaker family, the nearly 130-year-old mansion, located at the corner of West Washington and Taylor Street, is now home to one of the Indiana city’s most popular dining destinations — one that not only offers visitors exquisite food, but a slice of Michiana’s rich history.
Under the care of the Matteoni family, who have owned the historic structure since 2001, the mansion remains in excellent condition, with much of the original flooring, walls and other elements intact, including the marvelous grand staircase which retains the intricate hand-carved designs from the structure finished in the late 1880s.
After stepping foot in the giant grand hall, which serves as the reception area of the restaurant, guests are led to one of the 12 rooms which serve as dining areas in the restaurant. Guests may sit anywhere from the mansion’s former drawing room, library, ballroom or even the den of Clem Studebaker, which still contains the businessman’s old desk and walk-in safe.
“It’s a one-of-kind atmosphere,” says Kevin Jakel, the general manager of the restaurant.
Construction on Tippecanoe Place began in the mid 1880s, to serve as the new home of Clem Studebaker, one of the founders of Studebaker Brothers Manufacturing Company — the world’s largest wagon manufacturer at the time — and his family. Working with Chicago architect Henry Ives Cobb to design the mansion, which featured fortress-like stone walls, rising towers, low arches and other elements they set out to accomplish Studebaker’s vision of a dwelling that exuded a mood of “stability, security and performance.”
The name of the mansion is rumored to be in honor of the ninth U.S. President William Henry Harrison, who rose to fame due to his heroism in the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811. Clem was a close friend of Harrison’s grandson, Benjamin Harrison, who himself served as the 23rd president from 1889 to 1893.
In February 1889, the Studebaker family moved into the four-story, 40-room mansion, which cost an estimated $250,000 to build. While that figure may seem small by today’s standards, it was quite the investment by 1880s standards: back then, the average monthly rental fee for a good house in South Bend was $12.
Clem lived in the house for a little more than a decade before his death in 1901. After the death of his wife, Anna, in 1916, the mansion was willed to the couple’s eldest son, George, who owned the mansion with his wife, Ada, until he was forced to abandon the structure after declaring bankruptcy in 1933.
The property remained unoccupied until it was purchased by South Bend businessman E.M. Morris for $20,000 in 1941, who bequeathed the mansion to South Bend Board of Education. The school system used the facility for years as a school for handicapped children, and later as administrative offices.
In 1979, Continental Restaurant Systems, the restaurant division of pet food manufacturer Ralston Purina, purchased Tippecanoe Place in 1979. The company spent $2 million to transform the mansion into a restaurant, installing period appropriate furniture to make diners feel like they have stepped back in time.
The current owners have carried over that classy, historic atmosphere to today.
In addition to dinner, guests are invited to tour the restaurant, either at their own pace or led by resident historian Doug Graczyk. Each floor contains photos and artifacts that tell the story of the Studebaker family and manufacturing company, and the impact they had on South Bend and the entire world.
While the restaurant is popular with tourists and regulars throughout the year, the holidays are typically when Tippecanoe Place sees some of its best business, Kevin says. Every year, the staff decorate the mansion with winter-themed décor, including installing 22 Christmas trees throughout the premises. Even Jolly Old Saint Nick is invited to stop by during the month.
“It’s a really popular time for families to visit,” Kevin says. “Some have made it a tradition they have passed on to the next generation.”
Of course, no matter how great the history of the place is, Tippecanoe Place is still a restaurant, first and foremost. Thanks to the leadership of executive chef Edward Bareham, visitors leave the mansion with their fill of history and great food.
The kitchen — located on the first-floor of the building in the same spot it was back when the Studebakers still called it home — is known for its selection of steaks, seafood, pastas and other quality dishes.
The most popular item on the menu is the house’s prime rib, which regulars have craved since the business opened in 1980. Using a cut of corn fed, Midwestern beef, the rib is coated in herbs and roasted all day to perfection, served to customers with ruby port au jus and creamy horseradish sauce.
In comparison to the more lavish offerings on the dinner menu, Tippecanoe Place’s lunch menu offers customers a simpler selection of premium sandwiches, soups, salads and other dishes they can enjoy during a short break during the work day.
If the food and history is not a powerful enough combination on its own, the restaurant has recently thrown a third ingredient in the mix that has drawn a new crowd to the South Bend eatery: escape rooms.
Last year, the restaurant teamed up with Out Smart Escape Rooms to give guests a chance to use their wits to “break out” of one of the mansion’s rooms. Participants are given 60 minutes to solve a series of riddles and puzzles that will help them find a key to escape.
Thanks to the addition of the escape room, Tippecanoe Place has gotten some additional attention, especially from younger guests, Kevin says.
“It’s been helpful on both ends,” he says. “People who come here for the escape room learn more about the restaurant and vice-versa. It’s a win-win for both of us.”
The partnership has proven fruitful enough that Out Smart opened a second escape room in the mansion earlier this year.
With so much to offer, people who have not yet made the trek to the old Studebaker mansion are really missing out, Kevin says.
“We offer people a glimpse of history they may not have known about before,” he said. “Come in, enjoy, relax and take in the atmosphere.”
Photography by Wes Jerdon/Westley Leon S tudios