It is known as the Thompson House by some. Others in Vermillion simply call it “The Pink House” because its bright pink north exterior walls that blend well with the building’s granite quartzite exterior are hard to miss when driving past it.
The house adorns 403 E. Main Street, right next door to the west of the University of South Dakota’s President’s House, also known as the Inman House.
The home has served as a landmark in the community for nearly a century-and-a-half, starting when it was first constructed in August of 1873 by M.D. (Myron) Thompson on the corner of what is now Lewis and Forest streets on top of the bluff that overlooked the Vermillion community.
At that time, the Vermillion was located below the bluff, in the area known as “lower Vermillion” today.
In 1882, following the Missouri River flood that destroyed much of Vermillion, the Thompson House was moved to its present location at 403 E. Main Street.
For decades, The Pink House has stood next to the Inman House, which was also moved to 415 E. Main Street in 1882 and today serves as the home of University of South Dakota President Sheila Gestring and her family.
Thompson and Darwin Inman, owner of the Inman House, were business partners in the early years of Vermillion, so it’s only fitting that they decided to relocate their homes next to each other on what would become Vermillion’s Main Street.
Also, Thompson and Inman were married to sisters, so that may have been a factor in the two couples deciding to locate their houses so that they would be next door neighbors.
The familiar quartzite and pink that first greeted horse-drawn carriages and later every vintage of automobile imaginable in its nearly 140 years on Vermillion’s major thoroughfare will soon be gone.
Demolition of the house by its present owner, the University of South Dakota Foundation, is scheduled to begin soon.
The Foundation purchased 403 E. Main Street in late 2017 because of its proximity to the Inman house with hopes of utilizing the property in some way that would benefit both the university and community while complementing Inman House.
People driving by can’t help but notice that in recent years, a garage at the Thompson House and shrubbery and other vegetation around the residence has been removed.
The purchase of the house was prompted by then USD President James Abbott, who had a vision for creating a gathering space for university alumni.
“Our hope was to be able to renovate the home,” said Steve Brown, president and CEO of the USD Foundation, “and as we got into it and really understood the bones and had people looking at it, it really became a bigger project than the budget would make sense to try to manage.
“We began envisioning what could be on this space, and with the remodeling of the Inman House, the vision became could this become a green space that would connect and really make this look like one property?”
Brown said the Foundation is considering the creation of an entrance into the Inman House that would come across Yale Street and directly across the south side of the property where the Thompson House currently sits. The front, or north side of the lot, would be developed into a continuous green space.
“The idea for this park would be a quiet area for reflection most days with a little walking path and gardens, both for the community and then as well, we could have some Inman House events associated with this space,” Brown said. “It’s also interesting to think about this space and how it can be repurposed and how many people it could hold for a particular gathering. Those are some of the things that we’re envisioning and the thought would be that we would begin the process this fall of the demolition of this site and begin the work this spring to reimagine what it would be, so those plans are still coming together.”
In the months leading up to the planned demolition, the board of directors of the W.H. Museum in Vermillion has been busy saving components of the home that will ultimately be put on display in the museum to tell the story of the Thompson House.
“It’s been great to work with the W.H. Over Museum in getting as many pieces of this historic home as they can,” Brown said. “Other aspects that we’ll want to do, certainly, are honor the history and legacy of this house, so we’re envisioning a couple of things that we can do on the property in terms of a plaque that could direct people to the W.H. Over Museum to learn more about the house and possibly some conversations with both Karen and Cyndy and others about an oral history that the campus could maintain.
“It’s an opportunity to have a living legacy of what this site meant and what the Thompson family meant to this community and what the Inman family meant to this community.
The Karen and Cyndy that Brown mentioned are Karen Ferris and Cyndy Chaney. Karen’s husband, George Ferris, was Cyndy’s cousin. Mrs. Lucille Ferris, the granddaughter of M.D. Thompson, inherited the Thompson house and resided there for many years. Beginning in the late 1970s, the house was owned and occupied by her son, George, and Karen and their family. George passed away in 2005.
“George and I moved over here after his mother died and we did some renovations,” Karen said, estimating that The Pink House became their home in 1978. “I got a new kitchen, and Mark (their son) got a new ceiling in his bedroom. There was an era in the ‘50s when dark brown was all the thing and that room happened to have a dark brown ceiling.”
The house had been converted into apartments in 1931, and in 2000, Cyndy moved into a back one of the home’s back apartments.
“My mother was raised in the house by her grandparents,” Cyndy said, adding that her mother was Dorothy (Thompson) Chaney.
The planned demolition of the house is difficult news to handle, Cyndy admits.
“But seeing it deteriorate as it has, day in and day out, is the hardest part,” she said. “I think it’s probably a pretty good idea (to tear down the house). I would certainly rather see a lovely park than some apartment house like everyone else has.”
The changes to the house’s interior when it was divided up into apartments “were almost impossible to overcome – the changes that were made,” Karen said.
The family member who made the changes had lived in a new home in California earlier, she said, and didn’t want to be living in an “old” home.
“She made it look newer. I tried to take the paint off the mantle in the fireplace room and ended up in the hospital,” Karen said with a laugh. “From ’47 to ’52, I think all of the changes were made.”
Cyndy remembers that a tea room was located in the house in the early 1940s, when she was in elementary school.
“I remember mother bringing me over here and they had tea inside and my brother, Tom, and I ran around on the porches,” she said.
Karen said several people have told her of the special uses of the house over the years. One woman told her that either both her wedding and the reception, or perhaps only the reception – Karen wasn’t clear on all of the details – was held in the home’s tea room.
The house originally did not have a basement and when the interior was renovated decades ago, a basement was constructed under part of the house, Cyndy said.
One of the items that has been saved from the basement is a large, heavy safe that originally came from the former National Bank building in downtown Vermillion, which has been remodeled and for many years served as home of RED Steakhouse.
M.D. Thompson was one of the organizers and principal stockholders of the D.M. Inman & Co., which operated the Bank of Vermillion. Thompson took over the presidency of the bank in 1913 and retained that position until 1929. Over the years, the bank merged and incorporated into the National Bank of South Dakota.
People associated with the W.H. Over Museum have been removing other items of interest from the house since last July.
“The floor joists are gone on the second floor,” said Jim Stone, who serves as a director of the Clay County Historical Society. “All the floors are gone. We salvaged the hardwood flooring out of one room. We have six door units at the museum now. We’re building walls. The exhibit will be 12’ by 14’ and we’re trying to fit as much stuff in it as we can.
“We salvaged the fireplace. That’s going to be in the exhibit,” he said.
Evelyn Schlenker, a member of the W.H. Over Museum board of directors, also discovered unique wallpaper in the house worth saving.
“The wallpaper had literally bled into the back of the paint and it was sort of an acrylic, elastic paint,” she said, “so it was easy to strip off.”
Evelyn has discovered that same pattern of wallpaper is now on display in museums in New York and Boston. She believes it’s from the 1920s.
“As we went into the older parts of the house, it was clear to me that we probably have wallpaper from 1870s and 1880s, probably up to the 1930s or so,” she said, “so there’s a whole history of wallpaper. And because these folks were fairly well-to-do, it’s beautiful wallpaper.”
Evelyn said the names of the companies that manufactured the wallpaper are still visible on it.
“We’ve got the history of the times, the patterns and also the makers and in conjunction with the W.H. Over, we’ve also found other uses for wallpaper,” she said. “It wasn’t just used on walls. Here, we found a lot on ceilings and their sidewall wallpaper. Wallpaper was used to line boxes, trunks, and to make scrapbooks. There’s a whole other area to explore.”
The beauty of the wallpaper in the Thompson House, Evelyn said, inspired her to more fully research the unique wall décor.
(The historical information in this article comes from the book “The Forest Avenue Historical District” by Judith Gudger Krueger and an edition of the “Clay County Historic Preservation Commission News.”)