The DeHaan Estate: From Mega-Mansion To High End Eatery And Retail Gallery

How far one of Indy’s priciest landmarks has come from its fish hatchery origins.
Photo courtesy RH Indianapolis

THOUGH it’s only 17 years old, the massive Michigan Road estate known as Linden House has a reputation as big as any other Indianapolis landmark. The site of a former fish hatchery, its 151-acre grounds were also once home to a trailblazing interracial religious group and then to one of America’s wealthiest women before changing hands in one of the state’s highest-profile real estate deals. As of last November, the house has become a furniture store, restaurant, and wine bar, but not just any furniture store. It is now The Gallery at the DeHaan Estate, one of the latest efforts of California-based lifestyle brand RH, previously known as Restoration Hardware. That store that used to sell overstuffed leather chairs in the Fashion Mall?

Yup, that’s the one.

First, a brief history: Deemed unfit for use as a public park by local leaders in the 1960s, presumably because the impending construction of I-65 would cut it off from easy public access, the site was instead purchased and developed into a monastery by a Kentucky-based branch of the Benedictine order of the Catholic Church. Known as St. Maur Priory, it was one of the first racially integrated religious living and learning communities in the country, built at a time when Black Catholics were uncommon in U.S. seminaries. The monks operated the land as a private park, opening it to the public for fishing, swimming, and other activities for a small fee. When the priory disbanded in the early 2000s, the land’s purchase by timeshare magnate and charter school advocate Christel DeHaan created some controversy, upsetting environmentalists hoping the area near Butler University, the art museum and grounds now known as Newfields, and the White River might remain a natural habitat. Instead, the locally famous philanthropist hired a rotating team of architects and designers to build her 41,762-square-foot, seven-bedroom, 17-bath Palladian estate, which was completed in 2007. DeHaan lived in the home for the next 13 years, where she hosted events, intellectual gatherings, and salons.

Photo courtesy Department of Special Collections and University Archives, Raynor Memorial Libraries, Marquette University

When DeHaan died in June 2020, her estate “hired Realtors to sell it for the highest possible price,” says former Indianapolis mayor Bart Peterson. In 2019, DeHaan tapped Peterson to head her nonprofit, Christel House International, with the longstanding plan to leave the majority of her wealth—including Linden House—to her network of charter schools. The grand home at 4501 N. Michigan Road was listed for $14 million in early 2022, and Peterson settled in for a long wait. “We’ve seen a lot of very, very, very expensive homes in this city sit on the market for a very long time, because there just aren’t that many people who can pay that kind of a price and live in the house and maintain it,” Peterson says.

What happened next “was not what anyone expected,” Peterson says. “It sold very quickly.” Not to a monied private citizen but to a Colorado-based developer who, in partnership with RH, planned to transform the mansion and its grounds into a showroom for the company’s merchandise and a dining destination. Its 60 or so rooms would showcase RH’s wares, while a restaurant called The Dining Room would sustain hungry shoppers, and an adjacent wine bar would ease any spending pains.

Photo courtesy RH Indianapolis

The company, which began as a Northern California hardware and fixtures shop in 1979 but now calls itself “a curator of design, taste, and style in the luxury lifestyle market,” has been launching stores with this all-encompassing gallery-style strategy since 2015, when it opened its 3 Arts Club Cafe and showroom in the historic Three Arts Club of Chicago. A slew of similar venues has rolled out since, often in historic or otherwise notable structures.

Though Linden House wouldn’t be considered “historic” by anyone outside the TikTok generation, it certainly is notable. And it “was literally in turnkey condition when they bought it,” Peterson says, which likely added to the estate’s appeal, as little renovation was needed.

RH only allows one person to speak on its behalf: CEO Gary Friedman, who’s been with the company since 2001, except for a period in 2012 through 2013 during which he briefly stepped down over allegations of an inappropriate relationship with a colleague. RH declined to allow Indianapolis Monthly to interview Friedman but did share comments Friedman made about the DeHaan venture to shareholders, in which he seemed to concur with Peterson. “An incredible home and estate came on the market. We bought it for $14.5 million,” Friedman told the shareholders. “Besides covering the indoor pool, adding a commercial kitchen to support the restaurant, and a fresh coat of paint, very little was changed.”

Photo courtesy RH Indianapolis

Aside from keeping the property mostly the same, proceeds from the sale went to Christel House, supporting the organization’s educational efforts. Another positive, according to Peterson: “Now, other people are going to be able to see the property who never would have seen it had it been bought by a private individual.”

That curiosity factor might be the biggest draw for RH Indianapolis. Most of us already have an idea of what RH sells, and if we don’t, its website packed with a vast selection of inoffensive, classic-meets-modern aspirational design will clear that up.

Similarly, most of us have been to restaurants with a menu like The Dining Room’s, with a small salad for $14 ($4 more to add avocado), an $18 burger (fries are an extra $8), and a 12-ounce ribeye at $56 (for comparison, a 14-ounce ribeye at St. Elmo will set you back a mere $55).

Photo courtesy RH Indianapolis

But only a select few Hoosiers have been inside the home of one of Forbes’ richest self-made women (as DeHaan was, with an estimated worth of $950 million at the time of her passing). “RH is going to become a destination simply because people are curious and want to see the mansion,” University of Indianapolis marketing professor Carissa Newton says.

Local interior designer Loree Everette had a similar reaction when she learned that RH was taking over the DeHaan estate. She’s lived in the adjacent area for years and is “super excited to finally see what’s behind the gates.” She adds, “People will be clamoring to go check it out.” An attempt to get a reservation at The Dining Room suggests she’s right— on the mid-December morning this sentence was written, an OpenTable representative said 174 reservations had been made that day alone.

Even Peterson, who visited the Gallery for its opening gala and ribbon-cutting, has struggled to get a seat at an RH table. “I tried to visit once they were open,” Peterson says, “but there was a long wait for reservations at the restaurant.” He will try again once the initial crowds have died down, he figures.

Photo courtesy RH Indianapolis

Of course, if you own a restaurant or retail operation, you don’t want the crowds to ever die down. So RH’s challenge now is to figure out how to sustain itself once the initial onslaught of looky-loos has dissipated. After all, Marion County’s median household income is $59,504, based on recent census data (statewide, that figure rises to $67,173). When you’re talking about a company that sells $800 barstools and $7,000 sofas, you have to wonder if moving closer to downtown after so many years at Keystone at the Crossing was the best idea. “People underestimate the amount of wealth in Indianapolis,” Newton argues, disputing the notion that the primary audience for luxury design is in Carmel, Westfield, or even Zionsville.

While for years you’ve been able to find less intense versions of the immersive RH experience via higher-end studios in Hamilton County and beyond, so far, the Indianapolis shopper hasn’t had any options in their own backyard. As the region’s housing market continues to boom, “you’ll see more aspirational people from higher income brackets,” Newton says. We’re not talking about the region’s growing multimillionaire class, but those with enough money to strive for upgrades, improvements, and just a little more. “The wealthy are the ones who have it brought to them,” Newton says. “They don’t need to step foot in a store.” But these days, Indianapolis is flush with “that middle income range.” The people who make a comfortable six figures and don’t blink at dropping $18 on a burger, but who also aren’t at the financial level to put a designer like Loree Everette on retainer. At least, not yet.

Everette’s company, Phanomen Design, works with a mix of upscale residential and commercial clients, including Mass Ave dining destination The Fountain Room, HC Tavern, and several Cunningham Restaurant Group properties. She’s a fan of RH products and has used them in projects both public and private. She sees the potential in the all-encompassing experience The Gallery at the DeHaan Estate offers but wonders if, right now, the brand is playing it a little too safe. “There’s an overly homogenous thing going on,” she says, referring to the dozens of rooms devoted to displaying RH goods. “I think they’re still warming up,” she adds, noting that once RH gets its footing in this new space, shoppers might find more there to love.

Photo courtesy RH Indianapolis

Everette also hopes the restaurant will evolve a bit once it’s settled into place. “There’s a formula for a restaurant,” she says. “You’ve got to make people feel good, and that’s way more complicated than just making a place that’s good to look at.” She says that while diners experience “a luxurious or museum-esque type of space” at RH, it generates more awe than comfort—a reaction that can impact a diner’s desire to return.

While no one is damning the food served in The Dining Room, no one is rushing to note its individuality, either. Though Friedman told The New York Times last year that “arguably the best chef in the world” consulted on the chains’ menus, he wouldn’t name names. The individual restaurants also don’t publicize the names of their chefs, so the experience is more like that of an established chain than the rarefied experience found at local chef-driven innovators like Beholder or Bluebeard. Indianapolis diners say RH’s food is perfectly acceptable but not terribly revolutionary. According to The New York Times, patrons at the New York location “[come] not for the food, but for the aesthetics.” The same is likely true here.

Considering that the restaurant makes no claims to local or artisanal sourcing, it’s also likely that it uses the same suppliers as many other area spots. So, The Dining Room’s magic, according to Newton, is “all in the presentation. It’s all in the styling. It’s all in the experience that that guest is getting”—which might prompt diners to look past culinary shortfalls, should they occur.

Photo courtesy RH Indianapolis

Is The Dining Room’s fairly standard burger the kind of food Christel DeHaan would have eaten back when she was in residence? Probably not. Even before RH put in its commercial kitchen, the mansion boasted a dedicated catering kitchen, a butler’s pantry, and a “residential” kitchen with all the latest appliances and gadgets. Then again, it’s likely DeHaan never would have imagined her beloved home being turned into a furniture store, even one as luxury-focused as RH aspires to be.

But Peterson says DeHaan’s priority was supporting the students of Christel House International. How carefully RH preserved her house is probably “above what she might have expected,” he says. He celebrates the fact that the home is now a destination for all. “As somebody who cares very much about Indianapolis, that makes me very happy,” he says.

Everette agrees with Peterson, saying repeatedly that she hopes RH finds a way to succeed in the storied, unique space. “I really would love to see it be something that attracts people to our city. Not ‘the area.’ I’m talking about Indianapolis, our capital city,” she says.

If RH plays their cards right and offers an experience as appealing as DeHaan’s mansion itself, “this is the type of thing that [could help] promote our city,” Everette says. It’s just up to the 45-year-old furniture brand to live up to one of the most inspiring and beautiful buildings in the city. If it can do that, the sky’s the limit.