Were it not for a very bloody chin, it’s very unlikely that Andre and Silas von Morisse would be living in Terre Haute today.
First, it’s helpful to know why it would be unlikely why they would be here in the first place, under any circumstances. Andre was born in Norway, where his father was a rock musician; when he was a child, his mother moved to Los Angeles, where she remains Norway’s representative of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. Silas was born in France, but her father was born in Poland; at age 10, his father was killed by Nazis. He was on a train en route to Auschwitz that got stopped on the tracks; he was among a few who escaped the train and then promptly lied about his age to join the Resistance and became a hero in the battle of the Warsaw Ghetto, for which he has repeatedly received honors.
Andre and Silas both ended up in New York City in 1991 and 1985, respectively, and immersed themselves in the arts. Andre is a painter, Silas a photographer who now owns her own online gallery, where she represents 22 artists, including her husband. They vividly remember the date they met: Jan. 6, 2001. “Oh my god, I fell in love with him immediately,” Silas laughs. “It didn’t take me more than two seconds.” They got married in Monaco (where her father now lives) 14 years ago.
About 30 years ago, Andre met Jeff Hock, an entrepreneur — among other things, he owned a wine store in New York known for its generous pours; a few years ago, he helped revive the Terre Haute Brewing company, where he remains an investor — at the wedding of a mutual friend. A group was in a circle on the dance floor, “gatoring” — where dancers one by one hurl themselves to the floor and begin wriggling like an alligator (it was popularized by the movie “Animal House”).
As Hock recalls, “You do the gator, then stand, point at someone and say, ‘You take it!’ And I pointed at him — I didn’t know it, but I cracked open my chin and I was bleeding all over my tux.”
Andre continues the story: “I was like, take what? Take you to the hospital?”
“And that’s how we met,” Hock says with a smile.
In New York, Hock met Terre Haute native Amy Thompson and married her; they had two children late in life and, realizing that New York is hardly the ideal place to raise children, moved to Thompson’s hometown six years ago. Meanwhile, Andre and Silas were becoming less enamored of New York, with its otherworldly rent prices for dinky living quarters and occasional outbursts of enormous violence — they had lost a spacious loft in TriBeCa in the terrorist attack of Sept. 11, 2001, and, far more recently, were nearby when a crazed driver plowed through a number of pedestrians.
Their search for a new home took them to far-flung locales, from South America to France (where they found a place they loved, but the landlord was wary of renting to an artist — of Andre, they were told, “I hope he’s not a contemporary artist.”
Hock started pressing them to consider Terre Haute. He introduced Andre to the lakes where they frequently go fishing. Hock says, “I told them, ‘There are a lot of great things here, they’re just not in plain sight.’” Andre adds, “You can never do those things like fishing in New York — you’re too busy working.”
The von Morisses were sold once they found their home, a downtown Italianate built in 1856 with a wealth of space very few would be lucky to find in New York. “We loved the history,” Silas says — beneath the house is a tunnel built by the original owner, Chris Stark, to transport his then-brewery’s product. They don’t even mind the proximity to the 10th Street train tracks, despite its occasional cacophony: “It’s history as well, of course,” she adds.
And the price was better than right. “This space in NY or California would’ve cost $12,000 a month, easy,” Andre says. And they have a huge yard, an unheard-of luxury in New York, so they grow a lot of flowers and have installed a number of hummingbird feeders, habits few New Yorkers can indulge. “Here, we wake up and this is so … inexpensive.”
They enjoy strolling around the downtown area and find the residents exponentially friendlier than native New Yorkers. “It’s really beautiful here,” Silas enthuses. “I love it here. It’s much nicer than New York. We like the values here.”
She adds, “I consider myself American at this point. I go back to France and I’m not really French anymore.”
In the beginning, however, it was hardly smooth sailing. They moved to Terre Haute on Feb. 2 of 2019 — “the coldest week of the year,” Andre shivers — and initially didn’t know what to make of the proliferation of crows — the day after moving in, they were astonished by the heaps of bird business piled atop their moving truck. “When we moved here, the trees were full of crows, there were so many gunshots — we’re sitting there, wondering, ‘What the hell is going on?’”
Hock has introduced the von Morisses to people who have become fast friends, including Fred Nation, head of the Swope Art Museum, where Andre has spoken and has offered thoughts on exhibits, though he realizes his enthusiasm for art can be misinterpreted. “We’re from New York and we’re kind of scary, but we’re not going to take over the museum,” Andre says. “I’ve suggested exhibits that would appeal to the community, not just the arts community. We’ll see what happens.” In early November, they hosted their first art salon at their home, and Andre is in the process of filming an online art school from his living room/studio.
They also put in hours tending reTHink’s community gardens; Silas also assists in organizing the Vigo County Public Library’s antique book selection.
Hock also prepared them not to expect the pervasive cultural life offered in New York. As Andre says, “Jeff told us, ‘You have to bring your own culture.’ So we brought our own books, lots of books.” So everything they never got around to reading in New York is now being happily consumed in Terre Haute.
Speaking of consuming, though the von Morisses are avid cooks and prepare most of their meals at home, they have gotten rather cozy with Bar Bosco and, of course, Clabber Girl. “Where else can you get two breakfast tacos for five bucks?” Andre says, adding, perhaps more importantly: “Where else can you have a coffee/racing-car museum?”
So it’s not The Continent and it’s not the City That Never Sleeps. It’s Terre Haute, and that seems to suit the von Morisses just fine.
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