Thursday, February 15, 2018

On the Historical Trail: This Old House

One of the most popular questions I get is if I can tell someone when their house was built. Because of that, I wrote an article some months ago about the oldest houses in the City of Lockport. When you get that far back, there is no hard evidence to a specific date. Generally, you get a possible bracket of dates, such as “it was built 1832-1835.” However, just this week, I found one of those nuggets of information that nails down a date.

While researching a murder trial that took place in Lockport in 1884, I was going through microfilm rolls for the Lockport Daily Journal when I came across an article that described the new “home of Thomas Oliver on High Street.” It even tells who built the house, which is a true rarity in our work. The builders often get lost in the detail. From that paper, dated September 3, 1884, and titled, “Another New Residence -- The Home of Mr. Thomas Oliver on High Street Ready for It’s Occupation.” The house is located at 274 High Street, near Washburn Street.

274 High Street
Anyone standing upon the corner of High and Washburn streets could not but be struck with the elegance and beauty of design manifested in the new three-story residence now completed for Mr. Thomas Oliver (of Oliver Bros., cider manufacturers), by Mr. Wm. Huston. The house is of the Queen Anne style, with tower adornment and slate roof, situated upon a lot 53 by 120 feet in size. The painting is a light olive green, with darker green and red trimmings. Mr. Oliver began the building of his residence the first of May and all the work on it was finished by the 1st of September, ready for occupancy. This is without a doubt one of the most rapidly built houses in this city and at the same time it is constructed in a solid and finished manner. Although the walls were completed very rapidly, up to the present writing not a crack is visible in them. The architecture and building of his residence Mr. O., entrusted to Mr. Wm. Huston, the well known Lockport builder. Too much praise cannot be given Mr. Huston for the able manner in which he superintended the work, and for the well-earned reputation he is achieving as a builder of advancement and ability. Mr. Huston displays an artistic taste which is visible in the beautiful designs of many of the residences which grace our fair city.

To take up the description of the residence in question, one notices in particular the beautiful broad piazza which extends across the front of the house and around to the side entrance. Upon entering the front hall, where the colored glass throws a softening effect upon everything, a massive cherry staircase, built by Weir Bros., of Buffalo, leads to the upper floor. And here it may be mentioned, entrance to the house is affected by the ringing of the electric bell. To the left of the hall are the parlors, separated by sliding doors, the back parlor being furnished with a bay venetian window of colored glass. In one corner is a fine large fire place and mantle of black marbleized slate with brass trimmings. From Messrs. Loomis & Bush of Buffalo. One of the most convenient and elegant rooms in the house is the dining room. This also has a bay venetian window with stained glass. A large and beautiful sideboard is on one side of the room with a china closet attached. From this one passes to the kitchen which is a model of its kind. It is finished in pine-oiled, provided with all the modern appurtenances. From here hot and cold water pipes run all over the house, and in the basement is the laundry room supplied with large stone wash tubs. In the basement are also two large cisterns. The plumbing work was put in by E.A. Fry of this city. Passing to the second floor by the winding staircase, a commodious hall presents itself, opening off of which are five bedrooms including a bathroom.

The beautiful velvet carpets and drapery were furnished by Morgan & Son of Buffalo. The house is heated all over by the city steam, the Lockport Steam Company putting in all the radiators. The chandeliers were Glenny, Sons & Co., of Buffalo, and Mssrs. E.B. Weaver & Son, of this city, have prepared the furniture throughout for the house.

Mssrs. Booth & Kinsler, of Buffalo, furnished the stained glass windows.

Mr. Oliver is to be congratulated upon the model residence he has prepared for himself, and wife, and it is the earnest wish of all his friends that he may live to enjoy the conveniences and comforts which only a home can give, for many years to come.

Thomas Oliver was born in Cambridge, New York on December 4, 1836. He lived near Saratoga until he moved to Lockport in 1877. His first business venture here was that of a cider press on Pine Street. By 1880, he and his brothers had invested in the erection of a stone cider mill at the corner of Gooding and Grand Streets. This new mill was able to produce 35,000 barrels of cider a year.

Thomas and his brother, William, abruptly quit making cider in 1893 and instead converted the mill into a brass bedstead factory. In the midst of making cider, Oliver was elected mayor of the City of Lockport as a Republican. He was considered by “all sides as one of the very best mayors the city ever had.” He was one of Lockport’s wealthiest citizens, and had investments across the country.

On July 16, 1890, ground was broken for a new residence for the Oliver family. This house was located at 175 Locust Street, formerly known at the time as the “old Van Valkenburgh place. Today, it is a part of First English Lutheran Church, named “Luther Haven.” William Huston was once again the contractor on the construction of Oliver’s home. The foundations were completed by August 27th of that same year.

175 Locust Street
Thomas Oliver died on July 10, 1904. He had a public funeral at Grace Episcopal Church before being buried at Glenwood Cemetery. His wife, Irene Livingston, was a cousin of Eleanor Roosevelt, and a descendant of Robert Livingston, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. She died June 4, 1928, at her home at 278 High Street, next door to the original mansion that her husband had built.

It is safe to say that a vast majority of homeowners will not be able to pin down the actual date of their home construction, unless they built it themselves. To find the date for a house that was built 134 years ago in Lockport is pretty rare. With the social standing of Thomas Oliver, it was a grand event to have his new homes unveiled. It is an intriguing look at society of the late nineteenth century in Western New York. I hope to find more examples in the newspapers as I do further research.

Craig Bacon is the Deputy Niagara County Historian. The office is located at 139 Niagara Street, on the corner of Niagara and Hawley Streets. The office is open Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday 8:30-4:30, or you can call, 716-439-7324.