Histories and Housestories
September 14, 2007, the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and
Historic Preservation accepted the recommendation of the New York State
Board for Historic Preservation that the Abel Bennett Tract be added to
the State and National Registers of Historic Places. The Abel Bennett
Tract Historic District is described as an example of a late 19th and
early 20th Century residential subdivision. On February 19, 2008, the
Abel Bennett Tract was listed on the National Register of Historic
Several years ago, interested West
Side Neighborhood Association members formed an Historic Survey Committee
to explore the architectural and historical past of the Abel Bennett Tract
(or Location) area of the West Side. The residential section of the Location
is bounded by Riverside Drive, Beethoven Street, Seminary Avenue, and portions
of Chestnut Street and St. John Avenue. The complete Location also includes
Park, which is bounded by Seminary Avenue, Schubert Street, Beethoven
Street, and Laurel Avenue.
We knew that we'd have to research
the dates and facts about the buildings located there, of course.
But, what we actually discovered in our explorations, much to our pleasure
and delight, were housestories! Through city directories, deed records
and maps, the people who lived in these houses before us revealed tales
about their lives, capturing our imaginations and drawing us into the past.
In the autumn of 2002 we were able
to expand our research efforts with the help of graduate students from
the Cornell University Historic Preservation Planning Workshop and
its Director, Mary Joan Kevlin.
Later, students were directed by
Jeffery M. Chusid, Associate Professor of Historic Preservation.
The students returned in 2003, 2004,
and 2005, presenting results of their work, Housestories,
at community forums. Some results of their efforts follow.
In the fall of 2005 the Association was awarded a Preserve New York grant,
a program of the Preservation League of New York State and the New York
State Council on the Arts, for $6,500. The funds will support the costs
associated with the completion of a nomination to the State and
National Registers of Historic Places for the Abel Bennett Location.
It all began with Abel Bennett, born in Bennettsville, Chenango County,
New York on November 16, 1818.
Bennett was an icon of business, civic leadership and philanthropy.
He made a fortune in the coal
industry in Pennsylvania as an owner of the Pennsylvania Coal
His invention of the coal elevator increased mine productivity and
Bennett helped to develop areas around his coal mines
for residential ownership. These areas would later become parts of
After his time with the Pennsylvania Coal Company, Bennett moved to New
York City where he found great success as a partner in Lathrop,
Luddington and Company, a dry goods business. After hist first wife,
Adelaide Johnson, died, he married Eugenia Lathrop, a niece of his
Upon moving to Binghamton in 1859, Bennett bought the Mackenzie
Farm, known as the Grange,
in what is now the West Side of Binghamton
for $17,000. Within a short time he became an important figure in the
As Binghamton’s first mayor after incorporation in 1867 he set the
for governance. Bennett was the founding President of the First
Bank of Binghamton.
He developed the "Bennett Block" on Washington Street in downtown
Binghamton. It included the Bennett Hotel, designed by noted architect
Isaac Perry, in 1877, and the Bennett Clothing Company.
His philanthropy included the founding of the
Susquehanna Valley Home. His income rose from approximately
in 1860 to $250,000 in 1870. Recreation Park,
which we now associate with George F. Johnson, once bore his name as
Park. In 1893 Binghamton became the first city in the state to run an
electric streetcar line, rendering the horse-drawn trolleys nearly
obsolete. By 1895, the rails of the West Side Street Railway Company
extended up Leroy Street, with trolleys carrying people to the park.
In the late 1880’s, Abel
health began to fail. Recognizing the impact of the Leroy Street
and seeing it heading west, Bennett platted his farm as a gridiron
to be bounded by Riverside Drive, Beethoven Street, Seminary Avenue,
parts of St. John Avenue and Chestnut Street, and also including what
now Recreation Park. He sold 27 lots along Chestnut Street and Seminary
Avenue, the eastern and northern edges of his farm between 1882 and
1887, before his death
Bennett directed his executors, son Frederick Stanley Bennett
and son-in-law Stephen C. Millard, to sell the remaining lots to
the family fortune.
of the Location
The city at that time had a population
of about 33,000. Homes began to go up on Leroy Street west of Chestnut
Street as early as 1893 and continued throughout the decade into the early
1900's. Few buildings appeared on parallel streets such as Lathrop
Avenue until well into the 20th Century. The Bennett farm, renamed
the Bennett Location, quickly became a major westward expansion of the
city, offering new residents a quiet suburban lifestyle away from the bustle
of downtown Binghamton. Development was facilitated by the conversion of
the horse-drawn trolley car track, laid down in 1887 on Leroy Street, to
an electrified trolley in 1893. The trolley line bisected the Location
east to west and provided easy access to new residents. The Location
was about to become one of the early trolley suburbs in the state.
Building continued west on Leroy
and then on parallel streets throughout the first two decades of the 20th
century until the Location was fully developed into a neighborhood of nearly
570 period homes. Houses built in the Location exemplify domestic
architectural styles of the period. The multi-gabled rooflines of
the Queen Anne Style and attic dormers of the Hipped-Roof Cottage Style
predominate; multi-textured Shingle Style, colonnaded Colonial Revival
Style and Arts-and-Crafts Style are also represented. Some are stately
in their faithful adherence to the attributes of one style. Others
are eclectic. The houses in the neighborhood have retained a high
level of historic integrity and contribute to an overall sense of a highly
intact trolley suburb.
Local architects and builders contributed
their considerable talents to houses in the Location. Sanford O.
Lacey, one of a noted family of architects, lived at 107 Leroy Street in
1898 and less than a decade later at 23 Lathrop Avenue. He designed several
Shingle Style houses in the Location. Norman Millard, grandson of Abel
Bennett, built numerous homes in the Hipped-Roof Cottage Style that came
to be commonly known as Millard Houses. In 1902 the shops
and yards of builders Mitchell and Stever occupied what is now 44-48 Lathrop
Avenue. Mr. Mitchell's home at the time was at 123 Leroy Street close behind
It appears that rental accommodations
were also available. Cigar makers, dressmakers, harness makers, and horse
trainers, all took rooms in the neighborhood, often sharing a home with
the owners themselves.
Many people who lived in the Location
contributed in very substantive ways to the civic, business and political
vitality of the community. Nevertheless, early homeowners were as diverse
a group in occupation as we are today. Bookkeepers and bankers, carpenters
and contractors, dressmakers and doctors, linotype operators and lawyers
- they together built a new neighborhood in the Location and added strength
and breadth to the development of Binghamton.
Prior to the development of the
Abel Bennett Location, there was only one large imposing structure on the
West Side of Binghamton - the Susquehanna Seminary, which later became
St. Mary’s Orphans Home. The Home was built in 1853 as the Susquehanna
Seminary by the Wyoming Conference of the Methodist Church. The Seminary
closed due to lack of support in 1858.
The building remained unoccupied
until 1867 when it became the property of the state and was fitted to serve
as a school for the blind; however, it was never used for that purpose.
The Susquehanna Valley Home temporarily resided in the building until it
moved to its permanent location in Griffith Mansion at 153 Conklin Avenue
Then Place College for Advanced
Education of Young Ladies was established at the site. Place College closed
shortly thereafter, and in 1872 Dean Smith established Dean College, a
school for women. The college struggled with debt until Smith’s death
in 1877. The Reverend Robert Patterson took over management of the
school and renamed it Binghamton Ladies College. The school closed
In 1881, a local priest, Father
Hourigan, recognized the need for a larger facility for orphaned children
than the small building then used at Oak and Leroy Streets. He looked
favorably on the large brick building of 100-plus rooms and the eight acres
of land at the Seminary site. In 1881 the Trustees of St. Patrick’s Church
purchased the property from Abel Bennett for $23,000. It is uncertain
when Abel Bennett purchased the property. However, because he was
involved with the establishment of the Susquehanna Valley Home, it is possible
he purchased it then. St. Mary’s Orphans Home opened with 40 boys
and 30 girls.
The nuns from the Sisters of St.
Joseph of Carondolet oversaw the operations of the orphanage. It had on-site
education through the 8th grade, after which the children would
move on to St. Patrick’s Academy. The site had campus-like grounds
with a basketball court and swimming pool. The children would walk
to the park for other recreational activities. Boys and girls were
housed on separate sides of the building with a chapel, classrooms and
parlor at the center of the building. The only time boys and girls
were together was during class. They even dined in separate cafeterias
until the population declined.
At its peak during the Great Depression
of the 1930’s approximately 300 children lived at St. Mary’s Orphanage.
Not all the children were orphans; some were children from families with
destitute, abusive or alcoholic parents. By 1960, there were fewer
than 30 foster care children residing in the orphanage. In May 1961, the
Roman Catholic Diocese of Syracuse purchased the building from the Sisters
of St. Joseph for $100,000 to make way for the new Seton Catholic Central
High School. The 108-year old Orphanage building was demolished.
In 1996 there was a reunion for
those who had lived in St. Mary’s Orphanage. Many attended to reminisce
and share fond memories of their stay there. Proceeds from the reunion
were dedicated to a plaque honoring the Sisters of St. Joseph and commemorating
Abel Bennett’s farmstead was located
across the street to the south of the Seminary site. His house faced
Chestnut Street, but did not acquire the address of 75 Chestnut until the
late 19th Century. The Bennett house sat where 6 and 8
Davis Street are now located.
The house was large and of Italianate style. It’s possible that its
design was taken from the Modern Architect pattern book. First published
in book form in 1852, the pattern book was wildly popular - three more
editions were published by 1873. The book was written by the prominent
Philadelphia architect, Samuel Sloan. Sloan may have been the source for
the design of the Seminary across the street. Sloan designs and the
Italianate style in general, were popular in the mid 19th century
when the Bennett house was built. The Italianate style is characterized
by decorated eave brackets, a projecting front tower, and tall and narrow
Abel Bennett occupied the house
from 1859 until his death in 1889. In his will Bennett left the estate
to his son Fred, who became the primary resident of the house before relocating
to Pennsylvania at the turn of the century. The house stood vacant
for only a couple of years before it was demolished in 1912.
A complex of other buildings existed
on the farmstead. They were located approximately across from what
is now the intersection of Davis Street and Millard Avenue. There
were barns and stables, as well as two grape houses, which were long stone
structures to the south of the house.
The only buildings surviving from
the original Bennett farmstead are three original tenant houses facing
north on Seminary Avenue. Two of the houses appear on an 1876 Binghamton
Atlas map, and all three had been built by the time the 1885 Atlas map
In the late 1880’s, members of the
McGowan family appear as the first identified tenants of the houses.
Binghamton City directories show that the McGowan men moved in and out
of the houses for over two decades, sharing occupancy with only a few other
tenants, including Henry Davis and Joseph Murphy. The McGowan’s have been
identified as horse handlers, drivers, woodworkers, gardeners, and farmers.
John H. McGowan, the most consistent tenant of the houses in the late 19th
century, is titled as the Foreman for the Bennett Estate. The houses
were eventually bought by members of the McGowan family and by Joseph Murphy
shortly after the turn of the century.
The tenant houses were originally
numbered 75a and 75b as sub-properties of Abel Bennett’s house on 75 Chestnut
Street before becoming individually numbered properties in the early 20th
century. The houses were renumbered two more times before acquiring
their present addresses at 87, 89, and 93 Seminary Avenue. They are
Gothic revival open gable cottages and have had only minor exterior changes
since the 19th century. In terms of the development of the neighborhood,
the houses are the oldest remaining structures in the Abel Bennett Subdivision.
Our ultimate goal is to use this
research to nominate the Abel Bennett Location for recognition as a state
and national historic district.
A state and national district
means the district would be placed on the State and National Registers
of Historic Places. The National Register is maintained by the National
Park Service, Department of the Interior, and is the nation's official
list of districts, buildings, sites structures and objects significant
in American history, architecture, archeology, engineering, and culture.
The criteria for evaluation of potential entries in the Register are:
that they are associated with events
that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of our
that they are associated with the lives
of significant persons in our past; or
that they embody the distinctive characteristics
of a type, period, or method of construction, or that represent the work
of a master, or that possess high artistic values, or that represent a
significant and distinguishable entity whose components may lack individual
that they have yielded, or may be likely
to yield, information important in history or prehistory.
We believe the development of the Bennett
Tract played a significant role in the broad pattern of the history of
Binghamton. The architecture of the homes built during the period embodies
the distinctive styles of the time with high artistic values. The neighborhood
was peopled with individuals who singly and together are significant to
Binghamton's growth and history.
The pursuit of a state-national
district will take considerable time and effort but will be well worth
it in greater incentive to rehabilitate historic properties and increased
pride in our entire neighborhood. Presently, federal law allows owners
of commercial property to take a 20% federal income tax credit for the
cost of substantial rehabilitation. There are currently bills under consideration
at both the State and Federal level that would provide the same tax incentive
to residential owners. In addition, designated properties may take advantage
of a city tax abatement program in which the overall assessment is adjusted
gradually over a 10-year period after substantial improvements are made
to a property. There are no restrictions placed on owners of state and
nationally registered historic properties.
If you have any information about the "housestory"
of a home in the proposed district we need it and would love to have it!
do not hesitate to e-mail
Sandra Haining with comments or questions.