Monday, August 22, 2022

Fascination, Salvation, Damnation, and Procrastination: The Infamous Corners of Lake and Church

by Monica Groth, Curator

While leading one of our Historic Downtown Walking Tours last month, I learned some fascinating history from our knowledgeable trolley-master Mark Delgrosso. Mark brought to my attention that the four buildings that existed on the corners of the intersection of Lake and Church streets at the end of the nineteenth century bore very interesting nicknames which tell us a little about their histories.

No longer standing, the opulent Reynolds Mansion once graced the intersection where the Carnegie (Steele) Library later stood, and where a monument to adventurer Ross Marvin stands today (the southeast corner). This home was occupied by the family of Dr. Edwin Eldridge’s daughter Julia. Julia Eldridge married Lewis Stancliff in 1856. But Lewis died young in 1864, and Julia remarried, this time to Samuel “Tutt” Reynolds. Julia’s father built her the magnificent Victorian Mansion on Lake and Church Streets in 1869 to celebrate this new chapter in her life. The mansion was splendid – boasting mahogany panels, stained-glass windows, and velvet carpeting—and was overflowing with priceless works of art. Passerby gazed with wonder at its outdoor fountain, beech tree, and three entrances; it became known by the nickname “Fascination”.

Photograph of the Reynolds Mansion, c. 1905
 Portrait of Mrs. Julia Stancliff Reynolds c. 1905

The building dedicated in 1862 as the Second Presbyterian Church and later renamed the Lake Street Presbyterian Church earned the nickname “Salvation”. During the turmoil of the Civil War, a disagreement within the First Presbyterian Church believed to have arisen over the question of slavery caused the church to fracture. The followers of outspoken anti-slavery pastor, Rev. David Murdoch D.D., formed what became the Lake Street Presbyterian Church, dedicating the sanctuary on Lake Street on the anniversary of Murdoch’s death. Murdoch was a humorous and compassionate Scotsman renowned for his engaging sermons. Ausburn Towner’s 1892 History of Chemung County describes him as “one of the most remarkable men…ever to make the sun shine brighter”. By 1883, the Lake Street Presbyterian Church congregation had grown to around 500 members.

Lake St. Presbyterian Church

Plaque commemorating Reverend Murdoch in vestibule

The City Club, designed by Rochester-based architects Crandall and Otis as a refined social club for wealthy citizens, moved to its current site on the corner of Lake and E. Church streets on New Year’s Day, 1894. The building housed a reading room, club rooms, billiards room, and a café. A separate ladies dining room existed, and a separate entrance for women was on the Church Street side of the building (women were not accepted as members of the club until 1986). Despite the fact that early members of the club included respected gentlemen such as Charles J. Langdon, George M. Diven, J. Sloat Fassett, and John H. Arnot, the club was known to be a site of drinking and, it was rumored, carousing. The roof-top garden added to the club in 1901 was closed only a decade later because of loud noise and rogue food and bottles being thrown into the street. The City Club thus earned the appellation “Damnation”.

The City Club also hosted Lectures like this one, featuring a Stereopticon, or magic lantern projector

Finally, City Hall, elegantly designed in the Neo-Renaissance style by Joseph Pierce and Hiram Bickford in 1895, was termed “Procrastination”.  Pierce and Bickford’s fingerprints are found throughout Elmira’s historic district; the pair designed the Courthouse Complex and Hazlett Building as well as City Hall. The architects’ intended the structure to be a slow-burning building capable of resisting fire long enough to allow for safe evacuation. There was a fire on the upper floors in 1909, but the building lived up to its promise and the minimal damage was quickly repaired. Why would the citizens of Elmira associate city governance with procrastination in 1895? When it comes to government, it’s easy to say that any pace is perceived as too slow, but in the 1890s, city government was also rocked by corruption and scandal. Frank Bundy, who served as Assistant Chamberlain in 1892 and 1893, and then as Chamberlain from 1894 until 1900, “cooked” tax records for years before the City Council had cause to investigate. Chamberlain embezzled $84,495 in city funds (that’s close to $2.5 million today). He served four years in Auburn Penitentiary.

City Hall today, note the ornate decoration on City Hall’s Lake Street façade

These four buildings earned their names sometime at the close of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century, when their individual characters appealed to the public imagination. It is a testament to both the creativity and diversity of the city of Elmira during this time that Fascination endured amidst Procrastination, and Salvation stood just across the street from Damnation.

Sunday, August 7, 2022

Fifty Years

 by Susan Zehnder, Education Director

Two eight-year-olds were recently touring the museum looking at the exhibit When Waters Recede: 50 Years since the Flood of 1972. One was overheard to ask the other, "Were you alive during the flood?” to which the other responded “NOBODY was alive during the flood.” Of course, this was humbling to those of us that were alive fifty years ago.

What is history? History is anything that has happened and history museums like ours house collections to tell the stories. Artifacts in our collections could be from as recent as yesterday, from fifty years ago, or much longer - as in the case of our wooly mammoth tusk.

Rotary phone on display to use

The flood fifty years ago was a traumatic event that made huge changes in our area. Less obvious are some of the changes we’ve experienced since then. As part of our exhibit, we’ve put out a rotary phone, adding machine, and manual typewriter so visitors can experience what some technology was like back then.

The visiting elementary students recognized the purpose of the objects, but how to use them was not so clear. Faced with making a phone call, many of our young visitors were full of giggles. They noticed that compared to cell phones, a rotary phone has two parts the handset and the body of the phone to which it’s connected, called the dialer. They noticed it took much longer to dial a number. They noticed it was heavier, and many weren’t sure about where or how to hold the handset. They noticed phones were connected to the wall and they just wouldn’t fit in our pockets.

Adults who remember rotary phones also remember the party lines, and tripping over long cords - cords that were essential to ensure a private conversation. While this phone looked different to the students, they understood it was a phone. 

In 1892, the first patent for rotary phones was filed. In 1919, the American Bell Telephone Company had started national service for what they called user-controlled rotary dial phones. These look closer to what we have on display  commonly found in most households by the 1950s. The 1970s was the decade things transitioned to touch-tone buttons. Anyone remember sounding out tunes on the buttons? By the 1980s, most people had push-button phone dials.

Remington manual typewriter on display to use

The typewriter on display was more recognizable to the students. Its keyboard resembled computer keyboards they are familiar with. However, actually typing on this machine was a different experience for them. Manual typewriters are stiff and the action of the keys take more finger strength to engage. Computer keyboards tend to be much easier to press so it took time for students to get used to pushing the keys hard enough to strike the paper. They had no idea what to do when they typed to the end of the line. Having to manually move the carriage to start a new line was confusing.

Different versions of typewriters can be traced back to the 1700s. In the United States, the first commercial patent for a typewriter was issued in 1868, but different versions of typewriters had already been around for over one hundred years. The oldest typewriter in our collection is the No. 7 Franklin, pictured here, with a patent date of 12/09/1891. And frankly to me, it’s not clear how I should place my hands on the keyboard.

Many of us might recognize what it is, but how to use it is less obvious. This older artifact is not currently on display, but if you haven’t seen our exhibit yet, we invite you to drop by the museum and try your hand at typing, or bring back memories by picking up the phone’s handset and dialing your number. A lot has changed in fifty years.