Saturday, January 15, 2005

Three houses: a Lake County residential history

Thanks to our mother's love of interesting houses, my brothers, sister and I were lucky to grow up in three very unique houses in Lake County. I think they played a big role in making us rather romantic and sentimental, but I want to mention them now for what they say about Lake County History.

The first was a small Spanish Colonial on Granada Drive, off Lake Shore Boulevard, in Mentor-on-the-Lake. We'd moved out from downtown Cleveland in 1949 and spent the summer in a cottage a couple of blocks over. My parents both worked downtown, but wanted the ambiance of living along the lake and after that first summer, began looking for permanent digs. The Granada house was one of four built by the Mentor Harbor Company, as part of a huge proposed development, a "Venice on the Lake," which would have installed hundreds of such homes, centering on a yacht club. Some of the homes would be built up over a cleared section of the Mentor Marsh and have attached boat houses so residents could sail or motor from their home right out to the lake. The Depression killed that plan, but the clubhouse and four houses were built and we lived in what was probably the smallest model. Samuel Livingston Mather, the head of the development syndicate (which had originally intended to turn the Marsh into a steel mill), had another of the four, but never lived there. We lived in this house for a few years, which I later decided was why I liked the architecture of Tucson, Arizona, when I lived there.

The second of the three was the "Swisscott," in Willoughby-on-the-Lake, a four-story, dark brown monster of a house, built amidst a neighborhood of one-story converted summer cottages between Lake Shore Boulevard and the Arrowhead Shore Club, on the lake's edge. A couple named the Scotts had visited Switzerland, fallen in love with the chalets there and decided what Lake Erie needed was its very own example of this style. The ground floor was an enclosed garage, the laundry facilities and a small apartment which was rented separately. The first floor was a huge living room, open all the way to the third floor ceiling, and containing a huge stone fireplace; the kitchen; a half-bath; and some odd, narrow, side rooms off the living room. The third floor was the master bedroom, a half-bath and a separate tub room in the rear and four small bedrooms arranged in a circle in the front part of the house, all opening onto a circular balcony that looked down into the living room. The fourth story was a full attic, accessed via a hidden, pull-down staircase. The house had two front doors, one at each corner, and since the living room was on the second floor, they were accessed by a pair of large, brick stairways, angling up from the driveway. Across the second floor in the rear and the third floor in the front were full porches. This was a wonderful house to grow up in, as all the porches, balconies and staircases, inside and out, lent themselves to all manner of imaginative venues. The entire house was made of dark-stained wood and was heated by a coal furnace in the garage which had only one outlet into the house, in the middle of the living room floor. On cold mornings we'd run downstairs, teeth chattering, and stand on the register, waiting for dad to get the fire going and some heat to rise up to us.

The third house was what my mother thought was a normal Ohio farmhouse, albeit one that had been moved and left at an odd angle in the woods off Chillicothe Road, in Mentor. It had a classic Greek or Federal Revival styling, one small wing with a formal porch and nice detailing around the parlor window. Later we learned that this was built for an early Mentor family, the Joseph Sawyers, by famous master builder Jonathan Goldsmith, sometime in the 1820s. It was already then about 140 years old and listed in Elizabeth Hitchcock's book Jonathan Goldsmith, Pioneer Master Builder in the Western Reserve (page 58). In the twentieth century, it was the summer home of Luetkemeyer, a Cleveland hardware merchant, and Hawgood, who owned a small fleet of lake ore carriers. Richard DeFranco, a Lake County real estate developer, had moved the house in the mid-1960s, from its original location on the southwest corner of Mentor Avenue and Chillicothe Road, several blocks south, dropped it on a new lot in an acre of deep woods, did some remodeling and went bankrupt (or so the story goes). It had been vacant for a year when mother's Realtor (who she'd met when that person was a young-married, living in the Swisscott's apartment) discovered it and put mother together with the bank holding the deed. I'd gone off to college by then, but visited it often over the 17 years I lived in Tucson and eventually moved back to it in 1989 for a few years.

The Granada Drive house is still standing, though it's boarded up again and surrounded by more houses than when we lived there. The Swisscott burned down several years ago and was replaced by two modern houses that make it all seem like a highly-improbable dream. The Sawyer House still stands, owned now by my brother, who'd done much to talk mother into buying it in the first place. I've lived in many houses and apartments in my 59 years, but these three stand out strongly in my mind. Perhaps everyone remembers best the houses they grew up in, but I doubt many have lived in landmarks like these three unusual Lake County historic structures.

(As an aside, I think that Virginia Lee Burton's classic children's book, The Little House, was to the historic preservation movement what Bambi was to the anti-hunting movement. It worked that way for me, at least!)


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