Friday, November 21, 2014

The Spirit of Christmas and Community History By C.P. Stringham

The newly unveiled cover to my upcoming e-book!
Time is counting down at an alarming rate. It seems like the first day of the 2014-15 school year was only a week ago. Alas, it’s mid-November. While we have a multitude of routines and events going on with our family of four, the undertone, to everything we do, involves my oldest daughter’s pending high school graduation this coming spring. For parents who have already gone through it, you know what I’m referring to all too well. We’re lucky in the fact that our daughter is pretty organized—more so than I was at her age. She’s visited campuses, picked her top five, and has her applications out. Most colleges have promised to send The Letter within the next two weeks. Yikes!

As usual, I’m behind the eight ball getting this week’s Broads of a Feather blog out. It is Friday after all. Before you know it, my partner-in-crime, Robin Janney, will have her week’s installment up. I’d like to say I’ve been preoccupied by working on both Overcoming Sarah and Objects At Rest – Ellis Springs Series: Book Four, but I’m not. I’ve written a little for the sooner and created a cover for the latter. Progress nonetheless.
The Jennie Fassett House of  459 West First Street.
For the past three years, I’ve been volunteering my writing skills to Elmira’s Near Westside Neighborhood Association. In 2012, my friend Laurie, who had been serving as a board member for this nonprofit group, asked if I could help with their Homes for the Holidays brochure. The person who had done it in years past, had things going on in her life and needed to split the workload with someone. The job would entail visiting three of the homes participating on this Christmastime self-guided tour event, interviewing the homeowners about their home’s history, the renovations they’d completed, and their decorating from antique pieces to some pretty impressive works of art. All of this gets done a few weeks in advance which gives us time to compose an informational write-up to go with each house. Those attending the event purchase tickets, available at several different locations throughout Elmira, and then receive a brochure that includes each write-up and offers a map to get to each house participating in the tour. The event is traditionally held on the first Saturday of every December and proves to be a popular fund-raising event for the association. Last year, I was asked to do the write-ups for the entire brochure. It’s a labor of love since I like history and architecture. Writing about it? Pure bliss. Don’t get me wrong, it is time consuming, but so worth it! This year, I offered to do it again and they accepted. 
Elmira has some of the most beautiful collections of old Queen Anne Victorians, Greek Revivals, Colonial Revivals,Tudor Revivals, and many others. The well-known architectural firm of Pierce & Bickford designed most of them. Since 1983, the neighborhood has been designated as a Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places. Previous owners include some of the most prestigious names from Elmira history including the Langhorne family and their son-in-law, Samuel “Mark Twain” Clemens. Mark Twain, folks!! Totally cool for a literature fangirl like myself. In fact, Clemens’ final resting place is located in the historical Woodlawn Cemetery. Sounds kind of macabre, but I visited his grave site recently and have to say it was a very sacred moment for me. I liked the fact that other visitors had left him little gifts like flowers, cigars, and a mini bottle of bourbon—the booze bottle was empty so I assume his visitor toasted his grave before tossing it back, but a small part of me hopes Samuel got to enjoy it.
First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt leaving 610 Edgewood Drive.
My daughter, a history buff, loves going with me and meeting the homeowners ahead of time and receiving the private tour. One of the homes, from last year’s tour, was built for the former superintendent of the old Elmira Reformatory. The Tudor Revival was said to have been built using the labor of select prisoners. And why not. The reformatory was set up to teach them skills to help integrate them back into society as contributing members after their sentences were served. The program worked well, too, and received national recognition as a success story. A big proponent of the system was none other than former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt who visited the superintendent and his family at their residence and had dinner.  The homeowners are very proud of their home's history—and I have to say I was completely jazzed about it as well. Eleanor is at the top of my all-time favorites list of American first ladies.
Councilman Brent Stermer's house at 318 West Clinton Street--a holiday showstopper. 

Many of the homeowners pull out all the stops and it takes them weeks to decorate their homes for the Christmastime tour. Some, like Elmira Councilman Brent Stermer, displays unique theme trees in almost every room of his Queen Anne Stick-Style. He also boasts to have over 10,000 ornaments. That would be an accurate count from my observation. Another homeowner blends their holiday decorating with priceless works of art which lends a tasteful museum feel to the house. My favorite artwork was a set of original sketches displayed in the formal living room by the late surrealist artist, Salvador Dali. Other homes held ancient Chinese vases and Hudson Valley River artist paintings among vintage Lladro’s and Hummels’. Many have intricate collections of stemware and dishware such as: local Steuben Crystal, Depression Glass, Gay Fad, Blue Willow, etc. Treasured antique furniture from Empire, Chippendale, Shaker, and Mission—pieces that go from elaborate to functionally understated.
Capriotti Properties' great rehabilitation success story - The Gillett House at 378 West Church Street.

Most notable about these houses is the fact that many of them have had to undergo extensive and costly rehabilitation projects because, as with many old neighborhoods, economic decline led to disrepair. The majority of homes were also affected by the flood of 1972 that was brought on by the relentless rain of Hurricane Agnes. As single families moved out, slumlords snapped up properties and went willy-nilly by fixing them in the quickest, cheapest manner possible in order to satisfy turnover into rental properties. They hacked, removed, and covered over most of the unique character each of these homes offered. Painting over intricate hardwood trims and paneling of quarter-sawn oak, bird’s eye maple, chestnut, and mahogany as well as covering floors with glue for linoleum and commercial carpeting. Decorating horrors that cause a blow to the heart of any true admirer of old residential architecture. Slumlords seldom reinvest in their properties once they do the initial work and, before long, after the wear and tear of numerous tenants, the homes are once again in desperate need of help. As years passed, the Near Westside Neighborhood Association was formed in an attempt to draw attention to the history of the homes of Elmira’s Who’s Who of generations past. Due to the commitment of those individuals, the historical designation was earned and instead of razing homes, they have slowly created awareness and raised funding through State and Federal grants as well as through local organizations and residents. A turnaround in decline has happened. Houses are being rehabilitated into the grand splendor of yesterday. Historically accurate colors and materials are used, when possible, to make it happen. People have taken notice and, thank God, are embracing their city’s rich real estate heritage.
My daughter, the old soul, in the upper gallery of 
The Gillett House.

As I finish this week’s blog, I’ll be back to work on my write-ups. Three down, three more to go. I also have interviews with homeowners scheduled for this afternoon and Monday afternoon. Can’t wait to see their houses! Aside from the historical community aspects each year, I leave this event charged and inspired to start my own holiday decorating. It seems to just seal the magical feeling of the season for me.
For more information about the NearWestside Neighborhood Association, click on this link. If you’re feeling extra generous, please make a tax-deductible donation to the cause and help protect our historic homes of Elmira’s Near Westside! And this is the link for their 30th Annual Homes for the Holidays tour event. If you live locally, come on out and support this wonderful fundraiser and enjoy these old homes while they are decked out in their holiday glory! Stop and say hello if you see me during the tour!

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