This house was located on Billsboro Road, south of Geneva. It was destroyed by fire on April 22, 1931.
The New Country Life - A Magazine for the Home-maker in the Country
Volume XXXII, June, 1917
An Unknown Colonial Type
By Christina Livinston Rose
George Moore says that art is dead, killed about 1880 by ease of locomotion. Never again shall we have art until modern civilization has come to an end, until communication between communities ceases, and segregation is restored.
As I, an ardent western New Yorker, was endeavoring to digest these sentiments in a recent magazine, suddenly I thought, “Why! That means our cobblestone houses! What more obvious example of art produced by a segregate people than this form of decorative veneer? Here are no bricks brought from England, to build the early settlers’ homesteads, but shingle from the shores of their own Lake Ontario.
From Oswego to Lewiston, a distance of 150 miles, men of substance, during the first half of the nineteenth century, built their houses of cobblestones, beautifully rounded, water-worn, reddish-brown stones, from one and a half to three inches in diameter. Geologically it is known as Medina sandstone, and is found on the shores of Lake Ontario.
Simpler farmhouses followed the fashion in a less costly by using the larger, rougher cobblestones, lighter brown in color, and found almost anywhere in this glacier-belabored region of western New York. There are enormous deposits of them on the beaches of the ancient glacial lakes, which preceded Lake Ontario, or in eskers, which are long, winding ridges, as steep as a hogback, formed by streams in openings under glaciers, or in cracks in the ice.
But every one who lives in a cobblestone house - no matter how far from Lake Ontario - insists the his stones came all the way from that body of water. One honest woman I did find. “Where do you suppose they got all the stones for your house?” I asked casually.
“Oh, they just picked ‘em off the place,” she answered.
The varied colors of the ordinary, common cobblestone are far more satisfying to the eye than the uniform reddish-brown of Lake Ontario’s more expensive variety.
I cannot discover who was the first man that was indigenous enough to use these pebbles on his own dwelling, but I’m sure he was a father. One day he bought home some of the smooth, round stones for the children to play with in their sand pile, and later he was rewarded with an idea.
Near Lake Ontario they claim that the pioneer of the art was one Cyrus Wetherhill, English carpenter, stone-mason and builder, whose work was described in February, 1916 Country Life. The fashion for these bejeweled dwellings spread inland sporadically for 25 miles. People may call it a rude form of art, but it required expert knowledge of masonry to lay the stones properly.
Most of my information about cobblestone houses I gathered from the owner of a renowned cobblestone house in the depths of the country.
“Don’t you ever feel seasick when you think how these stones were tossed and rolled about before they were worn round?” I asked as I examined minutely with her the lovely, smooth stones of which her house was built.
She smiles, and passed her hand caressingly over the wall. “They’re a pretty nice color, aren’t they? She said proudly. Every stone was glowing a rich, brownish red, snugly ensconced in its bed of cream plaster. “You know,” she continued, “some folks think they’re painted. One lad, going by in her car - I think she was from Boston - stopped to look at the house; she said they didn’t have anything like it down her way, and asked me why I didn’t paint them a different color. She was surprised when I told her that was their natural color.”
“Well,” she replied, “the oxen used to make a trip up to the Ridge Road of the lake [the beach of the post-glacial Lake Iroquois] in a day - that-s about eighteen miles from here; we’ve got the old yoke out in the barn now. They’d buy the stones by the bushel, and come back with them the next day. The stones were all put through a potato-sifter - that’s why they’re so perfectly even. And you know the way they used to build these houses, don’t you?”
“Well, first they built a wall of fieldstone and plaster, eighteen inches thick; the that was all done, they began on the cobblestones, laying the first row all around the house and letting the plaster* get thoroughly dry before they could begin on the next row.”
“Are there nice old mantelpieces in the house?” I asked.
“Oh, grand! But do you know we haven’y a single real fireplace except one down cellar. Round 1850 they didn’t build fireplaces [news to me!] The old lady, whose husband built the house, was set on having a fireplace; her husband built one for her down cellar, and there it is still, with its hooks and crane.”
I found later that the “grand” mantelpieces were very wonder - acorns sprouting from all sorts of impossible places; 1850 was getting perilously near 1880.
There are at least three distinct styles in cobblestone houses - the Georgian, the Gothic, and the Jigsaw. Examples of the last variety we find with the most elaborate details, replete with all the ugliness of a dying art. But always it is an ugliness full of the mysterious charm that we find so endearing in our ugly friends.
I had been told of a Georgian cobblestone dwelling on a hillside above Seneca Lake. Two spinster friends of mine friends had tried in vain to buy it. I was searching for it one afternoon when I came on a promising crossroad. “Can you tell me if there’s a cobblestone house up this hill? I asked two men who were repairing a fence corner.
“Yes, keep straight up on this road, and you’ll find it,” the elder of the two told us.
“You’re sure there is one?” I asked again, conscious of my temerity, but having to leave the road hiding along the lake for a by-path of doubtful charm.
“I certainly am,”he answered, “I live in it.”
We climbed the steep ascent, and found a heaven - somebody’s heaven. The house sat quite far back from the road. It was not “embowered in lilacs,” nor “nestling under the lee of the hill”; cobblestone houses leave those feminine characteristics to wooden farmhouse; but it was all dignity and aloofness - exactly the kind of house that ought to have produced a great statesman or a president.
Two giant horse chestnuts guarded the opening in the privet hedge, and incidentally greatly impeded my photographic operations. The broad brick path, overgrown with grass, led to a quaint paneled doorway, without the usual sidelights. The whole effect - the proportions of the pediment, and of the pillars supporting it - filled me with delight.
The mistress, having heard us snorting up the ill, emerged from a Doric-pillared piazza that looked down over broad and sloping pastures to the blue lake.
“It’s the old Armstrong place,” she said in answer to my inquiries; “they were prominent people round here a hundred years go - there aren’t any of ‘em left now. We haven’t been here long. Lots of people have wanted to buy the place since we came, but we’re not going to let it go.”
Inside the mistress of the house showed us over it. We found it all interesting, but admired most perhaps the wood with its lovely design of oak leaves over doorways and windows. At last we reluctantly bade farewell to the owner, and made our way down the hill.
Cobblestone art died about 1860, killed by the War perhaps, or by the cityward movement of those times, and never revived because, meanwhile, Mr. Moore’s fatal 1880 had intervened.
But the unique beauty of these old houses ought to be an inspiration to present-day builders in sections where cobblestones abound. When Ivey covered - as they should be - the soft red and brown coloring of the stones seen through the dark green of the vies gives an effect similar to that of a Persian rug.
It might tax the skill of the modern mason, however, to duplicate the mathematical precision of the early work. In the best of these old houses there is almost no variation in the size of the stones; they are perfectly matched and blended in color, and the mortar ridges between the courses are as regular as if cast in form. Some of them put their best foot foremost by having the smallest and choicest of the stones at the front of the house.
On my cobblestone expedition, one thing always puzzled me. I laid it before a wise native. “Why have I only in all my explorations found the third generation living in its ancestral cobblestones?”
The wise man replied. “You never find a cobblestone house on poor land. Only the rich farmers could afford them. The third generation usually finds itself well enough off to retired to the city, and thus you find most of our beautiful old cobblestone houses occupied by aliens.”