CAPE VINCENT — The acting president of the Stone Building Appreciation Society of Northern N…
The stone houses of Jefferson County that dot the landscape like sentinels honoring our early settlers could be taking a solid step in recognition and preservation.
Among the 20 recommendations made by the state Board of Historic Preservation earlier this year for state and national registers of historic places, one is for “Stone Buildings of Jefferson County.”
Specifically, a “Stone Houses of Jefferson County Multiple Property Documentation Form” would serve as a framework for the structures to be placed on the historic registers. Participation by owners would be optional.
“The nominations reflect the state’s commitment to supporting the incredible and sometimes overlooked history forged by the diverse people of New York,” said Erik Kulleseid, commissioner of the state’s Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.
The editors of the 2015 book, “Stone Houses of Jefferson County,” believe the county has one of the richest concentrations of stone houses in America, with as many as 500 limestone and sandstone houses, churches and commercial buildings built before 1860.
One of the editors of the book, Maureen Hubbard Barros, co-wrote the application to the state Department of Historic Preservation, which was unanimously approved. Her co-author was Claire Bonney.
“We wrote between 40 and 50 pages of historic context,” Mrs. Barros said in a phone interview from Toronto, where she works as a silversmith. The dual Canadian-American citizen spends her summers on Pillar Point, Brownville, where she owns a stone house.
The Multiple Property Documentation form, at 51 pages, gives background for stone houses in the county with overall historic contexts, property types, geographical data and evaluation methods. The application also credited a Watertown Daily Times project of more than 50 years ago:
“Among the earliest efforts to raise the visibility of the county’s legacy of historic stone architecture was David Lane’s series, ‘Old Houses of the North Country,’ printed in the Watertown Daily Times during the 1940s and 1950s, was, in essence, a survey that captured most of the stone houses of Jefferson County,” the report reads.
“We were trying to explain why these houses are important and how Jefferson County has so much limestone, and sandstone in the north, it was easier for people to build with stone here,” Mrs. Barros said.
She added that historically significant families, like the LeRays, set an example by building in stone. James LeRay de Chaumont built a limestone neoclassical country villa between 1825 and 1827. It’s located northeast of the village of Black River on the grounds of Fort Drum. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974.
“So even if you came in as a poor farmer, you might have limestone on your property and you could hire someone or you might be knowledgeable enough to do it yourself,” Mrs. Barros said. “Several people built their own farmhouses. We wanted to show this sort of historical background — people coming in seeing the limestone especially and building in their own fashion and picking up on architectural fashions around the United States and various places.”
Building in stone, Mrs. Barros believes, reflected a sign of permanence for the early settlers.
“They wanted to show that they were here to stay, maybe,” she said. “Also, fire was a huge factor. At that time, there were open fireplaces, so the danger of fire was huge.”
The two-part application also included a “Draft Registration Form” of 33 pages giving an example of a historic stone house in the county.
“We needed to have an example,” Mrs. Barros said. “They chose the Ballard house from several that we gave them.”
The Samuel F. Ballard House, aka the Ballard-Denny House, was built around 1825 and is located just north of the hamlet of Talcott Corners, on Rome State Road (County Route 64), in the southeastern corner of the town of Watertown. It’s now owned by Charles and Jane Greene.
They declined to be interviewed for this report, but wrote in an email to the Times: “Our feeling about living in this treasure is that as the house protects us, we have an obligation to protect and preserve her as long as we are here.”
In their draft registration form, Mrs. Barros and Ms. Bonney called the structure a “locally significant example of limestone construction in Jefferson County from the first quarter of the 19th century. The property enjoyed a long association with two families noted for their agricultural contributions to the local economy.”
The building, they wrote, “is an example of the county-wide tradition of individuals to build in stone, although it was more costly and demanded more skill than utilizing the abundant timber in the area, beyond that needed for framing, flooring and finish material. This characteristic extends from the stately LeRay Mansion to the smallest vernacular houses, some of which replaced log-walled dwellings as soon as the means could be found.”
“For that particular house, we had to go in and do very careful documentation. It was time consuming,” Mrs. Barros said. “But what happens in the future, now that we have the multiple property documentation form, it’s good for all the stone houses of Jefferson County.”
The draft of the project’s National Register of Historic Places registration form for properties includes a line for the related multiple property listing, which is “Stone Buildings in Jefferson County, circa 1800-75.”
Specifically, how it works:
A stone house owner who wants to apply for the National Register will complete the National Register of Historic Places Registration Form. The first line of the form asks for the historic name of the property. The next line asks for the name of the related Multiple Property Listing, “Stone Buildings in Jefferson County, circa 1800-77.”
“Immediately the house is linked to the many other stone buildings outlined there,” Mrs. Barros said. “It’s like having an historic district, but ours is county-wide. So the next time anyone wants to nominate a stone house, they just have to do a description of the house itself and show it fits in with the others. It’d be a big time saver.”
Before a stone building can be nominated to the state and national registers, the owner would sign a “Statement of Owner Support” accompanying the application.
The owner nominating a home won’t need to repeat the history and geography research done by Mrs. Barros and Ms. Bonney, but will be able to fit his/her stone house into established property types.
“Not everyone wants his or her house to be nominated,” Mrs. Barros said. “It’s a lot of work. Most people we have approached see it as an honor for the house. They put up a plaque and celebrate the house’s age and history. For some, it can be a financial help or tax credit if the property is income-producing.”
Also, not all buildings would be eligible for historic register status, Mrs. Barros said.
“Some have been altered too much,” she said. “My stone house, for example, was totally burned out so it would never be eligible unless I discovered that George Washington had slept there.”
Actually, from her research, Mrs. Barros has found that her stone house on Baldwin Road, which in 1980 she purchased with her late husband, James Barros, was built around 1835 by the Ackerman family. When the Barroses purchased it, the structure was fire-gutted and its roof caved in.
Mrs. Barros said she doesn’t know much about the Ackerman family, “but I know Daniel Ackerman was on the school board. His headstone is in a little cemetery down the road.”
David B. and Sandra L. Fralick, whose stone house is included on their property of The Cape Winery, said they would consider applying for historic status if the recommendation by the state’s Board of Historic Preservation advances.
“The work that Maureen and Claire have done is just going to save us time if each of us want to go forward in getting the designation for our homes,” Mrs. Fralick said.
The Fralicks’ limestone home was built in 1832, when it was known as the Eber Kelsey House. They purchased the five-bedroom home and the property’s 90 acres in 1996.
Mr. Fralick, a native of Watertown, met his wife, a native of Pennsylvania, when they both worked for General Dynamics in Washington, D.C.
“Before we came here, we lived in England, where we lived in a big old stone barn,” Mrs. Fralick said. “As soon as we saw the inside of this place, it was similar.”
The stone itself can be maintenance-free except for occasional repointing, but care must be taken where wood meets stone, Mr. Fralick said.
“Wherever the stone and wood get together, you have some maintenance work — either painting or flashing,” Mr. Fralick said. “You have to keep after it so it doesn’t start to leak.”
Mrs. Fralick said that some people may be under the impression that if a home is given historic status, it would put restrictions on what they could do to their homes. But Mrs. Fralick said that several years ago, a state representative was on their property and the representative was asked about that.
“You don’t have any restrictions put on your house, even if it’s on a historic registry,” Mrs. Fralick said. “But if you take state money — grants or whatever — to improve your property, then they’re kind of in your knickers. Then you can’t do anything. But you know, as the guy told us when he was here and toured our house, ‘You can tear it down next week and nobody can say anything.’”
The National Register nomination process usually starts with a state’s Historic Preservation Office. The state Office of Parks, Recreation and Preservation has a Historic Homeownership Rehabilitation Credit program. It offers a state income tax credit equal to 20% of qualified rehabilitation expenses associated with repair, maintenance and upgrades to historic homes. The value of the credit is applied to an owner’s state tax liability to reduce the amount owed. The program covers 20% of qualified rehabilitation expenses up to a credit value of $50,000 per year.
Since 2011, the state has approved use of rehabilitation commercial tax credit for more than 1,000 historic properties, driving more than $12 billion in private investment.
There are more than 120,000 historic properties throughout the state listed on the National Register of Historic Places, individually or as components of historic districts. Property owners, municipalities and organizations from communities throughout the state sponsored the nominations.
“In general, Claire and I wanted to draw attention to the fact that Jefferson County is so rich in stone buildings,” Mrs. Barros said. “We hope they will be enjoyed, not left to fall down. Most owners agree. By making it easier for owners to apply for state and national register status, we think they will see the benefit and do so.”
Aside from the historic nature, Mrs. Barros said there’s a basic attraction that stone houses hold for her.
“When you’re in a stone house and the storm is raging around you, you feel solid and comfortable,” she said. “It’s a sense of solidity that’s amazing in a stone house. And in the summertime, it’s coolish and in the wintertime, once you get it heated up, it’s really cozy.”
Mrs. Barros and Ms. Bonney created a “study list” of about 100 structures — from homes to bridges.
“We don’t even know if that’s a complete listing of all the houses of Jefferson County,” Mrs. Barros said.
Ms. Bonney is a professor of architectural history at Bern University of Applied Sciences in Switzerland. She was raised in Watertown and is a fifth-generation Northern New Yorker. She is also an expert on the French architectural heritage of Northern New York and author of the book, “French Emigre Houses in Jefferson County.” It was originally published in 1985 and revised in 2015.
“The French culture is just one of the many ethnicities present in Northern New York,” Ms. Bonney wrote in an email to the Times from Switzerland. “As big land owners, James and Vincent LeRay were very influential people in Jefferson County and their houses have already been on the National register for a while.”
But looking at the county’s stone houses as a group, Ms. Bonney noted many were constructed for wealthy 19th century farmers, and many built for the not-so-wealthy.
“There seems to have been a real drive to have the prestige, security and fire protection that a stone house offers,” Ms. Bonney said. “I find this fascinating. There are so many trees in the north country and they are much easier to work with than stone. And yet people wanted these stone buildings and were willing to spend more on them than they would with wood.”
Ms. Bonney’s grandfather, Ray Bonney, of Bonney and Dickson Lumber, grew up in the homestead on Bonney Road in the town of Brownville. Her great-grandmother, Ella Horr, grew up in the stone, federal-style Elijah Horr House in Stone Mills. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1996.
Ms. Bonney said she has a dream of making use of Jefferson County’s architectural heritage to generate tourism.
“If good bike/cross-country skiing and walking trails were connected to these buildings, I feel we could generate a very positive form of soft/eco-tourism,” she said. “A nice triangle would be to connect Sackets Harbor, Cape Vincent and Watertown, for example.”
Mrs. Barros sees similar potential for the county’s stone houses.
“Maybe in 2050, the county will be known for this architectural asset,” she said. “Like, ‘The Bridges of Madison County’ — the Stone Houses of Jefferson County.”
Once the statewide recommendations are approved by Commissioner Kulleseid, who serves as the state Historic Preservation Officer, the proposals would be listed on the state Register of Historic Places and then nominated to the National Register of Historic Places, where they are reviewed and, once approved, entered into the National Register.
The stone house Multiple Property Documentation form and the Ballard House example were accepted at the state level in March and transmitted to the National Park Service. Further word is expected in early summer.