The Willis House in Dresden demolished
DRESDEN — When is a house no longer a home? Is it when humans leave never to return? How long will the walls still hear voices? How long does a community have ties to this house? The answer came this year in Dresden at 57 Seneca Street.
A house was built in the 1830s by two brothers, Charles Proude and Christopher Proude Willis, both born in Scarborough, England. Christopher proudly engraved his initial in the frame of the cupola’s north window, “CW 1864”. The house became a pile of rubble on January 7. Its owner for 17 years, lacking the resources to bring the house up to standard of living, made the decision More than 200 people were appalled that it was razed, and some fought passionately for its life.
The 19th century house was a local landmark for Dresden. It is featured on the City of Torrey and Village of Dresden websites as a tourist attraction. The Charles Willis family first lived there, followed by the Christopher Willis family during the Civil War and well into the 20th century. Christopher was drafted in 1863 and his son received a Civil War pension. The Willises came to America as Quakers and briefly joined the Friends movement after the death of Jemima Wilkinson.
The Willises owned several mills and were quite prosperous. A custom mill purchased in 1847 won top state honors and awards for its fine grains. In 1850, a 25-year-old miller named Henry Birkett, sailed with Charles P. Willis. After several transfers of ownership, the same custom mill was purchased by Birkett, a household name throughout Yates County.
The Christopher Willis House has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places and the New York State Register since 1994 under the same number, #94000967. Surrounded by towering spruce trees, the ornate house was loved by the community. Extended family members often drove by to admire the structure and its architectural details.
Although the house had become uninhabitable through neglect, it had not been condemned. Kathy Clark, a local resident who had a childhood attachment to the house, advocated for many years to buy the house and/or move the house to another location. Jennifer Jensen was also a pending buyer, having previously belonged to the current owner. Many others offered to buy or move the house. A few of these people had resources, including family contractors who could have helped revive the house in a much more reasonable way.
It is this author’s opinion that the owner could have put more effort into rebuilding, a little at a time over the years. He chose not to. From my point of view, the owner not only refused to sell, but refused to have it moved or to recover its interior. The rights of the owner were definitely opposed to the opinions of the community.
The amount of energy needed to save this building would have been considerable. The fact that it is registered in the national register did not protect it from destruction. The New York State Department of Parks, Recreation and Historic Places (PRHP) also does not protect a property from demolition. Kathy Howe, coordinator of the PRHP, remembers vividly helping to put the house on the national registry. Howe offered a grant opportunity and tax relief to the owner. She was also appalled that it was torn down and sent us her wishes for a successful business ahead of its demolition.
Wayne Goodman, General Manager; Caitlin Melves, Director of Preservation; and Cynthia Howk, Architectural Research Coordinator, all from the Landmark Society of Western New York, were willing to help. Director Goodman added, “It looks very boxy,” from all of the photos that were submitted. Melves asked: “Would they be willing to put the brakes on for even a week to give us a chance to have a conversation and explore alternatives such as moving house, donating to charity, giving us time to find a new buyer, etc.?” Cynthia Howk wrote: “Another commentary on the architectural significance of this house. While its origins are Greek Revival and the cupola is certainly Italianate, its porch is the building’s most notable detail – as it is an extremely rare example. of “Moorish Revival”, in our region – one of the exotic designs of mid-19th century architecture. I can think of only two other surviving examples.”
The interior of the Willis House had a hidden hole in the north basement wall that led to the small, shallow entrance behind the house on Seneca Lake where a steamboat landing had previously existed. The Underground Railroad (UGRR) came to mind. Judith Wellman, professor of history at SUNY Oswego, specialist in the UGRR was contacted. She listed the necessary steps in the process of researching and documenting its possible use as a stop on the UGRR. Wellman continued, “It is such a beautiful building that it deserves to be preserved, regardless of its association with the UGRR.”
Unfortunately, we needed more time for Wellman to do his research, including photographs. Most of the information we already had, but some important documents and data were still needed. There was not enough time to ask the court for a stay of demolition until the necessary research could be completed.
As the current Willis family worked to save the Christopher Willis House, others searched for records and spoke with the owner, Dresden’s mayor and other politicians. Unfortunately, these people were unable to help. Unfortunately, some of them were unfriendly. Although our collective hours of searching and asking for help were great, we weren’t able to stop this demolition, but we’re not done.
Christopher Willis’ house is gone, so it’s part of our local history.
Fran Willis is a retired primary school teacher from Dundee and founder of the Scottish Festival. His family are descendants of the Willises mentioned in this article, who were among the first white settlers in Yates County and played an important role in the prosperity of Dresden at the time.