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Sunday, December 1, 2002

Abel Bennett Location, Binghamton, New York

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The Abel Bennett Location is the among the first electric streetcar suburbs in the State of New York and the United States. New York's first electric streetcar trial was held in Binghamton consecutively with the planning of this neighborhood. Once completed the West End Railway passed through the center of this neighborhood, providing convenient access of residents to downtown Binghamton one mile away, and of people throughout the region to an area that became known as Bennett Park in the NW section of the Abel Bennett Location.

This area is significant as an example of early suburban development centered on the electric streetcar that might be seen as a precursor to broader suburban development made possible by the automobile. Indeed, eventually automobile and bus transit forced out and eventually eliminated electric streetcar service in Binghamton and in most places throughout the country.

Several figures of a statewide and national significance participated in the development of the neighborhood including:

Abel Bennett, Jr. an entrepreneur, first mayor of Binghamton, and at the time of his death in charge of several commercial interests in Binghamton; Stephen C. Millard, two term U.S. Congressman and a prominent lawyer in Binghamton who married Bennett's daughter Helen and who was actively involved in transfer of title to lots in the Abel Bennett Location before his father-in-law's death and certainly afterwards as co-executor of his will; and G. Tracy Rogers, a local resident who after working in the bank that Abel Bennett, Jr. served as president of, went on to become an important figure in consolidation and electrification of streetcar lines in Binghamton, and then in cities throughout New York.

All of these figures collaborated for a brief time in the last decade of the 19th century and some continued to work through the early 20th century to establish as a model of development that would become a precursor to broader developments in the United States.

Bennett’s involvement in Binghamton becomes evident starting in 1857 with a deed recording transfer of property from father to son on October 27, 1857 (Liber 51, Page 152), land that would later become the Abel Bennett Location. In 1858, additional property was transferred to Bennett that would later serve as site for the Bennett Block in downtown Binghamton on the east side of Washington Street between Court Street and Henry Street (the Metro Center is located here today, a shopping mall). Hotel Bennett was built by plans of Isaac Perry in 1877 and opened in 1881. Other entrepreneurial activities that Bennett was involved in included “Bennett and Butler, coal and wood business, 121 Walnut Street” and “Abel Bennett and Co, clothing manufacturers and retailers, 186-188 Washington Street and 139-141 State Street” both listed in the 1890 Binghamton City Directory.

While in New York City from 1848 to the time of his involvement in Binghamton beginning in 1857, Bennett witnessed the introduction of new transportation technology and the effect this had in opening up areas for development. Commuter travel by steam railroad in New York City began in 1832. That same year John Mason started offering horse-drawn streetcar service, blending virtues of the omnibus and steam train. Expansion of horse-drawn railways came after 1852 when Alphonse Loubat developed a type of grooved rail that lay flush with the pavement. By 1855 the horse-drawn railways in New York City were pushing the omnibus off of major routes and on to secondary streets. In 1853 the New York City horse railways carried about 7 million passengers. By 1860 ridership reached 36 million (Jackson, Crabgrass Frontier, 1985).

While in New York City, Bennett almost certainly would have been exposed to the ideas of Andrew Jackson Downing and Calvert Vaux. Downing advocated for the private individual family home as an alternative to city life. Downing’s The Architecture of Country Houses (1850) was reprinted 9 times before 1886. Calvert Vaux picked up on Downing’s themes and persuaded Frederick Law Olmsted to undertake with him in 1856 the plan for Central Park. Vaux’s Villas and Cottages (1857) contained 39 designs of relatively low-priced rural and suburban cottages.

An early application of these design ideas in a residential suburb along a transit line occurred in Llewellyn Park, located along the Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western Railroad, fifteen miles outside of New York City. Prosperous drug merchant, Llewellyn S Haskell began purchasing property in West Orange New Jersey in 1852. In 1856 he hired Alexander Jackson Davis (1803-1892) to prepare the site plan. Distinguishing features included winding streets and a fifty-acre “Ramble” to remain a completely natural open area, without any formal layout except pedestrian walkways. The Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western Railroad that this suburb was located nearby, ran west to Scranton (near the area of Pittston that Bennett first developed as a young man), and by 1882 this railroad reached Binghamton (just as Bennett was preparing to start his final development there).

Garden City on Long Island is another famous suburb that Bennett might have been aware of that has several features bearing special importance to the future Abel Bennett Location. Alexander Tunney Stewart (1803-1876), a Scottish immigrant whose elaborate dry-goods emporium built in 1846 at the corner of Broadway and Chambers Streets in New York City, and still existing today, is usually regarded as the world’s first department store. When in 1869 he learned of the imminent sale of 7,170 acres of common lands of the Town of Hempstead, a rural Long Island community about twenty miles east of the city, Stewart purchased these lands. The Long Island Railway passed nearby so Stewart built a spur line. The physical plan of Garden City differed from Llewellyn Park, incorporating the gridiron system. Distinguishing features include larger blocks than found in New York City, size of blocks varied with the topography, and several parks of 50 to 150 acres each were provided to interrupt the regularity of the streets (Jackson, Crabgrass Frontier, 1985).

Since Stewart and Bennett were both merchants with similar backgrounds, the similarities in the two streetcar suburbs that each man built are intriguing. The Abel Bennett Location (registered 18 years after Stewart’s project began) replaced winding roads with the gridiron and blocks of sizes varying with topography just as Stewart’s plan had. What distinguishes Bennett’s plan from Stewart’s is the absence of any park space. Given the extensive park space in Stewart’s Garden City and eventual financial failure of that development, possibly Abel Bennett was acting with constraint and fiscal responsibility by leaving parks out of his development altogether and trying to maximize profit from the sale of land.

The Abel Bennett Location as laid out in 1887 can be described in two sections. To the south is a rectangle intersected by north-south and east-west streets and bounded by Seminary Avenue to the north, Chestnut Avenue to the east, Johnson Avenue to the south and Beethoven Avenue to the west. Rising to the north above the west half of this rectangle is a large four sided polygon with the western side ( Beethoven Avenue) longer than the eastern side (Laurel Avenue), and an angle road to the north (Schubert Avenue) connecting the east and west sides. This 25-acre polygon, while originally plotted with individual lots and two north-south streets bisecting it, later became set aside as a park, first known as Bennett Park.

Several possible reasons exist to set up Bennett Park in the north-west section. Property began to be sold and houses built in the Abel Bennett Location in 1887, though these concentrated on the east side of the subdivision. This area was likely preferred because of closer proximity to the downtown and adjacent homes east of Chestnut Avenue, the eastern boundary of the Abel Bennett Location. Because of the slow record of selling property in the western and northern portions of the Abel Bennett Location, this land was available and ideally situated for a park. Further, with the financial crisis in the 1890s, the presence of a park would increase the attractiveness of the remaining land, and likelihood that it would be sold.

Perhaps more persuasive than any of these reasons is that when Abel Bennett, Jr. died in June 1889, his heirs and executors thought that creating a park and naming it in his honor would be an appropriate commemoration. Those involved in promoting the streetcar, likely supported creation of the park for economic reasons. The park would serve as an anchor for the streetcar line, attracting people from throughout the city who would ride the streetcar on a weekend or a warm summer day to visit the park for recreation, entertainment, social functions, or just to have a breath of fresh air. More people visiting the park, in the eyes of the directors of the Binghamton Railway Company, meant more fares collected and greater profit for the company.

The function of the park to generate fares and profit for the Binghamton Railway Company is supported by a 1898 Souvenir published by the company to inform people about their streetcar lines and attractions including Bennett Park, described as a "noble grove of pines and oaks, with a cleared space underneath, crossed by drives and paths, filled with rustic seats and swings." Later descriptions refer to a dance pavilion and rustic springhouse, seats and tables, and entertainment events sponsored throughout the summer.

Binghamton was behind New York City in implementing streetcar service with horse-drawn streetcars introduced to New York City in 1832, but not introduced in Binghamton until 1873. Binghamton was ahead in other respects, claiming to be the first city in New York State to test an electric streetcar system. In May 1887, a streetcar powered by electricity ran on Washington Street and up Court Street. This system lasted for six months then was switched to the Sprague system utilizing overhead lines.

The West Side Railway Company was formed on September 24, 1887. The railway would pass on an east-west orientation through the center of the Abel Bennett Location along LeRoy Street. While it is unknown whether Bennett, his family, or business associates were involved in founding and financing the West Side Railway Company, registration of the plat map for the Abel Bennett Location and founding of the West Side Railway Company both in September of 1887 is probably more than happenstance.

One figure assisting Bennett in development of the Abel Bennett Location was G. Tracy Rogers (1854-1932). A graduate of Binghamton High School, at age seventeen Mr. Rogers entered the First National Bank of Binghamton as a clerk in 1871, where he remained for seven years. Bennett was president of First National Bank throughout the seven years that Rogers worked there. During this time Bennett and Rogers had an opportunity to develop a professional relationship. When Rogers was offered position of cashier he turned this down and became involved in manufacturing instead. Starting in 1888 he purchased, re-organized, and re-built various street railways in Binghamton. This was contemporaneous with experimentation with electric streetcars, so Rogers took advantage of this opportunity and directed implementation of electric streetcars throughout Binghamton, including the LeRoy Street line that passed through the Abel Bennett Location and carried its first electric streetcar on May 27, 1893.

As Rogers was preparing to expand electric streetcar service throughout Binghamton, an event occurred that would transform Binghamton and cities throughout America. In 1889 J.K. Noyes, proprietor of the Noyes Comb Factory, drove the first automobile through the streets of Binghamton between his home and factory. Harshly criticized for doing this, as more people ordered automobiles and they arrived on the streets of Binghamton, a grudging acceptance developed for automobiles, in part due to their superior mobility and speed when compared to fixed transportation.

But before the automobile became dominant, the golden age of electric streetcar service in Binghamton was at hand. On May 1, 1894, the West Side Street Railway Company became part of the Binghamton Railroad Company that Rogers formed in August 22, 1892, through consolidation of other streetcar lines in the city. One final consolidation occurred on December 6, 1901, when the Binghamton, Lestershire & Union Railroad Company and the Binghamton Railroad Company were joined to form the Binghamton Railway Company. Rogers continued as owner and manager of the combined Binghamton Railway Company until 1914. Building on his success in Binghamton, Rogers also became influential in consolidating and modernizing streetcar service in Rutland, Vermont, and numerous cities in New York including Waverly, Elmira, Corning, and Buffalo. For a decade (1893-1903) Rogers served as president of the Street Railway Association of New York State.

The connection between Abel Bennett, Jr. and G. Tracy Rogers in Binghamton, first through the First National Bank of Binghamton, and then through cooperating on establishing streetcar service to the Abel Bennett Location, launched the career of Mr. Rogers who became influential in development of electric streetcars and streetcar suburbs throughout New York State.

Rogers was also influential in attracting the Endicott-Johnson Company and the International Time Recording Company to the City of Endicott, eight miles west of Binghamton. This is important for the Abel Bennett Location because the president of Endicott-Johnson, George F. Johnson, bought Bennett Park from the Binghamton Railway Company, made improvements, and gave the park to the City of Binghamton, after which it was named the George F. Johnson Recreation Park. Today the park is simply known as Recreation Park, though it would be more historically accurate to use the full name – the George F. Johnson Recreation Park.

Stanley Bennett Subdivision in 1912
Another significant alteration to the Abel Bennett Location was made by creating a subdivision within the subdivision. This required removing buildings from a section in the north-east corner originally excluded from development, then subdividing this land into lots, making them consistent with street pattern and lot size throughout the Abel Bennett Location. The Stanley Bennett Subdivision was registered at the Broome County Clerk’s Office in 1912.

To create the Stanley Bennett Subdivision, a farm house and out buildings had to be removed. These buildings were all that remained from the 100-acre farm owned by Abel Bennett Father and Abel Bennett, Jr. the son who was also founder of the Abel Bennett Location. The farm house proper was a square two-story brick structure with a shallow hip roof, and a three story tower rising above the entrance also with a shallow hip roof. The tower was reminiscent of the Italian Villa style, though without the tower the house would have been considered Italianate. To the rear of the house there appeared two additions, each successively further away. A waist high picket fence surrounds the property and a loop road passes by the entrance tower. A water fountain is in the center of the loop and facing the entrance. Finally, trees and shrubs of various types, heights, and sizes surround the house.

Abel Bennett Location showing original Bennett house and outbuildings in black, buildings by 1898 (dark blue), buildings by 1901 (light blue), buildings by 1918 (green), buildings by 1952 (orange).

The Abel Bennett Location was well on its way to becoming an identifiable neighborhood in the first decades of the 20th century. Eventually the City of Binghamton surrounded the Abel Bennett Location on all sides as borders and development pushed further and further beyond the city center, and beyond this neighborhood that once comprised the western edge of the city.

From the time the first electric streetcar trial was held in 1887 and the first automobile arrived in 1889, it was a race to see which one would become the dominant mode of transportation. In 1924 the Binghamton Railway Bus Lines, Inc. was established to provide service to areas not accessible by streetcar. Implied was the fact that even in the booming 1920s, development of new streetcar lines was no longer practical. The automobile eroded ridership and fares became insufficient to continue operating the system. Electric streetcar service ended on August 2, 1932, when a parade was held to mark running of the last electric streetcar and conversion entirely to bus service.

If Binghamton’s claim of having the first electric streetcar trial in New York State is true, then design of the Abel Bennett Location in anticipation of this technology would make this the first electric streetcar subdivision in Binghamton and New York State. And despite evidence of electric streetcars being almost entirely gone today, the neighborhood retains a distinctive character as an early example of an electric streetcar subdivision.

This has importance for Binghamton, New York State, and the nation because the electric streetcar suburb brought with it a distinct pattern of building and development, and was precursor to much broader and far ranging suburban growth made possible by the automobile.

Sunday, November 17, 2002

Historic Preservation in Houston, Texas

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From the 1830s to 1880s Houston’s Main Street was the economic center of the city linking together wharfs, commercial buildings, public institutions, and neighborhoods. The development of railroads had little impact on Main Street. By 1910 enterprise and prosperity began to replace stately homes along Main Street. At the same time the automobile began to transform the area, creating a traffic conduit with gasoline stations and apartment houses overshadowed by the growing downtown skyline.

A street improvement project was carried out from 1916-17, paving Main Street and stimulating the development of new cultural institutions and recreational amenities 3 ½ miles from downtown in the open countryside adjacent to Rice University. A new boulevard was also constructed, paradoxically reversing the role of Main Street as a center, carrying people out of the city rather than into it. This boulevard soon became Houston’s first suburban retail corridor.

Construction of city wide freeways between the 1950s and 1970s continued Main Street’s decline. When downtown retailing collapsed in the 1960s, value of property surpassed that of buildings and many of the 1920s buildings disappeared even more quickly than the Victorian mansions that had come before them.

Main Street became a wasteland after 1970. Downtown was rescued by episodic office building construction. In the 1990s private real estate development sparked a multi-billion dollar comeback on the corridor. The public sector is currently reconstructing streets, installing a light rail system to be completed by 2004, and creating new parks. New educational, medical, research, arts, and sports facilities are also being added.[1]

Preservation climate in Houston
Adaptive reuse of historic buildings in downtown Houston has spurred a growing interest in preservation. Preservation advocates have been able to use economic arguments to convince developers and local officials that preservation may be a catalyst for community revitalization and economic growth. [2]

Challenges to preservation in Houston are no local zoning ordinance and a weak historic district ordinance without any enforcement. The city planning office serves more as a permit issuing body. A strong local property rights movement prevents stronger ordinances. In this climate developers are allowed to be independent and aggressive with their projects, being so bold as to buy political influence with their money, and politicians being bold enough to claim that they are influenced most by the person with the most money.[3] Despite a much touted spirit of innovation, this often comes with the cost of demolishing older buildings in the name of new development.

The editor of Texas Monthly touched on an important theme of affecting development and preservation in Houston when he was asked what the most challenging aspect of editing a recent issue of the magazine devoted to Houston. He responded “It seemed to me that many of the stories involved people and institutions that had reinvented themselves, which is an old Houston theme, and so I wrote about that.”[4] And when asked what impact the Enron crisis will have on Houston, he claimed “Enron, schmenron. Houston will reinvent itself again. That’s what it does best.”[5]

This theme of change was reinforced in another article where Paul Burka claimed “In Houston, the only thing that’s permanent is that everything is temporary… The result is a freewheeling place that oozes optimism, inspires risk-taking; and rewards improvisation, cleverness and the will to survive.” Taking the weakness of Houston’s weak urban form as strength, Burka claimed “The free-ranging appearance of Houston is fundamental to its civic character. It announces that anything can happen here, that Houston, for better or worse, values unpredictability over certainty.”[6]

The Greater Houston Preservation Alliance is the leading advocate of preservation in Houston today. Begun as a sub-committee of the Heritage Society, in 1978 the GHPA was founded as an independent agency with the mission to “Promote the preservation and appreciation of Houston’s architectural and cultural historic resources through education, advocacy, and committed action, thereby creating economic value and developing a stronger sense of community.”[7] Early GHPA activities included saving the historic Pillot building in the 1970s and conducting historic resource surveys. GHPA rehabilitated 18 homes and sold these to low income residents in 1995. That same year GHPA helped to gain passage of the Historic Preservation Ordinance in Houston.

Advocacy efforts include annual Good Brick Awards recognizing individuals, businesses, and organizations for outstanding preservation projects and programs, advocacy with local government, Preservation Breakfast Series, and Preservation Week Activities; and communication through a newsletter, GHPA web site, and email Preservation Alerts. Education efforts include technical assistance, Houston Historic Resources Database, Historic Designation Program, Endangered Buildings Committee, Fa├žade Easement Program, Restoration Grants, a salvage program and rehabilitation of two late 19th century houses.[8] GHPA also created the Historic Neighborhoods Council to work to foster positive change that will help to maintain the quality and character of Houston’s neighborhoods.

The Heritage Society was founded in 1959. Today they own and operate a heritage park and interpretive museum in Sam Houston Park, adjacent to the downtown. The mission of the Heritage Society is “to preserve the complete history of the community and region through the preservation and restoration of historic structures, exhibition of historical artifacts, and presentation of educational programs which focus on Houston and Harris County’s diverse past and its relationship to the present and future.”[9]

A nonprofit organization, the Heritage Society provides a broad range of activities including the annual Heritage Ball, Candlelight Tour, travel tours locally abroad, and classes. The Heritage Society has a professional staff supported by volunteers. Tina Breska Medlin was named the organizations new Executive Director on April 1, 2002 and Helen McDonald was named the new Chief Financial Officer and Registrar on March 25, 2002.[10]

While the Greater Houston Preservation Alliance claims to be the only preservation organization in Houston, the Heritage Society through their heritage park and educational activities may be considered a preservation organization as well, similar to Ford’s Greenfield Village or Carnegie’s Colonial Williamsburg.

Several other organizations are involved in preservation at the state level. These include the Texas Preservation Board, founded in 1983 for the purpose of preserving, maintaining, and restoring the State Capitol and the General Land Office Building and their contents and grounds to the benefit of the citizens of Texas.[11] The Texas Society of Architects was founded in 1939, made up of 17 regional chapters today, includes 5000 members and is headquartered in Austin. This group could be a powerful supporter of preservation except no reference is made to preservation in their mission statement.[12] The Texas Downtown Association is a statewide organization dedicated to supporting and assisting organizations and individuals committed to revitalizing centers of large and small communities throughout Texas. The organization attempts to accomplish this mission, among many other purposes, by “promoting the historic preservation, economic development and community vitality of downtown and neighborhood commercial districts.”[13]

[1] Fox, Stephen, Nancy Hadley (editor), and Gerald Moorhead (photographer). Houston Architectural Guide: American Institute of Architects. Houston: Herring Press. April 1990.
[2] Greater Houston Preservation Alliance web site, http://www.ghpa.org/aboutghpa.html. [Downloaded September 25, 2002]
[3] Davis, Ramona. Interview with author. September 27, 2002.
[4] Burka, Paul, “Mission Possible” in Texas Monthly, September 2002. [Downloaded October 12, 2002]
[5] Burka, Paul, “Mission Possible” in Texas Monthly, September 2002. [Downloaded October 12, 2002]
[6] Burka, Paul. “Keep the Change” in Texas Monthly. September 2002. [Downloaded October 12, 2002]

[7] Greater Houston Preservation Alliance web site, http://www.ghpa.org/aboutghpa.html. [DownloadedSeptember 25, 2002]
[8] Greater Houston Preservation Alliance web site, http://www.ghpa.org/aboutghpa.html. [DownloadedSeptember 25, 2002]
[9] Heritage Society web site, http://www.heritagesociety.org/musuem.html. [DownloadedSeptember 25, 2002]
[10] Heritage Society web site, http://www.heritagesociety.org/new_executive_director.html. [DownloadedSeptember 25, 2002]
[11] Texas State Preservation Board web site, http://www.tspb.state.tx.us/. [Downloaded September 25, 2002]
[12] Texas Chapter AIA web site, http://www.texasarchitect.org/society/socinfo.html. [DownloadedSeptember 25, 2002]
[13] Texas Downtown Association web site, http://www.texasdowntown.org [Downloaded September 24, 2002]