West Village - Table of Contents

William Mercer House (?)
51 Johnson Parkway
, Buffalo, NY

Erected:

C. 1852

Style:

Italianate
with  Greek Revival facade addition

Controversy:

Some locals claim that this was the home of Grover Cleveland during his law school days. There is no paper evidence to verify this. See Grover Cleveland - A Chronology

Location:

West Village Historic District

On this page, below:

Illustrations

Cynthia Van Ness, Grover Cleveland and 51 Johnson Park

Christopher Brown, 51 Johnson Parkway - History

Christopher Brown, A Further Update on 51 Johnson Park

W. A. Kirby Harvester patent










Greek Revival windows except for curved lintel




Doric fluted columns ... Greek Revival windows with 9 over 9 lights




Greek Revival transom and side lights




Wooden shingles ... Oculus
Grover Cleveland and 51 Johnson Park
By Cynthia Van Ness
2012

I've noticed several websites claiming that Grover Cleveland lived at 51 Johnson Park as a law student.  I think this claim is spurious.  Here's why.

The West Village National Register nomination form does not mention Grover Cleveland living here or at any other address in the district. Buffalo city directories published during his years in Buffalo do not give any Johnson Park addresses for him. Instead, he is shown renting rooms at boarding houses.  None of Cleveland's biographers place him at this house.

Likewise, Cleveland did not attend law school, as Buffalo did not have a law school until 1887, when Cleveland was already in the White House. Instead, like all aspiring lawyers at the time, Cleveland "read law," meaning that he interned in a working law office. He was admitted to the bar in 1859. This house was not built until around 1866.

Dr. Horace Briggs, a classical schoolmaster, owned the house and had young daughters at home, making him pretty unlikely to rent rooms to a bachelor who liked beer and saloons. Cleveland, at this stage in his life, would have been uninterested in submitting to the restrictions and proprieties of a respectable, middle-class Victorian household. That came later when he married Frances Folsom in 1886.
 
Looks like we're witnessing the birth of a new urban legend.

51 Johnson Parkway - History
An excerpt from the "2012 Secrets of Allentown Tour of Homes"
By Christopher Brown


In 1824 surgeon and Dr. Ebenezer Johnson purchased land in the Village of Buffalo at the wilds above Chippewa.  In 1828 he built a stone Palladian villa on a 25-acre site west of Delaware Avenue.  In the rear of the estate he landscaped garden pleasure grounds.  The gardens, complete with a lake and swans, were the scene of summer socials of the 1830s, attended by guests of Dr. Johnson, who in 1832 became the first mayor of the new City of Buffalo. 

After Dr. Johnson died in 1849, his estate was divided.  The rear of Johnson’s estate was dedicated as Washington Park in 1851, the first of Buffalo’s small parks that would be surrounded by handsome homes.  From the mid-1850s onward, homes were built on both sides of the park from Delaware Avenue, the north side being called “Park Place” and the south side being called “Johnson Place.”

No. 51 Johnson Park [was originally] a brick Italianate style home built circa 1865.  In April 1868, it became the home of Dr. Horace Briggs who remained in the home until he died in 1913 at the age of 95.  Dr. Briggs was a famous educator.  He moved to Buffalo in 1861 to teach classical languages of Latin and Greek at the Buffalo Central High School, but was lured away in 1863 to become the principal of the new private Boys School, later known as the Buffalo Classical School.  Begun in the gardener’s cottage of Rumsey Park, the school was formed to prepare the boys of Buffalo’s elite families for college, primarily Yale.  Briggs remained at the Buffalo Classical School until he retired in 1885.  The school was shuttered shortly after he retired. 

Briggs enjoyed traveling extensively and was keenly interested in Greek history and culture.  He visited Greece several times. Briggs's knowledge and interest in Greek culture is reflected in his home at 51 Johnson Park, the façade of which is an imposing Greek Revival temple style.  Its projecting portico has four two-story Doric columns supporting a pediment with a round window, called an oculus.  While the portico of a Greek Revival mansion typically had six columns, when adapted for a smaller house like 51 Johnson Park, it was reduced to four, known as tetrastyle

The home has a classic Greek Revival doorway.  It is topped by a transom and sidelights of simple square panes of glass surrounded by pilasters and a pediment.  The entrance is pushed to the façade’s right side, leaving more wall space for the parlor.  An original Victorian iron fence adds to the home’s elegance.

Thomas Jefferson proposed Roman architecture as a suitable style for his vision of America, but it was the Greek Revival which proved to be a popular second choice.  Greek architecture symbolized the earliest democracy in the history of mankind.  There was renewed interest in America during the 1820s when the Greek war for independence from Turkey engaged American sympathies and made all things Greek a national fashion.  No. 51 Johnson Park’s Greek Revival façade may have been a later addition; it likely was an Italianate twin to the house next door at 55 Johnson Park.

Briggs loved his home, living there for 45 years.  Afterwards, it continued to be occupied by his daughter Dora (Mrs. Charles J. North).  The twentieth century was not kind to the lovely Johnson Park neighborhood.  About 1910 South Elmwood Avenue was cut through the park and shortly thereafter the new Central High School was constructed on the south side of the park, altering its residential character.  The formerly proud houses on Johnson Park fell into rooming houses or worse. 

When interest in historic preservation and the renewal of Buffalo’s old neighborhoods began to be rekindled in the 1960s, Johnson Park became one of the first sites of renewal.

No. 51 Johnson Park had new life with urban pioneer owners in the late 1960s.  They installed new windows and installed new plumbing and heating.  While the house was renovated, more work needed to be done.  The house was again abandoned and was placed for tax auction in 2011.  The present owners have made extensive repairs to the house and have reconfigured the interior into a primary owners unit and an in-law quarters.  Floor to ceiling windows dominate the front parlor as does a fireplace.  A second massive wood burning fireplace is found in the dining room.  A new kitchen is found behind the dining room.  In the front entry hall, a cherry newel post and lovely staircase invites you to the second floor where several bedrooms can be found.

With the improvements made in the house, it is ready for longevity into the twenty-first century.
-----

See also: Horace Briggs bio:  Families of Western New York, By William Richard Cutter (online Oct. 2012)

A Further Update on 51 Johnson Park
By Christopher Brown
November 7, 2012
 
A disclaimer:  Finding early information about 51 Johnson Park is very difficult without a title search, since early brick homes in Buffalo did not require a building permit.
 
Initially, I thought the house was built about 1865, only because I could not find any evidence to the contrary.  However, I now believe the house is much older.
 
In an article published in the 1930s, Mrs. Dora Briggs North, daughter of Horace Briggs was interviewed and said 51 Johnson park was an "old" house when her father purchased it in 1868.
 
The other compounding factor is the street name was changed and renumbered.  During the mid-to-late 19th century, the house had an address of 11 Park Place.
 
The house is shown in the 1854 Quackenboss and Kennedy Atlas.  I
now believe the house was built about 1852 by/for William Mercer, the secretary of the Buffalo Agricultural Works which manufactured farming machinery in Buffalo.  By 1860, the house was owned or lived in by William A. Kirby, who worked at Buffalo Agricultural Works and was a machinist and inventor.  He created the Kirby Harvester machine and several others (example patent).
 
I know there is speculation about whether Grover Cleveland ever lived at the house.  While certainly the house being older makes that a possibility, I am unaware of any evidence supporting it.  Cleveland's residences have been well documented.  He arrived in Buffalo on May 12, 1855 with his uncle, Lewis F. Allen and lived with him at Allen's home at 1192 Niagara Street for six months.  According to City of Buffalo directories, he boarded at 11 Oak Street from 1856-1861.  He boarded at 29 Swan Street from 1862-1863 and at other locations.  Johnson Park/Park Place was never listed.  Perhaps some other records will be located someday.
 
Examination of the title search might also reveal more information... but at this point, I'd say the date of initial construction was 1851 or 1852.
Photos and their arrangement © 2007 Chuck LaChiusa
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