As I strolled through downtown Elmira, I could almost feel the presence of author Samuel Clemens, even though he’s been gone a century. This year, 2010, marks the 100th anniversary of the death of Clemens, more commonly known as Mark Twain.
The author was a familiar figure in Elmira during the summer months, when he and his wife, Olivia, spent time with her family, the Langdons. While visiting here Twain wrote a number of his most famous works, including the Adventurers of Tom Sawyer, The Adventurers of Huckleberry Finn and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.
Clemens spent quit a bit of time in the Near Westside neighborhood, which is reputed to have the highest concentration of Victorian homes of any neighborhood east of the Mississippi. This 20-block area, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1983, has about 480 homes; many of them magnificently restored High Victorians. The Chemung River, College Avenue, 2nd Street and Hoffman Street border the area.
My husband and I recently took a day trip to Elmira, about a three-hour drive from Buffalo, to learn more about the history of the district, the unique architecture and it’s connection to Mark Twain. While you could walk around the neighborhood yourself, the best way to see it is to take a personalized guided tour of this area led by Samuel Draper, who has been giving tours of this district for over 20 years.
Going on one of Draper’s tours is more like being shown around town by a personal friend than taking your usual tour of a city. Everyone we met on the street seemed to know him by name and he is most knowledgeable about both the architecture as well as the folk history of the area.
We waited for Draper outside the former Mark Twain Hotel, which is now a mixed-use building of office space and apartments. Built in 1929, the Mark Twain Hotel was a luxury hotel that featured white-gloved waiters in its elegant dining room.
We spotted him coming about a block away, wearing a white hat and sport coat, similar to Twain’s trademark apparel. He ushered us up to the second floor, where a small museum is located. As we exited the elevator, Draper proudly pointed out the woodwork, which he had refinished. In addition to being a tour guide, he is also a finish contractor who specializes in the restoration of vintage buildings.
A mural on the wall depicts a Mississippi steamboat scene from Huck Finn. Some of the items in the museum include original place settings from the dining room, vintage photos and some of the hotel’s original furnishings. The hotel was so well known in its day that in September 1965, Robert Kennedy kicked off his senate campaign here.
Our next stop was the Park Church. The congregation was first organized in the 1840’s as an Independent Congregational Church (better known as the anti-slavery church). The church is now affiliated with the United Church of Christ.
In the mid- 1850’s the Reverend Thomas Beecher became the pastor. Beecher was the brother of author Harriet Beecher Stowe, who penned Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Beecher became a close friend of Clemens and often played billiards with him on the table now located in the church’s library. Reverend Beecher officiated at the wedding of Samuel and Olivia.
The present church, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, was built in 1874. The Beechers lived on the third floor and the large second floor parlor was used for community meetings and other gatherings. The library off the parlor once served as Elmira’s first public library. Draper pointed out the melodian in the corner of the parlor, which once belonged to Harriet Beecher Stowe. The sanctuary of the church has a wonderful collection of stained glass windows.
As we headed out of the church, Draper pointed out a shopping plaza across the street, which was built on the site where the Langdon family mansion once stood. It was demolished in 1930’s due to lack of maintenance.
As we continued on our tour, Draper pointed out a variety of homes and their significance. For example, the 1832 Federal-style home at 408 West Water Street has a cistern in the backyard that was rumored to be a hiding spot on the Underground Railroad. The 140-year-old Japanese Maple in the front yard was brought here via the now filled in Chemung Canal.
A few doors down, the Painted Lady Bed & Breakfast, an 1875 Second Empire style Victorian offers four guestrooms plus a two-room suite. Innkeepers Butch and Marilyn Monroe gave us a quick tour of the first floor. The parlor has a silk tufted satin ceiling, along with an oak paneled billiard room and numerous fireplaces. The dining room has gorgeous sliding doors with etched glass panels as well as a unique chandelier that has provisions for electricity, gas, and candles.
A number of homeowners in the district have agreed to let Draper occasionally bring guests into their homes on his tours. They all have their homes decorated indoors and out, according to the season. For example, we visited right after Christmas, so the homes were decked out for the holiday season. Right after the first of the year the homeowners start decorating for Valentines Day.
Mr. & Mrs. Blandsford opened their doors to us that day. They were happy to point out the restoration work they did on their home. An interesting architectural feature was their rare Tiger Oak fireplace mantle.
As we strolled down Church Street, another couple, Barb and Carl, spotted Draper and us. “Sam, would you like to bring them in?” called Barb. They were happy to give us an impromptu tour of their home.
Further up the street, Draper pointed out a circa 1890 home at 411 Church Street. It was the first home in Elmira to have electricity. It has a sad story associated with it. As the home was being built, the fiancée of the man building it died tragically. The relief on the front of the home was made in her image.
Jackson Richardson, a boat and show manufacturer, who was Elmira’s richest businessman, built a home in 1890 for the vice-president of his company on this street, which now houses an Irish gift shop.
When the walking portion of our tour ended, we inquired about the cemetery that the Clemens were buried in. Draper graciously offered to accompany us when we drove to Woodlawn Cemetery. Samuel and Olivia Clemens, along with their children, son-in-law, and granddaughter, are buried in the same family plot as the Langdon family.
Clemens got his pen name, “Mark Twain” from a term that was used on the Mississippi to indicate the depth of the river. The height of the monument near his grave is the height of the measurement mark twain.
Our next stop was the Mark Twain study, which is located on the campus of Elmira College. The unique octagon shaped study was a gift to Twain from his sister-in-law and her husband. It was originally built in 1874 at their farm, Quarry Farm, and moved to the college in 1952. During the summer months the study is open for docent led tours. Unfortunately, we had to peer through the windows, as it isn’t open during the winter. We ended our tour at the Christmas House, a unique gift shop that only sells Christmas related items. It is open late June through mid-January.
Draper has a number of special tours planned in 2010 to commemorate the 100th year anniversary of Twain’s demise. Starting in spring, every Friday and Saturday at 11 am he will have a regularly scheduled “Mark Twain River Town Tour” downtown Elmira. In addition, a Victorian Ladies and Gentlemen tour of Elmira, compete with costumed docents, is planned for late June or early July. Of course, he will be conducting tours by appointment as he usually does.
Historic Near Westside (607-732-1436; www.historicnearwestside.com)
Public tours Friday and Saturday at 11 AM, April-October. Other times by appointment. Group and individual tours are available.
Park Church (607-733-9104; www.theparkchurch.org) 208 Gray Street, Elmira.
Painted Lady B&B (607-732-7515; www.thepaintedlady.net) 520 West Water Street, Elmira.
Mark Twain Hotel, West Gray and North Main Street, Elmira.
The second floor museum is open 7 days a week 9Am-9PM.
Woodlawn Cemetery (607-732-0151; www.friendsofwoodlawnelmira.org) 1200 Walnut Street, Elmira.
From Buffalo take the I-90 (NYS Thruway) to the I-390 South. Follow that until it becomes the I-86 and head east. For downtown Elmira get off at exit 56.