Thursday, January 7, 2010

Recognition for a forgotten Frederick Douglass site


Last night the City of Rochester's Preservation Board rung in the new year by voting in favor of designation of an exciting new city landmark. The house at 271 Hamilton Street was discovered, through a serendipitous find followed by years of painstaking research, to be the only known surviving house in Rochester owned and occupied by Frederick Douglass.

Douglass lived in Rochester for much of the most productive period of his life, and this city was his home base for some of his most significant work in the abolition and women's rights movements. Both his first house, at 297 Alexander Street, and his main Rochester home, on South Avenue, have been lost, leaving Rochester with no house associated with Douglass - until the discovery of the Hamilton Street property.

According to the landmark nomination, which was based on research by local historians Jean Czerkas and Tim O'Connell and written by Ann Parks, our former deputy director, "Douglass is known to have invested in real estate in the city, and in 1855, he purchased the property at 271 Hamilton Street. In 1872, Douglass deeded the property to his daughter Rosetta Sprague where she and her husband Nathan Sprague lived until 1876, when Nathan Sprague encountered financial difficulties and both subsequently moved to Washington. Frederick Douglass took back ownership of the house in 1877, retaining it until his death in 1895. Local city directories (1873 and 1874) indicate that Douglass returned several times to Rochester as he was listed as a 'boarder' at 271 Hamilton Street."

It was thrilling to hear the story from Jean of how she unexpectedly discovered that a house on what was then "Hamilton Place" was connected to the Sprague/Douglass family. Having made that initial find, Jean and Tim then did a great deal of research to locate which house it was and piece together the story of Douglass's ownership and residency. They found documentation that the Spragues purchased a marble fireplace surround for the house not long before the death of their six-year-old daughter and their departure from Rochester, and have discovered that the fireplace remains intact. The Preservation Board specifically mentioned the fireplace as part of the designation.

Also thrilling is the explanation they have deduced as to why Douglass retained the house and occasionally boarded there even after moving to Washington, D.C. Residents of the nation's capital at that time could not vote in any federal elections (they since have gained voting rights in Presidential elections), and Jean and Tim have concluded that Douglass kept the house in Rochester in order to maintain his hard-won right to vote.

At the hearing, in addition to Jean and Tim, Victoria Schmitt and Dr. David Anderson, both respected local historians with expertise in local African-American history and in Douglass's life and career, spoke eloquently in favor of the application and the property's significance. They spoke to their expectation that this house, with its tangible connection to a transcendant historical figure, will have an important future as well as an important past.

The Preservation Board voted in favor of the designation; on Monday the application goes before the Planning Board, which must also vote to approve it. Fortunately, the property owner is in favor of designation, making this an easier process.

Posted by Katie Eggers Comeau, Director of Preservation Services


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