By: Erin Phillips (with Liz Allen)
“Keep your eyes open and your feet moving forward. You’ll find what you need.” This graffitied sentiment is spray-painted on the side of the old Hollywood Ceramics building on 13th and Lincoln streets in the row house community there. These words can take on a lot of meaning, but for the timing of my walk on Lincoln Avenue with city councilwoman, preservationist, and journalist Liz Allen, it is particularly appropriate. A pandemic, protests, a civil rights movement, an election. Keep your eyes open and feet moving forward. Aside from the deeper meanings of that statement, that is quite literally what Liz and I are doing today. We are taking in the stories of a unique neighborhood in our city: Lincoln Avenue. Liz Allen grew up on Lincoln Avenue, lives on Lincoln Avenue now, and every time she found herself back in Erie, she never lived too far from it. It is a part of who she is and, since both of us enjoy taking walks through our neighborhoods, both enjoy historic architecture and both like to write about those things, it felt like an eventuality that we should take a walk together (socially distanced and mask-adorned, of course). Kindred spirits in a way, I couldn’t wait to hear Liz’s perspective on this area of our city.
Lincoln Avenue could easily be described as one of the most unique streets in our city. There are so many stories that live here, but on our walk today we’ll focus on three: the architecture of C. Paxton Cody, the planned row house community south of I-79, and Ferncliff. We’ll start our walk in the middle, around Fourth and Lincoln, head south past the highway, and then turn around and come back towards the bay.
The general feel of Lincoln Avenue is working class. While nearby live the mansions of South Shore and the exclusive gully of the Erie Yacht club, the simple style of houses, duplexes, cottages, bungalows, and row houses of Lincoln Avenue feel more blue collar, with a character that is unlike any other street in Erie. In large part, that character and feel is due to the work of architect C. Paxton Cody who lived on Lincoln Avenue and designed a number of the houses on the street. C. Paxton Cody was born in Ontario in 1854 and became a long time resident of Erie. He worked and designed buildings all over Erie, but also in Cleveland and Pittsburgh and served as the president of the State Association of Architects. One could speculate that his favorite projects were on Lincoln Avenue, as he chose to build his own home there in 1918: a gambrel-roofed cottage at 133 Lincoln. As we walk past, perhaps the most notable and recognizable of his homes is at 538 Lincoln built in 1910, which is a quintessential Craftsman with its mixed stone and brick pillars supporting the covered porch, deep, overhanging eaves, exposed rafter tails, single dormer, and earth tone palette. Also noteworthy is the slate blue, well-loved Arts and Crafts style home at 526 Lincoln built in 1920. And the Craftsman bungalow at 445 Lincoln, with some standout original windows, built in 1910. As you walk along the street, you will notice many more remarkable homes that were likely designed by Cody, who had a strong hand in making this street what it is.
The cozy feel and tree-lined warmth starts to shift a bit as we move further south on Lincoln and cross over busy West Eighth Street toward Liz’s childhood home at 929 Lincoln, a modest bungalow with a magical, enclosed front porch built in 1924. When Liz’s family moved into it 1956, she recalls that the road then was unpaved. Standing outside the house, Liz shares two stories that reveal she is no stranger to disease epidemics. Liz points out the “Beware of Dog” sign by the front door and it reminds her of when she was young and her mother placed a sign in the same spot that said “Under quarantine for Scarlet Fever” to warn potential callers. The home’s backyard has a view of the back entrance to the Shriner’s Children’s hospital and Liz remembers a time when the children who were patients there were being treated for polio. The nurses would roll them in their cribs out onto a sundeck and Liz and her siblings would talk to them through the fence.
As we continue on, I note that it is my first time crossing I-79 on foot, but Liz points out that it is a reality that Harding elementary students face daily. She also points out that it wasn’t always this way. Before the highway was extended in the 1970s, this was a residential and commercial area. There were complete neighborhoods that were eliminated and current neighborhoods whose streets now end abruptly at a barricade for the highway.
It is also due to the highway extension that one of the most unique areas of our city, the planned row houses that begin at 13th and Lincoln, is often overlooked. The original vision for this neighborhood was meant to be a “Garden Suburb” planned and funded by the Federal Government’s United States Housing Corporation during World War I (with houses built mostly in 1918) and executed by architect Albert H. Spahr and landscape architect Charles Downing Lay, who also served as a town planner. The USHC initially planned for Spahr and Lay to build 1,500 houses in Erie on 3 different sites, but due to the abrupt armistice and end to the war, those visions were not fully executed. The duo is responsible for some of the row houses in Lawrence Park, and for all of them on and around Lincoln Avenue.
Initially the plan was for a 72 acre site containing 200 row houses, 172 semi-detached, 95 detached, and 32 apartment units intended to house the massive wartime workforce employed at American Brake Shoe and Foundry and Erie Forge Companies nearby, as those shops had joined the war effort and needed manpower to crank out weapons, munitions, and equipment. The original plan was for 12th Street, at the time a new thoroughfare, to bisect the site with houses extending to Eighth Street, and a commercial area to be built along the north side of 12th Street. There were also plans for a school, church and community building. The civic buildings were not completed, but there were some storefronts built on 12th Street that have since been removed for the highway. In the end, 161 of the planned 200 row houses were completed. Most of these exist south of 12th Street, but one can recognize the few outliers north of the highway by the signature buildings materials used: brick and slate (most recognizably the houses at 917 and 937/39 Lincoln). The USHC report on its record of operations notes: “to these materials (brick and slate) one may attribute part of the good effect of this project – the color, the appearance of stability, and the lack of newness; but more important than any of these desirable qualities is the beauty of the design of each individual building.”
It really is a unique area to walk around. The row houses all look a little different from each other at this point in their history, and some are noticeably more well-loved than others. I can’t help but imagine what it could have been like had the highway not been extended through the neighborhood. What could have been a unique “Garden Suburb” neighborhood, one that could have been a celebrated remainder of America’s history, instead, ended up isolated between a loud highway overpass to the north, and railroad tracks to the south. When you walk down the streets of the site, lined with beautiful mature oak trees and dedicated open green space, you can almost see how it could have been: a one of a kind historic suburb right in the city.
Here we turn around and head back north. The houses become more spread out as we approach the bay, situated on larger, tree-filled lots. The street ends on a bluff overlooking the bay and Liz points straight down through overgrowth to the bayside community of Ferncliff below. While not technically on Lincoln, it certainly is part of the neighborhood. According to Liz, “The story was that if you bought a house in the area you got a Fercliff lot.” Before there was a road built by the Erie Yacht Club, there was a rickety staircase leading down to the water from the foot of Lincoln which was the only means of access. The early residents were quite hardy to brave both the access stairs and the weather. The houses on the water at Ferncliff date back to 1893, and back then, Liz says, the houses were described as a “shanty town” often made with whatever materials were on hand. Now the property is more highly desired, and while many residents today use their Ferncliff houses part time, there are a few intrepid souls who stay year round and experience the front lines of the unpredictable weather in Erie. Liz makes the point that today, many of these houses are experiencing difficulty with the unprecedented high water level of the bay. Although many are on stilts or raised foundations, they are still struggling to keep the water from putting this historic community in peril.
From here, after two hours of walking and talking, windblown and sweating through our masks, we say goodbye and separate at Liz’s house and I am so grateful to have gotten the opportunity to see these places through the lens of her experience. Lincoln Avenue starts off at a very unique waterfront settlement, and as you pass architecture unlike anywhere else in Erie, you end up in an uncommon row house neighborhood. Lincoln Ave is undoubtedly a one-of-a-kind kind of place in our city. While we all keep healthy and distant through summer, one thing you can do safely is to get out and take a walk. Enjoy a different neighborhood in Erie at human speed and notice the details that don’t exist anywhere else. Keep your eyes open and your feet moving forward. You will find what you need.