Lincoln Ave with Liz: A Historic Walk Through a One-of-a-Kind Neighborhood

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. 

Graffiti on the side of the old Hollywood Ceramic Shop (with ghost lettering from the old building in background) at 13th and Lincoln. “Keep your eyes and your feet moving forward. You’ll find what you need.”

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.

C. Paxton Cody, architect who designed many of the homes on Lincoln Avenue (1854-1936) (photo from Cody Family Association)

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.

Some examples of C. Paxton Cody’s Architecture: Top Left: the home of C. Paxton Cody at 133 Lincoln built in 1918. Top right: a perfect example of a Craftsman Home at 538 Lincoln built in 1915. Bottom Left: 1910 Craftsman at 445 Lincoln with standout original windows. Bottom Right: 526 Lincoln, Arts and Crafts style home built in 1920.

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. 

Liz Allen’s Childhood home built in 1924 at 929 Lincoln Avenue.

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. 

A 1918 photo of the detached houses in the USHC planned community at Lincoln Ave. Photo from “Paradise Planned: the Garden Suburb and the Modern City” by Stern, Fishman and Tilove

 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.”

The initial plans for the Lincoln Ave row-houses built in 1918 by the US Housing Corp shows the original vision for the development: extending north to 8th Street, including a planned park as well as civic buildings between 12th and 13th. (From “Paradise Planned: the Garden Suburb and the Modern City” by Robert AM Stern, David Fishman and Jacob Tilove)

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. 

Current row-houses of Lincoln Ave that were built in 1918 by the US Housing Corp for wartime workers at the nearby Erie Forge. Note the distinctive slate roofs and bricks, and wood windows. Although most have been altered over the years, many retain these original features.
A historic photo of the bayfront Ferncliff community, originally established in 1893 with lots leased as incentive to build in the Frontier area. (From Erie, Pennsylvania by Jeffrey R. Nelson)

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.

Liz Allen (left) and Erin Phillips at the foot of Lincoln Ave, overlooking the bay. Standing over the Ferncliff community and the original access point.

960 E 21st St :: The Wakefield House

This was once the home of W.W. and Flora Wakefield. W.W. began his career as a manager at Warner Brothers Dry Goods and Carpets on the northwest corner of 10th and State. He quickly got into other ventures and eventually took over his brother-in-law’s company, The Carey Roofing Company/Carey Manufacturing. Flora was an active suffragette, often using the couple’s home as a meeting place for organization.

They first moved to this area of the city after purchasing the old Martin Warfel Homestead, which was a tract of land extending from Buffalo Rd to 28th Street and from East Avenue to Elm Street. Apparently, an Eriez burial ground was unearthed in the gravel banks between 25th and 28th Street east of East Avenue. According to “The History of Erie County” by John Elmer Reed: “Just beyond Warfeltown, in Erie, used to be a famous place for school children, and others, to search for skulls and other human remains. Many burial mounds were to be then found thereabouts, which when disturbed yielded many a treasure as a reward for efforts of the searchers. It is said a very large human skeleton was found there, and with it two copper bowls which had been perforated around their edges and held together with a buckskin thong laced in and out of these perfo- rations. The bowls held about a pint of beads each ; but what has become of either bowls or beads, we have been unable to learn.”

Photograph of Martin Warfel, who initially settled the land this home was eventually built upon.

This home was built in 1914 and the Wakefield family lived there through the 1930s. They also owned a summer home on Lakeside Drive, on the bluff overlooking the lake, which was demolished in the 1960s.

262 W 3rd St :: The Tallman House

I initially researched this property for Preservation Erie’s 2021 Endangered Properties List, but found that, although it hasn’t been occupied since at least the mid 1990s, it has been maintained enough to keep it standing, it meets all code requirements, recently had a new roof, and the owner has no intention to sell or demolish it. So, while it is not endangered, it does have some majorly unfulfilled potential.

This home was originally built around the turn of the 20th century by William and Caroline Tallman.  William was a naval Captain and had a maritime towing business.  He came into a great fortune when a wealthy relative from Virginia passed away and he inherited a great deal of money.  It was at that time the home on West 3rd Street was built.  He was married to Caroline Melaven Tallman, who lived in the home after William’s death in 1916 until her own death in 1933, with her sister Frances Melaven.  Neither the Tallmans nor Melaven had any children and after Frances’ death, the home was purchased by Carl E Warner who converted the large family home into apartments.  

Eventually the home went up for sheriff’s sale in 1992 and was purchased by Peter Kubeja, who is the current owner.  The home is a prominent corner lot and has some distinguishing exterior characteristics, including a corner turret with topper, and a large curved wrap around porch.  This is a prominent historic home in the core of Erie’s downtown and adjacent to many Gannon properties.  It has great potential to be a showpiece in an area where empty lots are gaining more and more ground every day.

232/234 W 4th Street :: The Hill House

I initially researched this property for Preservation Erie’s 2021 Endangered Properties List, but found that, although it hasn’t been occupied since at least the mid 1990s, it has been maintained enough to keep it standing, it meets all code requirements, recently had a new roof, and the owner has no intention to sell or demolish it. It is a beautiful home with a ton of potential, that I genuinely hope it fulfills that potential someday.

According to census, directory, and newspaper resources, this home was originally built by Captain William H Hill and his wife, Mathilda Byers Hill in 1897.  William H Hill was born in England and settled initially in Buffalo, NY.  He was a member of the Buffalo fire department for 10 years, during which he received the title Master Mechanic.  In 1884, he came to Erie to become the superintendent of Erie’s first Water and Gas plant. He then became the fire commissioner as appointed by the Mayor in 1889 and was manager of the Great Lakes Towing Association. William died in 1916 and his wife and three children lived at the home on W 4th Street until shortly before the widow’s death in 1931.  It seems the home was converted into apartments around that time and had many residents over the years.

The exterior of the home shows glimpses of how grand it once was: intricate carvings along the top border the front porch and above the front door.  There is a three story turret on the eastern side and bay windows on the facade of the first and second floors.  It has a brick paver sidewalk spanning it’s length.

The property was purchased for $15,000 in 1996 by Peter Kubeja and he is the current owner.  The home is a three unit apartment, with 3,772 square feet of living space.