Preservation / A Carpenter Gothic rarity
Knowlesville’s Erasmus D. Hall House
Steep gables ornamented with gingerbread are typical of the Gothic style.
Photos by Stephen Gabris
On Knowlesville Road in the Orleans County hamlet of Knowlesville, the brightly painted Erasmus D. Hall house stands out from the Greek Revival and vernacular homes around it. One of only two known Gothic Revival homes in the county, the Hall House has new life as the corporate offices of Mingus Associates, Inc.
Knowlesville is in the Town of Ridgeway in the western edge of Orleans County, along the original Erie Canal. Its first known resident was William Knowles, who moved there in 1815. The first church and first school were both constructed in 1817, but the settlement remained unnamed until a post office was established in 1826. As its senior resident, Knowles was asked to name the area; he chose Portville, but there was already a Portville in New York, so the townspeople christened it Knowlesville in his honor. The hamlet continued to grow throughout the Erie Canal’s heyday, but now is home to fewer than 300 people.
Raised in nearby Lyndonville, Erasmus D. Hall graduated from Castleton Medical College in Vermont in 1853 and moved to Knowlesville circa 1856. He lived there in a variety of different places until his death in 1916. Heralded as the hamlet “benefactor” in many reports, he also owned Hall House, a large meeting place where numerous area functions were held.
The Hall House first appears on its present lot in 1907, but is likely much older than that. There was a rumor for a number of years that it was an old church moved to that lot, but that was recently disproved. A restoration specialist who restored all the windows states that the east and west windows in the bay are from the 1850s and the center two date to the 1880s. This ties into newspaper reports of Hall constructing a home in 1877, then adding a bay window and large addition in 1878 when he married. It is possible this original home was moved to the Knowlesville Road lot when Hall purchased it.
The 1940s-era kitchen has been restored to its original paint scheme.
This time period maps much more closely to the Gothic Revival era, which ran from 1830 to 1860. It was popularized, especially for homes, by Andrew Jackson Downing and Alexander Jackson Davis in their 1842 book, Cottage Residences. The style is commonly referred to as Carpenter Gothic because Gothic features carved in stone in true Gothic buildings were carved in wood by rural carpenters.
Common features of the style include steeply gabled roofs, polychromatic exteriors, lancet windows, board and batten siding accentuating the buildings’ verticality, asymmetrical massing, bay windows, and decorative vergeboard/bargeboard, generally referred to as gingerbread, on the gable ends.
The Gothic Revival features prominent in the Erasmus Hall House include five steep gables replete with intricately carved gingerbread, drops, asymmetric massing, lancet window and era-appropriate polychromatic paint. Historic photos show that finials once topped four of the five gables. When Mingus Associates purchased the property in 2005, it had been vacant for twelve years and neglected since the 1980s. Neighbors argued that it was a good candidate for demolition. Yet the largely 1940s-era interior, servants’ quarters, historic siding, gingerbread, and windows were remarkably intact, and the building has since been determined eligible for listing in the National Register.
Restoration has taken more than a decade, and is still not quite finished. The major work has been completed since 2016, and includes a new boiler and support columns in the basement, sistered floor joists under the living room, new roof, new electric, restored windows, a period-appropriate multicolor paint scheme, refinished hardwood floors, two revived bathrooms, and a new third bath.
The second-floor bathroom was added circa 1940, replacing a rear servants’ stair, and finished in Art Deco yellow and black tile with rust accents; it was going to be demolished until a cohort of Buffalo preservationists convinced the owner to restore it instead, getting rid of its current lime green color scheme. The 1940s kitchen was also painted lemon yellow and lime green in the seventies, and has been restored to its original paint scheme. When the final interior work is complete, all the exterior drops and finials will be replicated and reinstalled.
The New York State Barge Canal no longer provides the bustling activity in Knowlesville that the Erie Canal once did, but many of the buildings from that era survive. The newly restored Erasmus D. Hall house remains as a testament to its pioneering original owner and the rare housing style he embraced.