In this edition of Akron’s historic buildings we head over to West Hill, one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods. This month, we cover two houses that survive from a time when West Hill was the most affluent place to live at the turn of the 20th century. Not only do they remain standing, but both have been repurposed into multi-family housing and remain structurally sound.
The Lewis Miller House
The red house on the hill at 127 Dawes Avenue is out of an oft forgotten time in Akron’s history, a time when farming equipment, not rubber, was the city’s booming industry. When it was built nearly 150 years ago, it was the centerpiece of an estate belonging to the leader in that industry and one of the most significant men in Akron’s history.
Lewis Miller began his career as an apprentice at Ball, Aultman & Co., a company that manufactured agricultural equipment in Greentown, Ohio. Five years later, he patented the Buckeye Mower and Reaper. When the company’s branch plant in Akron reincorporated as Aultman, Miller & Co. in 1865, he became the company superintendent. He would go on to hold multiple patents in farming equipment. He was also the founder and president of the Akron Iron Company. As one of the wealthiest men in the city he would back numerous business ventures including its first rubber company, B.F. Goodrich, and support countless philanthropic and charitable causes. He was a longtime chairman of the Board of Trustees of Mount Union College, and the college’s oldest residence hall is named after him. Miller is also credited for inventing the “Akron Plan” which was a design structure for churches and Sunday schools. He also co-founded the Chautauqua Institution in 1874.
Perhaps because he paid attention to which way the wind blew, Miller decided he did not want to reside in the fashionable neighborhoods on East Market and Fir Hill. Instead, he purchased 25 acres on Ash Street Hill overlooking the fledgling city and built the house in 1870. The estate was called Oak Place. Historic photographs show it had a marvelous view of Akron. It was also conveniently upwind from the industrial smoke rising along the canal. Besides the main house, the estate included a large carriage house and duck pond. In 1886, Oak Place hosted a celebrity wedding. Lewis Miller’s daughter, Mina, married another inventor, Thomas Edison. The wedding received national coverage and the reception dinner was created by a famous caterer from Chicago and served by 15 waiters. Sometime while visiting his in-law’s home, Edison installed an electric street lamp in the front yard.
The three-story brick house was built in the High Victorian Italianate style. The bedrooms had fireplaces with marble mantelpieces; the windows were framed in heavy woodwork. The house also contained large servants quarters on the third floor, which were accessed from a rear staircase. The home had a front and rear entrance and the front of the house had a wide veranda. The house’s gables were ornately carved in the Eastlake tradition. Several features of the house are considered advanced for the time and are credited to Miller’s foreword thinking. After his death in 1899 the house passed to his son, Lewis A. Miller, who lived there until 1917. Over the years the estate property was broken up to create housing allotments. Shortly after it was sold, the house was converted into an apartment building with 18 small units. It no longer served one family, but created housing for many families and individuals during Akron’s famous population boom created by the rubber industry. The nearby brick carriage house (129 Oak Park Dr.) was also converted into apartments. Both structures have remained apartment buildings ever since. The house was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1976 and the application stated that it was remarkably well preserved. Today, the Lewis Miller House is part of the Excelsior Apartment Complex and in good condition, if a bit worn around the around the edges. Several of its original features, including one of the marble mantelpieces and the spiral staircase, remain. It still has one of the best views of the city and the lamp installed by Edison himself continues to illuminate the front lawn.
The Edward P. Werner House
In the April issue we visited the last remaining building of the Werner Publishing Company on Union Street. This month we will visit the last remaining structure of the Werner family’s estate on West Market in West Hill. Paul E. Werner emigrated in 1867 at the age of 16 from what is modern day Baden-Württemberg, Germany. He began his publishing career in 1874 as owner of the Akron Germania, a German language newspaper that served the large German immigrant population of the city during that time. His love of his German culture was clearly evident when he built his High Victorian Gothic estate on West Market Street in 1887, one year after he started the Werner Publishing Company. The estate included a conservatory, horse stables, gymnasium, extensive gardens, and a beautiful fountain that fronted the two-acre property. The main house featured a large square tower similar to the one on the Werner Publishing office building that was built ten years later. The estate became so well known that it was nicknamed the “German Palace.” It even appeared on postcards. The Werners were one of the first affluent families of Akron to move to West Market Street. Following Miller’s choice to live west of the city, their establishment in this part of town would inspire other families of wealth to build their homes west of downtown in the coming decades.
Edward, Paul’s oldest son, moved out of his parents’ house and built his own on the eastern side of the estate in 1905. It was designed after a Swiss chalet, another nod to the family’s Germanic heritage and an uncommon architectural style for the area. The house featured half-timbered framework and first and second story porches on the north and south sides. The interior contained Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau design motifs including wood carved details and ogee arches. One of the first floor rooms also contained frescos created by Jackie Porter who illustrated several of Werner Publishing’s children’s books.
As superintendent of Werner Publishing, Edward ran the everyday operations of his father’s company from the late 1890’s until 1914 when the company was dissolved. After Werner Publishing went out of business, Paul Werner sold the estate and moved to Kansas City. Edward also sold his adjoining Swiss Chalet and moved to Storer Avenue. He would go on to be the superintendent of the Commercial Printing & Lithograph Company where he would remain until his retirement in 1941.
The Knights of Columbus bought some of the Werner estate in the 1920’s. They converted the gym to a school and social center. In 1923, they demolished that building to make room for a new social hall. This building is now home to Teamsters Local 348 H&W Fund. The remains of the Werner fountain now encircle the Teamsters sign at the front of the property. Paul Werner’s house was razed in 1957 after years of abandonment and vandalism. The building that is now Akron Family Restaurant was built directly east of Edward’s former house in 1918. The Ontario apartment building was built directly west in 1919. Although the rest of the estate is long gone, the Edward P. Werner House managed to survive the transition of this section of West Hill from residential to commercial for the same reason the Miller house has survived. It was converted to an apartment building almost as soon as Edward sold it. Most of its original interior and exterior features survived the conversion. In 2001, the Wilson Family Trust purchased it and they undertook several restoration projects. The house was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2005. Today, it continues to serve the community as a residence. It is owned and operated as a transitional housing unit by ACCESS, a non-profit that provides support for homeless women in Akron. While the property is in need of some basic TLC, the house seems to have retained its architectural integrity.