words by Charlotte Gintert and Mark Schweitzer, photos by Charlotte Gintert
The Merrill House
When people talk of Akron’s history as a leading producer of clay products, most thoughts turn to Byron Robinson, whose house was profiled in the May issue.
Another leader in the industry was Edwin H. Merrill, who started out in Mogadore as a pottery works helper in 1830 and ended up buying out his employer just three years later.
Originally born in Painesville, Merrill was an expert in his trade, and by the time the Civil War started in 1861, he had moved the E.H. Merrill Company—also known as the Akron Pottery—to the corner of South Main and Center streets in downtown Akron. Initially working with his brother Calvin, and later his son, Henry, Merrill’s company produced beer and ink bottles, jugs, smoking pipes and many other ceramic specialties. The company steadily grew in the post-war period as markets expanded and technology rapidly evolved.
After surviving the Panic of 1873, the company stabilized and prospered greatly during the 1880s. By the time Edwin decided to build his home on Fir Hill in 1884, his company had already started to diversify its line of products to include sewer pipe and other new items. Like many local industrialists of the Victorian era, Merrill located his house just off East Market Street in a neighborhood that was popular with many of Akron’s leading citizens of the time, and just minutes away from his business.
Few of these neighbors remain today, though Akron’s well-known Hower House Museum remains, just across South Forge Street. The Merrill house is probably the best (and one of the few) remaining local examples of what is called the Eastlake Style—similar to Queen Anne, but without the round/octagonal towers and occasional classic details often found in the latter. Eastlake houses had their exteriors broken into panels and sections, often featuring different types of siding, like horizontal and vertical boards, shingles, and carved inserts. The exterior designs were highly asymmetrical, fanciful, and filled with typical Victorian-era details, like brackets, fancy barge boards at the gable ends, and turned porch railings—often on multiple porches.
The Merrill house features all of these, and adds details like wavy panels of siding, stained glass windows, a cute third-story porch with a balcony suspended above a large angled bay, and an eyebrow window in the attic. Like many of its type, the house features tall, fancy chimney stacks and still retains its original slate roof.
Documented in the Akron Historic Landmark Survey of 1988 as House SUM-366-16, Edwin Merrill’s home also included exquisite butternut-colored trim, with fancy fireplace mantels featuring multiple shelves, colored tilework, additional decorative stained glass and other period details.
Sadly, Merrill only enjoyed his new house for a short time, as he passed in 1888, just a few years after it was built. His company merged with Robinson Clay Products in 1902, and Merrill’s factory on Main Street was bulldozed in 1927 to make way for another successful Akron business: O’Neil’s Department Store.
Thankfully, many decades-worth of subsequent owners have proven to be good stewards of Edwin Merrill’s home. Today, it stands in essentially its original condition, and hopefully will continue to do so for many years to come.
Charlotte Gintert digs Akron. She is an archaeologist by day and a photographer by sunrise and sunset. You can check out her other photos at www.capturedglimpses.com
Wesley Temple A.M.E. Zion Church
Churches are built to stand the test of time and often do, long after their congregations have disbanded or moved to the suburbs. Akron has many historic religious buildings that have been repurposed, abandoned, or demolished, and very few still serve their original denomination or congregation.
Wesley Temple A.M.E. Zion Church, I’m happy to report, is not one of those churches. The Neo-Classical Revival brick church on the corner of Prospect and Perkins in downtown Akron is still home to the African Methodist Episcopal congregation it was built for.
You may not have noticed the church before, and that’s not surprising. It is reminiscent of a Greek or Roman temple, a design more commonly used for government buildings in the United States. This nondescript church, however, happens to be one of the most significant churches in Akron’s history.
The African Methodist Episcopal Zion denomination was founded in 1796 after splitting from the Methodist church because of racial discrimination. It is the oldest African American denomination in the United States. After the Civil War ended, African American families began moving north to cities and towns like Akron. They were not permitted to attend most white churches, so they formed their own. Akron’s first black congregation, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church was created in 1866.
For many years, the Akron congregation met in homes and meeting halls until they were able to build a small structure on High Street in 1882. The church was incredibly important for Akron’s growing black community because it provided a place for cultural and family unity, as well as a location for meetings and special events.
Akron’s black population began to rise at the turn of the 20th century as more and more families moved north for jobs in Akron’s rubber factories. Between 1900 and 1920 the city’s black population rose from 657 to 5,580. The tiny church on High Street could no longer serve its growing congregation so they elected to build a new church on the larger lot located at Perkins and Prospect. They hired black architects Herbert L. Wardner and John O. Sommerville of Akron to design the new church in 1926.
It has two sanctuaries; the main sanctuary and the lower sanctuary, which is located in the basement. The lower sanctuary was based on the Akron Plan, a church architectural design created by Akron’s Lewis Miller, whom we covered in the last issue. The builder of the Wesley Temple, Samuel Plato, was also a member of Akron’s black community. The congregation held a fundraiser to cover the costs of construction. The person who could raise the most money would be given the honor of naming the new church. Mrs. Belle Wesley won the contest and the church was renamed the Wesley Temple A.M.E. Zion Church. Construction was completed in 1928. Except for an addition that was added to the rear of the building in 1963, the church has remained mostly original and is in excellent condition.
Wesley Temple A.M.E. Zion Church is home of the oldest black congregation in Akron. Some of its prominent members include Emmer Lancaster, the first black graduate of the University of Akron; Edward Davis, the first black member of Akron City Council; Judge James R. Williams, U.S. Attorney General under President Jimmy Carter; and Shelton Lee, the first black appointee to the United States Naval Academy. The Akron Chapter of the NAACP was founded at the Wesley Temple and the reverend at that time, Rev. James H. McMullen, served as its first president. George Mathews, who is honored by the Hotel Mathews Monument at the corner of North Howard and Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., was also a member of the church. During the Great Depression, the church was the principal support location for local unemployed African Americans. It continues to remain a pillar of Akron’s black community.
The Wesley Temple was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1994 because of its historical and architectural significance. There is also an Ohio Historical Marker on the southeast corner of the property. Services are held every Sunday.
Mark Schweitzer writes about old buildings and Akron history for The Devil Strip. Seems the older he gets, the more he appreciates old stuff. Imagine that.