Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The James H. Foster residence, Part 1

James H. Foster Residence

On 2 February, Chuck Miller reported, in the Heights Observer, on a troubling matter regarding the fate of this house, the earliest extant residence designed by the famed Cleveland architectural firm Walker and Weeks. Among the firm's major works can be counted Public Auditorium, the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, Severance Hall, the Lorain-Carnegie Bridge, and the main building of Cleveland Public Library.

The house, at 2200 Devonshire Drive, in Cleveland Heights, is a contributing structure in the Ambler Heights Historic District. It is known as the James H. Foster residence, after the first owner. Miller reported that the new owners, Steven E. Nissen and Linda R. Butler, plan to demolish the house, in favor of a smaller, more "green" structure.

No less an authority on Cleveland architecture than Eric Johannesen (author of Cleveland Architecture, 1876-1976 wrote "Another class of residences was somewhat larger and was characterized by a more emphatic, not to say massive, hip roof that was brought down over a porch in the contemporary bungalow fashion." Johannesen continues, "The finest of these was the stucco house built for James H. Foster on Devonshire Drive in Ambler Heights, and its form could be seen as a direct reference to the work of contemporary English archtiect C.F.A. Voysey, who was working in a revival of a country vernacular idiom." (A Cleveland Legacy: The Architecture of Walker and Weeks, page 16. Emphasis mine.)

Interior, James H. Foster Residence
Photo courtesy of a Cleveland Area History reader.

This is not the sort of house one usually sees threatened with demolition. Most often, it is a structure that has long been neglected. This is simply not the case here.

Take a look at the interior photographs of this house, taken when the house was listed for sale. It's phenomenal - the very best quality of work and finish that one will find in this area.

Stairway, James H. Foster Residence
Photo courtesy of a Cleveland Area History reader.

The 8,500 square foot house, sited on a 1.15 acre lot, boasts six bedrooms and six baths. It's beautiful.

Bathroom, James H. Foster Residence Bathroom, James H. Foster Residence
Photos courtesy of a Cleveland Area History reader.

The bathrooms, save for the replacement toilets, show the absolute highest quality of fixtures. It would be very difficult, if not impossible, to replace them today at any price.

Kitchen, James H. Foster Residence
Photo courtesy of a Cleveland Area History reader.

The kitchen might appear to some eyes dated, but it is still quite functional. There's nothing evident here or elsewhere that prevents this house from being habitable.

Greenhouse, James H. Foster Residence

If you've driven through the neighborhood, you've likely noticed the greenhouse, at the rear of the property. This greenhouse was but part of the gardens.

Describing a debutant party for Mary Stanley Foster, Cornelia Curtis stated that "The Foster home with its spacious rooms and broad verandas was a profusion of flowers, gift bouquets sent to the debutante, which were placed on tables and banked on the fireplace mantles. There are two large living rooms at the north end of the entrance hall, and in the second, several steps lower than the first floor, Mrs. Foster received the tea."

She continues, "The guests enjoyed the garden, and spacious verandas with their attractive summer furnishings." Curtiss added, "The floor of the tent in one corner was cut away to reveal the circular lilly pond iwth its bronze fountain figure. In the pond were colored lillies." Further, "From the tent could be seen the swimming pool in the center of the formal garden which yesterday was like a great turquois in a green setting." (Plain Dealer 18 June 1930, page 16)

This house is more than just a contributing structure to the Ambler Heights Historic District - it is one of the most significant houses in that district. It represents the earliest residential work of Cleveland's greatest architectural firm, Walker and Weeks.

There is no good justification for demolition of this house. The mere fact that the City of Cleveland Heights lacks the legal power to prevent the demolition should not be seen as an indicator that demolition is acceptable. One might consider contacting the owners, and communicating with them, politely, his or her concern about the loss of this piece of our community.

This house represents a significant part of the history of the neighborhood and the city in which it was built. Demolishing it will mar the landscape, and detract from the neighbors who have put serious efforts into fixing their houses.

I respect that the owners of this house are interested in investing in this community, however this is simply not the way to do it. There are plenty of other good home sites.

As of yesterday, a demolition permit had not yet been pulled. It's been said time and again that the greenest structure is the one that's already built. It would be more green to keep this house than to discard all the built energy and history it contains.

Check in later in the week for part 2, where I'll deal more with the history of this house and the people who lived there.


  1. I've been to Cleveland a few times. I like your site. Thanks! Here is a true story in return.

    The cattle truck showed up an hour late but at least it did finally arrive. We grabbed a long strong rope, some feed and a four-wheel drive Ford Tractor that had a bucket loader on the front of it.. The man in the truck followed us over to the other barn which was across the road from the main barnyard.

    The bull that we were after was almost as big as the tractor but he was white with some light brown spots and the tractor was blue. Many men have been mauled and even killed while trying to remove a bull from a pasture but this bull was good natured and like all cattle, loves feed.

    Coaxing cattle with feed is an old trick and more often than not it serves the purpose perfectly. I've seen whole herds of heifers chase a quad down the road when a man sat on the back with a five gallon bucket of feed for them follow.

    But, we weren't driving cattle this time, so we tried to lasso the bull and separate him from the heifers. The man who brought the truck was following the bull around a feed trough that was out in the middle of the pasture while trying to toss the looped end of the rope over the big bulls massive head. The first attempt failed because the rope only grabbed one-half of the bulls head so we had to wait for the beast to shake it off before we could try again.

    The idea was to lasso the bull but to let the rope go once we did. Once the rope was finally around the bulls neck, the plan was to recapture the loose end of the tether and tie it to back end of the tractor while the bull was being preoccupied with the feed. It would have worked if the rope had fell just right on the first try but since it didn't the bull was spooked and wouldn't come close enough for us to try it again.

    One has to be calm and quiet around cattle because they can spook easy. Seeing that we had no chance of capturing the bull under the circumstances we decided to relocate the feed trough and get a longer rope. We moved the trough from the pasture up to the lower level of the old barn and started shaking the feed bucket again. The cattle answered the dinner call and as fortune would have it the bull went into the barn behind a heifer whereupon we closed the two in by shutting a metal gate.

    Once inside the barn, the bull was preoccupied with eating feed so we were able to lasso him correctly this time. The bull was tied close to the back end of the tractor and then led to the cattle truck which was parked down by the road. I held the tether tight while another fellow operated the tractor. I rode on the tractor by standing on a running board and secured the animal by wrapping the rope around a solid bar that was attached to the tractor.

    The bull came quietly but at one point it seemed like the bulls massive head was going to get jammed in between the back tire and the tractor's frame so we halted and readjusted the rope. The ramp up into the cattle truck was already down and the side gates had been attached so we pulled the bull up to the ramp, loosed the rope and prodded the bull up into the truck.

    Well that was one down and another to go. The second bull was back in the main barnyard. So we repeated the process again, over there. The second bull was younger but he seemed to be more dangerous which is unusual because generally it's the other way around.

    I was the youngest of our crew of four. George was the oldest at 88 years old, his brother Bob is 84 and John is about 70 years old. I am 55. Bob has breathing problems and he can't walk around to good so he operates the tractor. Bob has poor circulation also. I took my glove off and held his frozen left hand in mine for a moment so that it would warm back up. I overlooked the snot that had been wiped off onto the wrist and grabbed it anyway.

    We all know how cold noses can run in the winter time. It was zero today.

  2. It slays me that someone could look at this home and not realize what beauty it possesses. Thanks for this, I'm still learning so much about my new home town.

  3. Dr. Nissen is essentially a public figure--in a good way--from his work at the Cleveland Clinic while battling pharmaceutical companies from rushing drugs to the market, sometimes using the media. I would hope that a man of his clear intellect can see the two simple points of a.) this house is too important/valuable/beautiful to destroy, and b.) how wasteful demolishing and rebuilding would be. Using the term green in any plan that destroys solid resources already in place--even if somebody reuses the lumber to make coffee tables--is a joke.

  4. How can tearing something down to make it "green" possible? Is it not a waste of energy and materials to tear a structure down just to rebuild it? And where will all that building material go when it is demolished? sigh

  5. Dr. Nissen is no stranger to controversy, but usually he's on the other side ...the side fighting the "good fight".

    This makes me remarkably sad. I'm wondering, given the low sale price if they are major issues that are unknown (crumbling foundation, etc). Not that it would make it ok to level this historic property...
    But if they have enough $$ to demo and rebuild why can't they "green" this house. Have they never watched some of the major rennos on This Old House? It can be done!

  6. They bought this house -- a beautiful old Cleveland mansion -- for $260,000?!? On the East or West coast one couldn't buy a shack for $260K.

    And now they want to tear it down.

    How very, very sad.

  7. Of course there is another side to the story, and eventually we may hear more of it. From what I know, there initial intent was to renovate the old house and build a more reasonable sized house on the rear of this lot. Though cost to renovate to any reasonable level of efficiency was beyond a reasonable budget. The purchase price made partial deconstruction (with lots of salvage work), then demo, a very practical option.

    The cost to heat a historic house of this size can be around 5k/mo, on these cold Cleveland days (at today's gas prices). The house they want built is intended to be built to the Passive House standard and will be one of the most efficient houses in Ohio. Their decision will be helping to pioneer the future of more practical housing for our area, and will become a land mark of its own.

    Of course there other lots and other neighborhoods they could build in, but this is the place they want to live, maybe for the same reason that James H. Foster wanted to build there.

    And yes, the purchase price did reflect the condition of the house, as well as the demand for houses of this size and condition. The pictures don't show it all. The house was on the market for 8 months and many people went through it (including me). Why did no one buy it?

    This house was done early in the career of the architect and wasn't up to the standard of the other buildings mentioned. There are many old historic homes in Cleveland; at some point the market allows the weakest to be sold for other purposes.

    At what point does energy efficiency and sustainable construction become as interesting as historic renovation? Some buildings simply were not built or designed with any thought of energy efficiency.

    When you drive by this site in the future, you will still be able to see the beautiful green house (which will be saved), and the guests will once again enjoy the garden, and everything else this beautiful lot and neighborhood have to offer.

  8. Anonymous, respectfully, I disagree.

    A few thoughts.

    If you're spending $5,000 a month on heating, there's either something seriously wrong with your boiler or you're heating your house to a higher standard that any I've ever lived in. I live in a 1926 house with zero insulation and a 25 year old boiler. We pay $300 a month with budget billing. Not cheap, but still not the $5,000 a month you suggest, even if you adjust for house size.

    What can one do? Close off rooms not in use in the winter. Turn the thermostat down. Consider a new high-efficiency boiler - for us, I know that one would pay for itself in five years.

    Would a smaller house be a more comfortable choice for some than living in a slightly cooler residence? Probably. Fortunately, there are a variety of houses at a variety of price points available.

    Finally, I take issue with your suggestion that 8 months on the market is a long time. As of 3 years ago, when I was looking to move back to Cleveland, 6 months was about average. 8 months, by that metric, is only slightly longer than average.

  9. A few points:

    1. My partner and I bought and renovated a 2400 s.f. 1900 house, and after our energy efficiency improvements, we pay 100.00$/month in gas. That's with a 1985 gas boiler and single pipe steam radiators, occupied third floor, and unconditioned basement inside the insulated envelope. The work to get there was blown-in cellulose insulation, sealing at (the original wood) windows, and an energy recovery ventilator. Not expensive, not complicated, and a quick payoff period.

    2. Speaking as an Architect with a strong interest in history, early work that is "not up to the standards" of later work is at least as interesting and important as that later work.

    It would be a shame to lose this home.

  10. I checked the record and the budget amount for heating this house is only around 1k/ mo or 12k per year. Of course that could be a reflection of the lower average that occurred while this house sat vacant for 8 months. So yes, it is probably less than 5k per winter month, but not completely unbelievable that 10k sq' could cost you 5k in heating this month. So what.

    They are probably buying into the whole Global Warming scare, which is probably a hoax put on by the energy people. As soon as we start drilling more US oil wells, we will be back to cheap energy.

    People clearly have their priorities mixed up, and yes, it is a shame.

    Are there any other historic land mark houses on the market that we could be focusing on right now (before those too get bought and torn down)? We should not allow people to sell these houses!

  11. I am a neighbor. I have been in this house 20 times. This house was destroyed by 40 years of neglect -- not the Nissen/Butlers. During a rainstorm this spring, before they bought it, the basement filled to the brim with water, the roof leaks, the foundation sags, etc. Despite it's famous architects, the design and detail, save for perhaps two rooms, it uninspired. Don't be fooled by real estate photos: take a tour of the basement, check the 100 year old wiring, see the holes in the roof. Yes, if Cleveland was L.A. or Boston, and you could get a dilapidated pad for 260K and spend at least $1 million renovating it, it might be a crime. But this is not L.A. This house was ruined long ago. We neighbors are lucky it's not just boarded up like half of Cleveland. Busta-Peck is a romantic without a grip on reality.

  12. Anonymous, why, then, did you stand by and allow the house to deteriorate to this point?

  13. I've watched this beautiful property since it first went on the market. Growing up, this house has always been on e of my favorites. It belongs in the neighborhood and is an important part of Cleveland's architectural history. Uninspired to one neighbor who sat by and let the property deteriorate in his neighborhood and did nothing,is a beautiful piece of history to others.
    Had I been able to buy it many months ago when I discovered it was for sale and move back to Cleveland, believe me I would have. And be committed to restoring the home in energy efficient ways rather than demolishing the entire structure. There are plenty of ugly duds on entire foreclosed streets in Cleveland available for the greenest blah blah blah. A historic district is entirely inappropriate for that type of building.

  14. I guess I'll take the minority position here. In order for Cleveland Heights to remain a vibrant community, there needs to be selective reinvestment in our housing stock. While renovating existing structures is an excellent alternative (and one that I've chosen), I personally feel that the community would benefit by finding new uses for some of these very large, very inefficient houses built for another era. In some cases renovation makes sense (although I can't imagine too many people need or want 8,500 square feet for themselves), in some cases conversion to condos might make sense, and in others a teardown makes sense.
    I don't think it's tenable to 'freeze' Cl Heights in it's 1942 as-is condition. I also think the proposed house can serve as a catalyst to inspire others to make their old and inefficient houses more sustainable for the next century.
    I'm grateful that this couple is making an investment in my community, as opposed to saying "the heck with it" and building their house on a clear-cut or corn field in Geauga County.

  15. So if they want to build new, why don't they go to some of the huge vacant lots in Cleveland? You don't have to build on farmland in Geauga. I'm sure Cleveland would love to make a deal on some of their cleared areas, so why tear this down? Why not talk to them and make an investment in cleared areas of Cleveland?

    Yeah, that sounds pretty green, destroying a perfectly good building, using huge amounts of energy to do so, ignoring the embedded energy in the materials, and huge amounts of fuel to schlep it off to a landfill. No, those pesky obsolete old things just obligingly vanish into thin air, no waste here. And vibrant. Yes, nothing as vibrant as looking Like Everybody Else In The Latest Fad.

    It's called GREENWASHING. Sorry you're falling for it. And I'm sorry if you don't think they'll do what other owners have done with their precious new teardown, ignore the maintenance like any number of other house owners everywhere else. The fact that these old-timers last so long under dire neglect actually tells anyone who thinks about it for more than a minute that they must have been very well-built to last so long. So why did they buy something that large, if not to turn it into condos (actually a much better idea)? This fine house was built to last, and no way can I justify a teardown in its case, no matter how "green" or "vibrant" you want to call it.

  16. I've been by the site lately and, now that the demolition is done, wonder how any new structure will affect the integrity of the neighborhood. There are recent attempts at chique-green, such as the bale-house on Cedar, that, in my opinion, detract from the "Cotswold cottages" and other houses adjacent. There are also some incredibly insensitive and inconsiderate boxy structures that deplete the real-estate values of everybody over on Chestnut Hills. I hope, if these new owners of the vacant lot can't integrate with and complement the existing neighborhood fabric, they will do the right thing, turn the lot into a pocket park, plant a lot of trees, and decamp.

  17. Dear "anonymous"- clearly you have stumbled upon the wrong site. I am infuriated over this, have been for almost a year now. As a member of Shaker Historical Society, and a lifelong lover of historic Clevelnd area architecture(My grandfather was A.C. Wolf, the architect who designed 2243 Chestnut Hills), I cannot emphasize my umbrage over this shameful destruction of a WALKER and WEEKS home! It is a crime! These "people" need to go to Solon or Westlake, and stick to the hideous cookie cutter homes! Christopher Busta-Peck is a breath of fresh air, and a man after my own heart! Please save your egregious comments for less intellectual forums. Thanks.

  18. Also, may I add- I am a little disappointed that the residents of the Ambler Heights neighborhood didn't stand up and fight for this masterpiuece. I had a heated debate with a Cleveland Heights resident/ Habitat for humanity employee, who tried to tell me this house was destroyed, and went on to praise these folks, since they called and alerted habitat to their plans, and allowed them to strip the home of it's fittings, and fixtures. This house was a wreck, huh? They should take a gander at the one my husband and I are restoring in East Cleveland! Lol!!!

  19. This is way too late, but...

    I own a 8500 sqft house in Cleveland heights and it takes $1k per month to heat. We leave the thermostat at 72 and heat the whole house. If they were paying $5k they need to get somebody in there who knows steam heat.

    As for $1M renovation costs, that's want not need. You can renovate almost anything in Cleveland Heights for $200K. You might want to do a lot more, that's how you come up with $1M. But if you want to do that much your new house won't be cheap either.

    I saw this house. I also saw 2238 devonshire (2 doors down) that was in much worse condition and not nearly as nice a house. It was renovated.

  20. I just came here after reading an article about the completion about the new structure on the lot. I toured the new Butler-Nissen "Passive House" when it was on display down at the Natural History museum and I have to say, while VERY different from an historic mansion, it was very nice. It may not be everyone's speed but Dr. Nissen and Ms. Butler clearly like it.

    I'm also taken aback by all of the calls for "somebody" to somehow save this house. If anybody else had been willing to put up the money to buy the house and pay for the renovations, they should have done so. But when a willing buyer comes forward to stroke a check for a quarter of a million bucks, it's really their business what they do with the property. If you value history, then put your money where your mouth is, write your own check for $260,000 and turn the house into a museum or whatever you think should be done with it. Don't sit back and accuse the buyer of being evil or malicious or "architecturally insensitive" on some blog. They're not reading anyway, and you sound like a goon from an Ayn Rand novel.

    1. I disagree. I believe that when we choose to invest our time and money into a given house and neighborhood, we do so because we like the characteristics of the neighborhood as it is, and we expect that it isn't going to change drastically.

      I never suggested that it should be made into a museum, nor do I recall anyone else having done so.

      Who is this "someone" that I refer to? I would have been most interested, had I not recently purchased a house at the time this was written. If I'd been aware that the house was for sale at the state price point, I would have written something about it at that time - and I'm sure that one or more of my readers would have been interested in it at that time.