Friday, December 14, 2012

In Search of the Bright Green House - The Bentley Simons Runyan Family of Mansfield, Ohio

Bentley Simons Runyan Family of Mansfield, Ohio
The Bentley Simons Runyan Family of Mansfield, Ohio an oil painting (circa 1857) by Frederick Elmore Cohen. 38 x 45 in. Used courtesy of the Allen Memorial Art Museum.

For as long as I can remember - since the mid-1990s at least - this painting has caught my attention when I've visited the Allen Memorial Art Museum, in Oberlin, Ohio. As I became interested in Cleveland area architecture, the painting became noteworthy as an early depiction of a house in color - how can one miss that bright green? Now I see it as a very special document.

The Bentley Simons Runyan Family of Mansfield, Ohio, a painting made circa 1857 by Frederick Elmore Cohen is arguably the best Ohio family portrait. It goes beyond merely depicing a man, a woman, and their five children - the level of detail in the image provides us so many details about how they lived and what they felt was important.

[detail] Bentley Simons Runyan Family of Mansfield, Ohio
Detail, Bentley Simons Runyan Family of Mansfield, Ohio an oil painting (circa 1857) by Frederick Elmore Cohen. 38 x 45 in. Used courtesy of the Allen Memorial Art Museum.

The yard is well manicured, with a variety of trees, some so small that they still have cages around their bases for protection. Trellises of a couple different designs line the side and front of the house, as well as the right edge of the yard. A lattice is attached to the side of the house near the rear.

To the rear of the house, there's a barn and a smaller structure, both gray in color. To the left of these, a one and a half story building, painted white. Looking more distant, we can see what appears to be a hill, or perhaps even a mountain.

Looking at the house itself, we first notice the color - a bright green where we're used to seeing white. Looking closely, we can make out the texture of brick underneath the green paint. From the two chimneys, wisps of smoke are visible. And then there's the grand front door, flanked by a pair of lions. Draperies appear present around all of the windows.

Finally, there's the family! They're clearly of some means, as they appear well-dressed. One can see that Bentley Runyan's left arm used to be pointing, as if to say "this is mine". And what stories might the children tell?

We knew what city the house was said to be located in, but, it seemed, nothing more. I had to, at the very least, try to put this scene on a map.

Rather than reinvent the wheel - which I seem to do more frequently than I should - I sent an email to Andria Derstine, director of the Allen Memorial Art Museum, asking if they had anything further in their curatorial files on the painting. There was an article, Artist and Patron: Frederick Cohen and Bentley Runyan by Marcia Goldberg, which appeared in the Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin, volume 37, number 2 (1979-80), pages 79-87.

Goldberg notes (page 84) "The Runyan house was the showplace of Mansfield when it was built, probably in 1852 or 1853. It stood alone for some time on a large fenced and landscaped plot at the base of a hill (just visible to the left) on the western edge of town."

The 1850 U.S. Census indicates that the Runyan family, living in Madison Township, Richland County, owned real estate worth $2,200. A decade later (1860 U.S. Census), they were living in Mansfield Township. There were five children (ages 13, 11, 8, 5 and 1), and they were of sufficient means to employ a laborer and a domestic. The value of their real estate had jumped to $25,000.

With this information in hand - a large estate (as suggested by the value of the real estate) and a vague location (the west edge of Mansfield) - I knew just where I might find the answer to my question.

Large-scale maps illustrating land ownership and the locations of houses were producted for more than half of the counties in Ohio in the 1850s and 1860s. My working bibliography of such maps indicated that, while such a map had been made for Richland County, it wasn't among those that I knew to have been digitized.

[detail] Plate B - Parts of Wards 1, 2, and 3
[detail], Plate B - Parts of Wards 1, 2, and 3, Atlas of the City of Mansfield, Ohio. E. Robinson & R.H. Pidgeon, Civil Engineers. Published by E. Robinson, New York, 1882. Used courtesy of Richland County, Ohio USGenWeb.

Fortunately, the 1856 Map of Richland County, Ohio had been digitized by Richland County Ohio USGenWeb. Alas, the map of Mansfield was not included. After some fumbing around, I came across the 1882 Atlas of the City of Mansfield, Ohio. Someone had been kind enough to index the names on it, and finally, I hit paydirt! Take a close look at the south side of W. Fourth, about a block west of Mulberry.

[detail] Plate B - Parts of Wards 1, 2, and 3, Atlas of the City of Mansfield, Ohio. E. Robinson & R.H. Pidgeon, Civil Engineers. Published by E. Robinson, New York, 1882. Used courtesy of Richland County, Ohio USGenWeb.

Looking more closely, we see a house belonging to "Lucinda Runyon" - the wife of Bentley Simons Runyan, and who is illustrated on the left side of the painting. The house is painted a red hue - indicating that is brick (a frame house would generally be painted yellow on such a map). Further, the footprint is approximately what we'd expect for the house as shown in the painting. Finally, there's a yellow building - a barn or carriage house - in approximately the right location.

BSR House 1
Photograph used courtesy of Jennifer Gray.

I took a look at the site in Google Maps, hoping that the structure might still be standing, which would confirm my hypothesis that this was the house in the painting. What I saw looked promising. Streetview confirmed that it was, in fact, still there!

This photograph illustrates the house. It's brick, and the proportions appear correct. The windows and door on the front were in the same location as those in Cohen's panint.

But it's not the house in the painting. In my excitement, I went a bit too far on West Fourth Street. The Runyan house was a block to the east.

Residence of W.S. Cappeller, No. 93 West Fourth Street
Residence of W.S. Cappeller, No. 93 West Fourth Street. Reproduced from The County of Richland, Ohio (1896). Published by Rerick Bros., Richmond, IN. Used courtesy of the Richland County Historical Society.

I put a call out on Facebook, asking for a photograph of the house, before I realized it was no longer standing. Alan Wigton, President of the Richland County Historical Society, was among the first to respond. He did end up pointing out my error - but he also provided this photograph of the house, taken in 1896.

A massive front porch was added, and a bit of gingerbread had been affixed to the peak of the gable. The 8 over 8 windows present in 1857 were replaced with 1 over 1 ones and the shutters were removed, too.

Note the lions on the front stoop. They seem a bit large for the space where they're sitting, I think. They appear to be the lions in Cohen's painting!

Enough of the house. Who were the Runyans?

This passage (History of Richland County, Ohio (1880), pages 730-731) provides as complete a background on the Runyan family as I've been able to find.
RUNYAN, BENTLEY S. (deceased). The subject of this sketch, who was one of the active and prominent business men of Mansfield for over twenty years, was born in Knox Co., Ohio, March 6, 1821; he was the eighth child of Hill and Mary L. Runyan, who were old residents of that county; in the month of April, 1847, he removed to Mansfield, where he opened a hardware store, near the southeast corner of Walnut and Fourth streets; in the fall of the same year, he changel his location to a room south of Fourth on Main street, where he remained until after purchasing the building south of the present European Hotel, in which place for many years he did a large and extensive business, it being the chief hardware store in the city. During his residence in this city, he was prominent in all public and charitable enterprises, and his name was generally found at the head of the list of those citizens who petitioned and subscribed in the interest of the city and its inhabitants; he was one of the founders of the Mansfield Gas-Light Company, and served as one of its officers, and was elected on an independent ticket as Mayor of the city, in which capacity he gave universal satisfaction; for many years he was an active member and oflicer of the Richland Co. Agricultural Society, the success of which was due in a great measure to his efforts.

He was married in Mount Vernon, Ohio, to Miss Lucinda Murphy, of that place, Jan. 14, 1844; five children by this marriage are living - John Beatley, now a resident of Tiffin, Ohio, where he holds the position of Teller in the Tiffin National Bank; Charles C., of the firm of Bush & Runyan, plumbers and gasfitters in this city; Robert Mead, iron-roofer and painter now in the employ of the Aultman & Taylor Co., and two daughters Almeda and Mary E.

B.S. Runyan died in this city Jan. 12, 1869; R. Mead Runyan was married in Mansfield Jan. 20, 1875 to Miss Ida Boyle; two sons were born to them - Frank born in 1876, died March 18, 1878; Harry was born Jan. 15, 1877.

Part 2 of this narrative, which will explain more of the history of this house and how it changed over time, will appear next week.


  1. Thanks!! I, too, have always enjoyed this painting and believe I bought a postcard of it. I have an 1854 house in Clinton and studied the photo clearly as well, thanks for reminding me of the fine points...

    So sorry that it is no longer standing. Mansfield has some incredible homes that need restored, but are in areas that would not be financially feasible.

    1. Thanks.

      The interior was said to be quite grand, too. But that's something to be dealt with in part 2.

  2. Thank you for this tory. It is good to read about some of the houses in the town I grew up in....And speaking of that. Would you happen to know what they are doing with the big brick house on Prescott street? They say it to is a historical house. At one time they were wanting to save it and fix it up..But as of last I heard nothing had been done to it....I ask because at one time I lived in this rather large house....So if nothing else maybe you can direct me to someone who would know what is going on with it. It had been in the paper about a year or so ago...Thanks Lisa