As mansions go, the three-story red brick specimen near The University of Akron at East Mill and South Union streets is a beauty that I’ve admired since I came to work in Akron in 1970 and remembered as being the home of the Akron Odd Fellows lodge.
Seeing it up close on a short walk around the block only improved my appreciation of the Second Empire-style structure, which lawn signs identified as the Andrew Jackson House and listed as its new tenants the GAR and Knight foundations.
It took artist Chuck Ayers to inform me that Akron’s Andrew Jackson was not the one who made it to the White House, but rather a local businessman whose partners included William Buchtel, brother of college founder John R. Buchtel, and industrialist John H. Hower, builder of the Fir Hill mansion that bears his name.
We took in the vista along Mill Street before mounting the porch steps to learn more about the mansion. Central-Hower High School sprawled west along Mill and the First Merit Tower loomed in the distance.
The Stars and Stripes flew from a flagpole on the Jackson House front lawn, a street sign hung askew on its bent steel pole near the curb and we were serenaded by bells heralding the arrival of noon at two neighboring churches, the First United Methodist next door to the west and the First Congregational at Union and East Market Streets.
On the mansion’s west side we saw a crew installing what looked like specially tailored huge storm windows from a cherry picker.
Next to the front entrance we noted a metal plaque that informed us the Jackson House has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places by the U.S. Department of the Interior.
The GAR Foundation employee who answered the door politely deferred questions to her superior, Christine Mayer, the foundation’s chief operating officer and legal counsel, and to the owners, the Chesler Group Inc., Cleveland real estate developers specializing in historic restoration. So we concluded our leg work just as the Goodyear blimp droned into view in the sky above and completed our quest for details by phone.
We reached developer Michael Chesler first and in a brief telephone interview learned he had bought the mansion for $392,000 in June of 2007 “after exhausting negotiations” with Alex Simon, who had owned it since the late 1980s and had been asking more than $1 million.
Restoration was his specific goal, Chesler said of the landmark, which had been condemned and vacant for 18 years, with the exception of homeless squatters who built fires inside to keep warm and essentially gutted it.
It was a sad state for what had been the home of two of Akron’s early businessmen. Andrew Jackson was a banker, a builder and the founder of two lumber companies. Around the turn of the century he sold the mansion to John T. Johnson, general superintendent of the B&O Railroad’s Akron division and the Cleveland Terminal and Valley Railroad. Johnson sold it to the Independent Order of Odd Fellows in 1918.
During Chesler’s restoration, which followed federal and state guidelines for historic buildings, the developer found the building contained many bronze hinges that date to 1869, the year after construction was started.
GAR official Mayer said the foundation had been eager to move back to downtown Akron from Fairlawn and that she and her associates were impressed by the vibrancy of the Jackson House and pleased with the revival of what she termed “an old treasure… We feel very privileged to be taking care of this space.”