Photo by Shane Wynn
Jan Brown knew she wanted the house after looking at the leaded glass window in front of the library.
Many of Akron's opulent old estates have become museums, office spaces or architectural firms. More than a few have been razed. Still, a surprising number of once-grand properties dot the urban landscape. Not all are mansions, but many are spacious dwellings built at the height of our city's "rubber boom" between 1902 and 1919.
Here's a look at two old gems-full of charm, rich in history and built to last. Who lives there now...how did they reclaim the space... and what's it like to own a little piece of history in the heart of the city?
The Hidden Retreat with a Spectacular Sunrise View
She wasn't impressed the first time Walter Wojno, her college sweetheart, took her to see the old brick house on Perkins Hill. It was built in 1912 as the Gate Lodge (a caretaker's home) on part of a historic property called Auld Farm. Walter bought it in 1947.
He thought it would be a good investment. She thought it needed an awful lot of work. "I told my mother I never saw such a horrible house in my life," Virginia Wojno-Forney recalls.
Because the home was built when electricity first came to town, an unreliable electrical system with gaslight backups in every fixture proved to be a challenge to comfortable living.
Initially, Walter rented the property to an architect and an interior designer. They rewired everything, converted the furnace from coal to gas and made a number of other practical and aesthetic changes to make the place more livable.
Walter and Virginia (married by this time) moved into the Gate Lodge in 1951. Their daughter grew up in the home, and Virginia has lived there ever since.
The original structure was not too large--just a living room, dining room and kitchen on the first floor plus four bedrooms and a bath upstairs. During their time together, the Wojnos added a music room and a breakfast room. Those additions went pretty smoothly.
It was a different story when they tried to install a whirlpool tub to the bathroom upstairs. Their dining room ceiling caved in, destroying their mahogany dining table and leaving the couple without a bathroom for three months while steel support beams were installed. Virginia still reels at the memory of being forced to rent a room at the motel next to St. Vincent's just to use its bathroom.
The home's exterior--all brick with the original slate roof--has required little maintenance over the years. The couple did add a decorative rod iron fence, rod iron window embellishments (for security) and rod iron exterior accents--all in keeping with the period décor of the original gate at the entrance to their property.
After Walter has passed away, Virginia remarried. Today, she and her husband Dr. Richard Forney live in the Gate House with their dog, Buddy. "Our closest neighbors are lions at the zoo," she says.
Majestic old trees and well-cared-for gardens give the 3 1/2- acre property the feel of a private retreat. The front yard on the hilltop is the ideal place to watch the sunrise.
Behind the house, a stone and brick patio and a rustic backyard gazebo add to the living space. A stone path weaves its way between trees. Outdoor sculptures grace both open and unexpected spaces.
Buddy's oversize doghouse, purchased from the sale at Stan Hywet last year, and a miniature model of the Mustill Store (given to Virginia by the Cascade Locks Park Association, which she founded) are vivid reminders of a woman who's still active in community affairs and who devotes much of her time to making our town a better place to live. "I'm bullish on Akron," she says.
Turns out the old property on Perkins Hill was a good investment after all.
Now... and Then
Hidden behind the massive trees on Perkins Hill, the century-old gate is your first clue to something grand from Akron's past. The Carriage House, probably twice the size of the Gate Lodge where the Wojno-Forney's live, still sits next door. But Auld Farm's sprawling manor house, built in 1902, was torn down in the 1960s to build Saferstein Towers senior citizens apartments.
Auld Farm was the home of Charles G. Raymond, a young executive at BF Goodrich and his wife, Mary Perkins Raymond, daughter of George Tod Perkins, BF Goodrich president. He was the grandson of Simon Perkins, Akron's founder.
The farm was also home to Akron's first golf course. The crude, nine-hole Portage Golf Club, built in 1894, used the John Brown House as its clubhouse. Renamed The Portage Country Club, it moved in 1905 to its current location at Twin Oaks and Portage Path.
Wojno-Forney traces the history of her property back as to Colonial times when George Washington came out to the Western Reserve as a surveyor. The 1789 westernmost boundary dividing the United States and Indian Territory runs right through the back yard.
The Georgian Revival on Diagonal Road
Living in the San Francisco Bay area, Steve and Jan Brown found their Georgian Revival (Colonial) home on the Internet. One of three properties they planned to tour when they visited Ohio between Christmas and New Years at the end of 2007, its inner-city location on Diagonal Road made it an unlikely choice.
Originally from Ohio, the Browns wanted to return to the state to be closer to Jan's family. Prices in California were skyrocketing, gasoline was $3.50 a gallon and the debt-heavy state was borrowing even more money. "It was time to go," Steve says.
The couple had hoped to find "something small in the country" probably an informal place on the water. They looked at a home on the Portage Lakes and another near Richfield. But the formal home on Diagonal Road won their affections from the moment they stepped through its threshold.
After spotting the fine leaded glass window in front of the library behind the entrance hall landing, Jan knew this was the house she wanted. With 13 rooms with 3 full bedrooms, 2 and a half baths and a sun room on a little over two acres, this 4483+ square foot home was oozing with old-world charm.
Knowing that whatever house they chose would need renovations anyway, they decided to go for one that was worth restoring. The original slate roof, copper downspouts, flat-arched, keystoned windows with shutters aligned at both stories were among its distinctive architectural features.
"It's got the elegance of an era that doesn't exist anymore," Jan says. "If it's been here for 100 years, it's not gonna fall down," she reasons.
The house was owned by a bank when the couple bought it for just over $200,000 in 2008. A property like this one on the West Coast would be well into the seven figures, they say.
Pretty much every spare moment for the past two years, the pair has worked on their house and its grounds with the help of Jan's brother-in-law, Lanny Steckel.
In addition to a massive clean up, tearing off many layers of old wallpaper and paint and tearing down lots of overgrown shrubs and trees, the couple completed a 15-month kitchen renovation and upgraded the heating and cooling systems. They added a rod iron fence and gates out front and are getting bids on replacing a portion of the exterior portico.
Their clean-up efforts earned them a beautification award from Keep Akron Beautiful last year.
Playing history detectives, the Browns have talked with their neighbors at the Summit County Historical Society, they've done some research on their own and they continue to uncover new pieces of the past right on the property.
Outside, they've found an old casing for a well which they believe was near a stable, a picnic area out back, a half-moon patio next to the house and a brick pathway that Steve calls his Akron archeology project. The position of their trees leads them to believe their property may have been a part of the old Portage Golf Club course. Inside, they discovered many original features and fixtures. A third-floor sink bowl, made in 1896, is just one example.
While some records show their home wasn't built until 1918, they believe it may have gone up more than a decade earlier. The original plans from the city were lost in a fire in 1942.
Living in what many people perceive to be a rough neighborhood was a concern for the couple before they moved in. They installed a good security system, are very pleased with the police patrol and have discovered that there's very little crime along their section of Perkins Hill.
Two active, friendly churches and the Saferstein Towers apartments are their closest neighbors. Their street is among the first streets to be plowed when it snows. On the down side, it's also on the ambulance path for both hospitals. Still, it's proven to be "a very comfortable neighborhood," Jan says.
Then... and Now
The Browns' new home has a rich and interesting history. It was built for descendants of the Hall family who opened the Cascade Store at the corner of Howard and Market streets in 1835. That location was known as Hall's Corner for nearly a hundred years.
Philander Hall, whom they believe lived in their home, is known for developing The Hall Park Allotment Historic District, a West Hill neighborhood on the National Register of Historic Places. This Oakdale Road development is marked by a number of great period homes in American Foursquare, Craftsman, Colonial and Medieval Revival styles. Its brick streets, gently rolling hills and mature trees have given it an enduring beauty.
R. G. Yeager, president of the C. H. Yeager Company, a popular Akron department store (which closed in 1968) bought the Diagonal Road property from the Hall family. The Yeagers lived there until the early 1970s, according to the Brown's research.
In the decades that followed, the property was home to the Lutheran Service League, the NAACP and the Area Agency on Aging. The building survived a fire in 2004. It was reclaimed for residential use by the Browns in 2008.