When is a house just half a house?

22 Oct

You might have noticed the recent “Bit of Webster History” feature I wrote for the Webster Museum when it was published in the Webster Herald and the weekly Town newsletter. It told the story of two houses, which now sit across from one another on Corning Park in the Village of Webster, and how they used to be one house.

I heard the story from my friend Karen a few years ago and it has fascinated me ever since. I knew it was going to be one of my first History Bit features when I took over the reins a few months ago.

The story reads:

Anyone who’s ever walked or driven down Corning Park in the Village of Webster probably hasn’t noticed anything unusual about the houses on that peaceful little street. However, two of those houses, which stand across the street from one another, do have a curious history: in the early 1900s, they used to be one house. 

Around 1859, a spacious boarding house was built at 71 Corning Park, to serve students from the adjacent Webster Academy. The Academy and boarding house were discontinued in 1876 when the Union Free School was established, and for the next 50 years, 71 Corning Park remained a two-family dwelling. In 1928 it was purchased by Gordon Witmer and Amos Taylor, who divided it into two units. The larger portion remained at 71 Corning Park, and the smaller north wing was moved across the street to 76 Corning Park. 

Unfortunately, no photos of the original boarding house have ever been found, but the two, now separate residences, still stand across the street from each other on Corning Park. Additions and renovations have changed their appearance significantly from when they were one house in the early 1900s. But if you look carefully and use your imagination, maybe you can picture what they looked like together. 

For the sake of newsprint space, I try to keep these bits fairly short. But it was story that so intrigued me that I wanted to dive deeper into it for my blog. So several days ago sat down for coffee with Dave and Kathy Whitlock, longtime owners of 76 Corning Park, the smaller, former north wing of the house. They provided some interesting details I hadn’t come across in my earlier research.

Kathy first gave me a quick tour, explaining the many renovations and additions completed since they bought the home in 1965. I learned about the huge, 7-inch beam holding up the living room which still has bark on it, and how some of the original beams are charred, perhaps from a fire at the adjacent boarding house before the wing was moved. A few hand-wrought nails, found during a renovation, are displayed in a small shadowbox.

Dave and Kathy think they know why it was divided. When the two-family home was bought in 1928 by Gordon Witmer and Amos Taylor, Witmer — who was getting married — wanted a separate house for himself and his bride. So he divided it, moving the north wing directly across the street, so that the back of the house became the front, and the front the back. (Too bad no photos of that move have been found.) Witmer was going to move into that half, but as it turned out, the new, smaller, house sold first, so they moved into the larger half.

There’s a woman buried in the back yard of 76 Corning. The Williams family, who lived there decades ago, had a relative who would visit from England. At the time, the land was a huge apple orchard (The Corning Farm). The woman used to love sitting under an apple tree in the back yard and drinking beer, and asked to be buried there. The apple tree is gone, but her ashes are still there.

Dave also tells the story about how the man from whom they bought the house in 1965, a Mr. Jenkins, emphatically denied that it had once been connected to the house across the street. I would have thought that’d be a unique selling point for the property, but apparently he didn’t think so.

On a side note, I mentioned earlier that I heard about this story from my friend Karen. She remembers learning about the houses during a village tour her fourth grade class took decades ago. That tour has long been dropped from the elementary school curriculum, but maybe that decision should be reconsidered. After all, look at how much that little piece of Webster history interested that young person, and then me, and now you.

* * *

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(posted 10/22/2022)

4 Responses to “When is a house just half a house?”

  1. David Whitlock October 22, 2022 at 7:52 pm #

    This is great, Missy! Thanks for sending it. I’m sorry if we misled you about who’s living in the house across the street though. They aren’t Witmer descendants. The last Witmer to live there was actually Gordon’s widow who died many years ago. The Witmer descendants live in the big brick house two houses down from 71 Corning. That house was built by Gordon’s brother, Judge G. Robert Witmer, in 1930 and it’s his granddaughter and her family who live there now.
    I don’t know if you were planning on putting this in the Herald, but I just wanted to let you know this in case you still have time to take out the part about the descendants living in 71 Corning.
    Thanks again, Missy. It’s been fun for us to talk about the house and equally nice getting to know you. Keep up your good work.

    • websterontheweb October 22, 2022 at 8:24 pm #

      Thanks for the clarification, Dave. I can fix that!

  2. Larry Veley October 22, 2022 at 8:44 pm #

    Great piece of history

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