Wooster’s Condemned: 311 S. Walnut St.

The house at 311 S. Walnut St. represents a Gothic Revival style of architecture.

The house at 311 S. Walnut St. represents a Gothic Revival style of architecture.

The charming slate-blue colored house at 311 S. Walnut street was condemned by the City of Wooster in 2012. The victim of a November 2009 alleged arson fire, after which the property owner made no attempt to repair the house and it has sat vacant and allowed to deteriorate. Looking at it from it’s front on S. Walnut street the house looks perfectly fine, just in need of a little TLC. However, if you peek over the fence-line on the north side of the house you will see a boarded-up window topped by black soot that reveals evidence of the fire in the back section of the house.
Evidence of a fire at 311 S. Walnut St. can be seen on the far right window near the back of the house.

Evidence of a fire at 311 S. Walnut St. can be seen on the far right window near the back of the house.

Architecturally it was designed in the Gothic Revival style and is one of the most architecturally engaging buildings on the city’s condemnation list. Of course, at this point in time it takes a bit of an imagination to envisage how it might have looked, as over time it has been stripped of it’s architectural nuances that would have showed off it’s original Gothic Revival characteristics. These types of homes typically have a “dollhouse” appearance with their steeply pitched roofs, front facing gables, pointed arch windows, and fairytale inspired “gingerbread” accents. This type of architecture was based on many of the characteristics found in castles, cathedrals, and grand estate properties of Medieval Europe. This style became popular in America throughout the mid-19th century especially after architects Alexander Jackson Davis and Andrew Jackson Downing authored and published a set of house plan books: Rural Residences (1837), Cottage Residences (1842), and The Architecture of Country House (1850) that spread across the country.

House drawn with Gothic Revival Style.

The author’s poor rendering of how the house might have looked with it’s original Gothic Revival accents. Note no attempt was made to draw Gothic Revival porch accents which would have been elaborately embellished with carved columns and flattened pointed arches, plus the original porch likely extended across the whole front of the house.

Trying to pinpoint exactly when the house at 311 S. Walnut street was built could not be easily determined, but a best guess estimate after looking at the county real-estate records, maps, census records, and old Wooster City Directories puts it at sometime in 1874. Furthermore, it is believed that it was one of the earliest forms of a house duplex built in Wooster. Meaning it was originally built as a two section house meant to house two families under one roof. However, this idea could be totally off-base and somebody might leave a comment explaining how they worked on the house dividing it into two apartment sections back in 1900-and-something. However, below are the factors that led to this duplex idea.
Early Wooster Map

An early map that shows how the block on the west side of S. Walnut St. was originally laid out.

The land this house now sits on went through many real estate transactions and owners over time. Only the information that is relevant to when and how it came to be developed will be examined here. Which leads us to a real estate transaction in 1849 in which Ephriam Quinby Jr. bought lot #366, also known as a part of out-lot #20, from John W. McMillan for $250 which finally gave Quinby ownership of this whole block of land: #366, #367, and #368. Quinby simply held on to the undeveloped property until 1869 when demand and value for real estate in Wooster started to climb and he began to divide up and lot off this land after it became a part of the City of Wooster to profit from his real estate investment.

Recreation of Caldwells 1873 Map

This map drawing is based on Caldwells 1873 map and shows how Ephriam Quinby divided and sold off his block of land on the west side of S. Walnut St. Note only one house was built by 1873.

Quinby sold a part of lots #366 and #367 to David Humphrey for $450 in 1869. Humphrey then sold the property to George B. Christian in 1870 for $550. In 1871, George Christian sold the lot now re-numbered and known as #1315 to John C. Johnston for $500. Johnston quickly turned around and sold the lot later in 1871 to Joseph Chambers for $450. In 1872, Chambers sold lot #1315 to Henry S. Childs and William B. Whitaker for the same amount he bought it for: $450.

After doing a bit of genealogy research it turns out that after Henry S. Childs first wife, Katherine R. (Henry) Childs died in 1867, he remarried to Charlotta “Lottie” L. Whitaker in 1868, who was a daughter of William B. and Elizabeth Whitaker. So, the family in-laws bought property together in 1872. However, later in 1872 Henry and Lottie Childs sold their share of the property back to William and Elizabeth Whitaker for $1,200 which is more than twice of what they paid for the property. This might lead you to believe that the house was built during this time, but Caldwells 1873 Wayne County and Wooster City map does not show a house on the lot.

What may have happened is that the Whitaker’s obtained a line of credit to build a house. History shows that right before the Panic of 1873 set-in that land values had skyrocketed all across the country and borrowers voraciously assumed more and more easily obtainable credit, often using un-built or half-built houses as collateral. The recent modern-day banking and real-estate market crash was eerily similar to what happened in 1873 and the Whitaker’s became a victim of their time. Wayne County records show that the Whitaker’s along with Joseph Chambers, M.H. Griffith, James Roberts, and Milton Butler, under the firm name of Griffith, Roberts & Butler, and James and Eleanor Childs were taken to court in 1875 for the sum of $1,040 and interest thereon from July 5, 1874 at the rate of 8% per annum and foreclosure of mortgage of premises. So it seems Griffiths, Roberts, and Butler ran some type of financial services that the Whitaker’s and Childs’ had contracted with and later collapsed after the banking system was in shambles during the Panic of 1873. Note that James Childs was Henry Childs brother. These family relationships leads one to believe that the house was possibly built to house two families as the Whitaker’s could have occupied one side and the Childs family on the other side. Or perhaps the two Childs brothers split the house between their two families and the in-laws were simply trying to provide financing.

After the foreclosure case was processed the property was sold by the Wayne County Sheriff at public auction in 1875 for $1,449.50 and bought by James B. Childs and his wife Eleanor showing they were able to keep the property. The fact that the property was appraised at and sold for more than the mortgage owed on it when sold at auction, plus the fact that James and Eleanor Childs secured financing to buy it back at auction leads one to believe the house was standing on the property and they were likely living in it by 1875 and did not want to lose their home. By 1880 the Federal Census shows that there were multiple generations of Childs family members living in a house at 311 S. Walnut street.

Recreation of Caldwells 1897 Map

This map based on Caldwells 1897 maps shows there were now three houses standing on the west side block of S. Walnut St. It is believed James B. Childs built the house on lot #1315 in 1874 and William Childs or Henry S. Childs built the house on lot #366 in 1877.

According to Wayne Ancestors newsletter Vol. 15, Issue 3 dated Jul/Aug/Sep 2005 the first Childs family member to settle in Wayne County, Ohio was Walter Childs. He was stockman and trader who traveled all throughout the Western Reserve area buying and selling various commodities and especially dealing in furs. He settled in Wayne County in 1802 when he traded land he owned in Alexandria, Virginia for some land that would later become a part of the site that is the present City of Wooster. Walter Childs started a small trading post business when Wooster was little more than an Indian trail crossing point.
Local newspaper ad for William Childs store from 1836.

Local newspaper ad for William Childs store from 1836.

His son William D.K. Childs was born in Wooster in 1804 and learned the trading profession from his father and later established a general store in downtown Wooster on Liberty St. in the 1830s. William Childs would marry Barbara Bleim and they would have 7 children together: Julia Childs (Doty), William T. Childs, James B. Childs, Edward Childs, Henry S. Childs, Flora V. Childs (Reed), and William Albert Childs who died young in 1873. James B. Childs established his own business in downtown Wooster: a mens clothing store. His brother Edward Childs also ran a shoe store in downtown Wooster for a time.

The Childs family were a close knit family. They did everything together. They worked in business together, they lived together, and in some cases next to each other. Henry Childs acting as an agent for his father William bought the lots south of #1315 and built the house located on lot #366 around 1877. After William’s death in 1879 Henry and Lottie Childs would buy this house and property at public auction to settle the estate of William Childs in 1880.

James B. Childs married Eleanor Kammerer, the daughter of the minister of the German Reformed Church in Wooster. They had a reported 5 children together: Robert A. Childs, Thomas J. Childs, Walter T. Childs, Clarence C. Childs (Clarence would later win a bronze medal at the 1912 Olympics), and Alice Childs who died young of “consumption” at the age of 22. Today, “consumption” is known to be tuberculosis. It is believed that the James B. Childs packed-up and moved his family from Wooster to Syracuse, New York in the mid-1880s to try and find a climate that might reduce the symptoms Alice suffered from her disease as that was the recommended treatment at the time. However, the new climate did not help and Alice died within a year of moving to New York with her family. Then fate dealt the family another devastating blow when the matriarch of the family Eleanor Childs unexpectedly dropped dead on April 2, 1893.

Local newspaper ad for James B. Childs clothing store from 1878.

Local newspaper ad for James B. Childs clothing store from 1878.

Like most families there were squabbles. One such squabble landed in the Court of Common Pleas with a civil action on January 30, 1894 when James B. Childs filed a petition to partition lots #1315 and #367 against himself and his older sons, Robert and Thomas, on behalf of his minor sons Walter and Clarence and himself as a widower and guardian of the minors. The best guess as to what this was all about was that Robert and Thomas were likely living in the Wooster house while their father, mother, and youngest two brothers moved to Syracuse, NY. When the mother died, their father James likely needed money and/or wanted to settle the estate of his wife who had ownership rights on the Wooster property, and took his eldest sons to Court to try and split the property and sell it off. However, things did not go exactly as James may have liked: the Court decided the property could not be partitioned “without manifest injury” and set the value of the property at $1,100 for lots #367 and #1315.

Thomas Childs elected to take the real estate at the value set by the Court Commissioners ruling and paid the taxes, paid the Sheriff the court costs, and paid James B. Childs his dower interest in money, and paid Robert A. Childs and James B. Childs as guardian of Walter and Clarence Childs their respective proportions of the appraised value of the land and house. Thomas Childs now owned the house at 311 S. Walnut street and the land directly south on lot #367, free and clear. Later in 1894, James B. Childs would move from Syracuse, New York to Fremont, Ohio where he opened-up the Childs Clothing and Shoe store that would operate there until 1934. Showing that there must not have been too many hard feelings after the Court case James would later take Walter and Thomas Childs as business partners in his store at Fremont.

On both sides of the house note that it has double arched windows laid into the gables. Technically these should have been pointed arched windows but the builders may have simply been making due with what they could obtain in rural Ohio in the 1870s or they may have laid a cut-out layer of wood over the windows to create a faux-pointed arch effect that has long since been destroyed.

On both sides of the house note that it has double arched windows laid into the gables. Technically these should have been pointed arched windows but the builders may have simply been making due with what they could obtain in rural Ohio in the 1870s or they may have laid a cut-out layer of wood over the windows to create a faux-pointed arch effect that has long since been destroyed.

Less than three months after obtaining ownership of lots #367 and #1315 with the house, Thomas Childs sold the property to John V. Smith and his wife Laura for $1,150. The Smith’s lived in the house until 1905 when they sold the property to Herbert and Clara Stilson for $1,150. The Stilson’s sold the house to Effie M. Skelley and her husband Vernon Skelley for $1,250 in 1909. Effie (Mann) Skelley had grown up on this section of S. Walnut street as her parents, David and Mary Mann had lived in the house across the street from 311 S. Walnut street. Vernon Skelley was the city auditor for two-terms, and was once a candidate for county auditor but lost. He was printer by trade and began this occupation at the Experiment Station (O.A.R.D.C), and became foreman at the Derr Printing company, and had been employed at the Collier Printing company a few months before his death in 1934.

The records indicate the Skelley’s sold the property to Clarence L. Dike in 1912 for $1,800. Dike sold the property to Earl A. Snyder, a foreman at the Republican Printing Co. in 1914 for $773 according to the 85-cent conveyance fee stamp on the deed. Members of the Snyder family would own the house for the next 30 years. Earl Snyder would sell the house to his father and mother, Wilmot and Alice Snyder in 1919 for $1,818 recorded by a deed with a $2 conveyance fee stamp. After Wilmot Snyder’s wife, Alice, died he would transfer the property back to his son and wife, Earl and Edna Snyder in 1941. They would keep the house until 1944 when they sold it to Tella Oberdusky for $5,000.

Tella Oberdusky kept the property until 1962 when she sold it to Warner and Florence Folk for $7,500. The Folk’s would keep the house for the next 36 years until they sold it to Daniel and Kathy Sigler in 1998 for $20,000. In 2003 the Sigler’s took advantage of the growing real-estate bubble and sold the property to the Legacy Financial Advisor for $58,500. Presumably after the real-estate market began to crash the property went through a couple of quit-claim transfers: Legacy Financial Advisor to EPS Holdings LLC in 2005, then in March of 2006, EPS Holdings LLC to Gina L. Patterson. Who then sold it to Carl Houk and etal partners in September of 2006 for $40,000.

On November 6, 2009 Carl Houk and his Phoenix, Arizona based Indymac Mortgage Co. saw their real estate investment and rental property literally go up in smoke. A fire was reported at 7:21 a.m. by a neighbor and heavy smoke and flames were escaping through a first floor window when firefighters arrived a minute later. The fire had progressed up a second floor stairwell and smoke was showing at the eaves before firefighters could extinguish the blaze by 8:16 a.m. An investigation ensued and the fire was believed to have been deliberately set. Damage to the house at 311 S. Walnut street was estimated to be at $27,000 against the home’s value of $40,000.

Nobody has yet to be charged for setting this fire and the investigation is still open, but is a cold-case at this point in time. Carl Houk apparently has no plans to fix this historic house and the City of Wooster moved to condemn the house in 2012 and plans on razing it sometime in 2013 using money from the Moving Ohio Forward Demolition Grant Program. These Grant funds come from a state and federal settlement with the nation’s five largest mortgage services: Bank of America Corporation, JPMorgan Chase & Co., Wells Fargo & Company, Citigroup, Inc., and Ally Financial, Inc. (formerly GMAC) over foreclosure abuses and fraud, and unacceptable mortgage practices. The money was distributed to each of the counties in the state based on foreclosure figures and Wayne County was awarded $426,204 for demolition purposes. How much of that money will be used in demolishing 311 S. Walnut St. is unknown at this time.

This will be the last article in the series on the condemned houses of Wooster. The number of condemned houses keeps growing and the amount of research involved in finding out about each of the properties is more than this volunteer has time for in 2013! However, if anybody has a history on any of the remaining condemned houses please send it to us as we would love to publish any local history you are willing to share. The remaining City of Wooster condemned houses that are known at this point in time are:

  • 1715 Smithville Western Rd.
  • 603 E. Henry St.
  • 632 E. Henry St.
  • 943 E. Henry St.
  • 129 E. Vine St.
  • 319 W. Vine St.
  • possibly 318 Columbus Ave. (a decision was still pending on this one until Nov. 2012)

Hope you have enjoyed this series of articles and will find something good to remember about each of these local houses that will soon be gone forever. They were not always dilapidated, or havens for illicit activities. They were once the dream come true, lovingly cared for, and simply “home” to somebody.

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