Preserving the history of cobblestone architecture

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Roughly 13,000 years ago the glaciers covering our region began to shift and melt. In their wake, they would leave a historic body of water now known as Lake Iroquois.

As it subsided and exposed the land, the process created a number of unique geological characteristics. One of those was an overabundance of smooth, round stones that took their shape after years and years of being tossed in a natural rock tumbler of shifting glacial remains.

Much later, in the early portion of the 19th century, some settlers to the region would begin prepping that land for farming. While tilling, they discovered the soil here was riddled with those small, round stones.

With a seemingly endless supply of similarly shaped and sized stones, the idea to use them as building materials would soon catch on. Cobblestone masons would construct homes, municipal buildings, garden walls, and even a cobblestone tombstone in the town of Meridian—thought to be the only one in the country.

The concept for cobblestone masonry wasn’t new to the world of course, but the bounty of cobblestones in the region south of Lake Ontario offered a great opportunity.

As a result of that architectural trend, our region now has the largest collection of cobblestone structures  in the nation. It’s estimated that more than 1,000 cobblestone structures have been built in the United States, and approximately 700 of those exist within an hour’s drive of the city of Rochester.

A cobblestone home.

A recent project of local volunteers and organizations has attempted to preserve the legacy of all those sites in an online database that will soon be unveiled to the public.

Working together

In 1960 a group formed in the town of Childs to preserve the Cobblestone Universalist Church and District No. 5 Schoolhouse, also a cobblestone building. In the decades since, the Cobblestone Society and Museum on Route 104 in Orleans County has become a growing force in historic preservation efforts, particularly when it comes to cobblestone structures.

Not only do they provide tours of the historic buildings on site, but the museum has become a destination for those doing research on local history and cobblestone architecture. Adding to their portfolio of services, the Cobblestone Society and Museum is one of the groups helping to make the Cobblestone Info Base a reality.

The concept for the database evolved from a conversation when Cynthia Howk, architectural research coordinator at the Landmark Society of Western New York, shared some photos from their library with Erin Anheier, president of the Cobblestone Society and Museum.

“I thought it would be wise to digitize the photos for preservation purposes and also wanted to add that data to the Cobblestone Society’s Resource Center,” Anheier says.

But the process of digitizing old photos is more involved than simply scanning them and saving the files to a server. Anheier consulted with Greg Lawrence, an artist in Holley who specializes in the restoration and digitization of historic photographs.

Laying the foundation

When he was first approached about digitizing the photos, Lawrence presented the idea of taking things a step further.

The idea was born for a publicly accessible database that included modern and historic photos, maps, personal stories, and historic records for each and every cobblestone structure in the region.

 “Being available as a worldwide presence from the Cobblestone Society and Museum website, the Cobblestone Info Base is an effective tool to promote interest in the educational mission of the museum, and to generate support to strengthen the museum and broaden its scope,” Lawrence says.

The public database won’t just be available for research, but also to receive contributions and information.

Without a budget, the entire initiative is fueled by the passion and hard work of those volunteers who are striving to make it a reality. Lawrence estimates that he has logged about 1,500 hours so far in building the website. Central New York-based cobblestone blogger Richard Palmer has provided photos, newspapers clippings, and other information. The Milne Library at SUNY Geneseo has allowed the inclusion of some materials from their library.

Much like the intricate pattern of a cobblestone facade, this database is the sum of all its parts. When mortared together in its entirety, the result will be a solid structure for all to enjoy.

Currently the Cobblestone Info Base is available to view in its beta version on the Cobblestone Society and Museum website. It is expected to be released in its final form with a public unveiling sometime this spring or summer, though it’s expected that as a living resource, the information will continue to grow for years to come. 

Chris Clemens is the creator and publisher of Exploring Upstate, a blog about the discovery of local history, culture, travel and all that makes Upstate New York the perfect place to explore. If you’re interested in contributing information to the database, you can contact the museum at 585-589-9013.

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