The impressive limestone mansion, now called The 1890 House, was once the residence of the 19th century industrialist Chester Franklin Wickwire. Secure with the success of his business, Chester turned his attention to the construction of a new family residence. According to a family story, an immense stone mansion with towers and stained glass windows caught Chester’s eye when he visited New York City in June 1888. Constructed for James A. Bailey, partner in the famed Barnum & Bailey Circus, the mansion integrated elements of the Chateauesque style with those of Romanesque. Chester was so impressed with this grand house that he commissioned its architect, S.B. Reed, to design his new home as a mirror image of the Bailey mansion.
Construction of the Wickwire residence began in December 1888, with Chester personally supervising much of the work. Like the Bailey Mansion, the residence incorporated up-to-date technology for the late 19th century with central heating, indoor plumbing, and a few electrical lights. Its tasteful interior was decorated in the height of Gilded Age fashion.
Two decorating firms, J.B. Tiffany of New York City and Henry C. Allewelt & Sons of Syracuse, coordinated the colors and textures of the interior to produce a lasting impression of elegance. Belcher Mosaic Glass Company designed the elaborate and intricate stained glass throughout the home. A woven wire design, embossed on doorknobs, latches, and hinges, added a unique personal touch to the home, serving as a visual reminder of the industrial success that made Chester’s house possible.
On June 1, 1890, after 18 months of intensive work, Chester, his wife Ardell, and their young sons, Charles and Frederic, moved into the new residence. The spacious rooms not only proved ideal for entertaining, but they also provided quiet refuge from the hectic pace of the factory and a comfortable setting for Chester and Ardell to raise their family.
Chester Wickwire’s elegant stone mansion was testimony to the secure future he sought to provide for his wife and sons. His commitments, however, extended beyond the mansion, the family for which it was built, and the industry that made it possible. A prominent civic leader, he gave generously of his time and wealth to support many organizations in Cortland, including Cortland Hospital and the Presbyterian Church. When Chester died suddenly in 1910, he was remembered by his contemporaries as “quiet and modest, simple and sincere, kindly and genuine. His word was never given to be broken, and his sympathies and acts were always on the side of that which was straight and square and right.”
Ardell continued to live in the mansion until her death in late 1915. For the next seven years the mansion remained vacant, since both Charles and Frederic had already established households of their own along Tompkins Street.
Then, in 1923, Frederic and his family decided to return and live in the mansion. Before the move, however, architect Carl Clark was commissioned to supervise renovations and redecorating to “modernize” the Victorian mansion to 20th century standards of design, comfort, and convenience. Sadly, just six years after moving into the mansion, Frederic died at the age of 46. His widow, Marian Goodrich Wickwire, continued to live in the mansion with their four children- Chester, Cynthia, Lyman, and Winthrop. In 1931, Marian married C. Leonard O’Connor, a local attorney, who died in 1971. At the time of Marian's death in 1973, she had lived in the mansion longer than any other residents, 50 years, that began in 1923.
Following Marian’s death, the contents of the house were sold at auction and the house was put up for sale. A generous gift from the J.M. McDonald Foundation enabled the Landmark Society of Cortland County to buy the house and open it to the public in 1975 as The 1890 House Museum and Center for Victorian Arts. Since that time, the board of trustees, staff, and a core of dedicated volunteers have made a long term commitment to restore the mansion to the Victorian and Gilded Age elegance Chester and Ardell would have enjoyed.