As I strolled through downtown, I could almost feel the presence of author Samuel Clemens, even though he has been gone a century. This year, 2010, marks the 100th anniversary of the death of Clemens, more commonly known as Mark Twain.
The author was a familiar figure in Elmira during the summer months, when he and his wife, Olivia, spent time with her family, the Langdons. While visiting here, Twain wrote a number of his most famous works, including "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer," "The Adventurers of Huckleberry Finn" and "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court."
The Near Westside, where Clemens spent much of his time, has about 480 homes and is reputed to have the highest concentration of Victorian houses of any neighborhood east of the Mississippi. This 20-block area, bordered by the Chemung River, College Avenue, Second Street and Hoffman Street, was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1983.
While you could walk around the neighborhood yourself, the best way to see it is with guide Samuel Draper, who has been giving tours of this district for more than 20 years.
Going on one of Draper's tours is like being shown around town by a friend. Everyone we met on the street seemed to know him by name, and he is most knowledgeable about both the architecture and the folk history of the area.
My husband and I waited for Draper outside the former Mark Twain Hotel, which is now a mixed-use building of office space and apartments. Built in 1929, it was a luxury hotel that featured white-gloved waiters in its elegant dining room.
We spotted Draper coming about a block away, wearing a white hat and sport coat, similar to Twain's trademark apparel. He ushered us to the second floor, housing a small museum. As we exited the elevator, Draper proudly pointed out the woodwork, which he had refinished. In addition to being a tour guide, he is specializes in the restoration of vintage buildings.
A mural depicts a Mississippi steamboat scene from Huck Finn. The museum contains original place settings from the dining room, vintage photos and some of the hotel's original furnishings. The hotel was so well known in its day that in September 1965, Robert Kennedy kicked off his Senate campaign here.
Our next stop was the Park Church. The congregation was first organized in the 1840s as an Independent Congregational Church (better known as the anti-slavery church) but is now affiliated with the United Church of Christ.
In the mid-1850s, the Rev. Thomas Beecher, brother of author Harriet Beecher Stowe, became pastor. Beecher became a close friend of Clemens and often played billiards with him on the table now located in the church's library. Beecher also officiated at the wedding of Samuel and Olivia.
The existing church, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, was built in 1874. The Beechers lived on the third floor, and the large second floor parlor was used for community meetings and other gatherings. The library off the parlor once served as Elmira's first public library. Draper pointed out the melodeon in the corner of the parlor, which once belonged to Harriet Beecher Stowe.
Across the street is a shopping plaza, built on the site of the former Langdon family mansion. It was demolished in 1930s after falling into disrepair.
Draper pointed to an 1832 Federal-style home at 408 West Water St. which has a cistern in the backyard that was rumored to be a hiding spot on the Underground Railroad. The 140-year-old Japanese maple in the front yard was brought here via the now filled in Chemung Canal.
A few doors down, the Painted Lady Bed & Breakfast, an 1875 Second Empire style Victorian, offers four guest rooms plus a two-room suite. Innkeepers Butch and Marilyn Monroe gave us a quick tour. The parlor has a tufted-satin ceiling; and there is an oak paneled billiard room and numerous fireplaces. The dining room has sliding doors with etched glass panels and a unique chandelier that has provisions for electricity, gas and candles.
A number of homeowners in the district have agreed to let Draper occasionally bring guests into their houses, decorated indoors and out, according to the season.
We saw the Blandsfords' home, where the couple pointed out their restoration work and their rare Tiger Oak fireplace mantle.
Further up the street, Draper pointed out a circa 1890 home at 411 Church St. It was the first home in Elmira to have electricity. It has a sad story associated with it. As the home was being built, the fiancee of the man building it died tragically. The relief on the front of the home was made in her image.
Jackson Richardson, a boot and shoe manufacturer who was Elmira's richest businessman, built a home in 1890 for the vice president of his company on this street. It now houses an Irish gift shop
When the walking portion of our tour ended, we inquired about where the Clemenses are buried. Draper offered to accompany us to Woodlawn Cemetery, where Samuel and Olivia Clemens, along with their children, son-in-law and granddaughter, are buried in the Langdon family plot.
Clemens got his pen name "Mark Twain" from a term that was used on the Mississippi to indicate the depth of the river. The height of the monument near his grave is the height of the measurement mark twain.
Our next stop was the Mark Twain study, located on the campus of Elmira College. The octagon shaped building was a gift to Twain from his sister-in-law and her husband, built in 1874 at their farm, Quarry Farm. It was moved to the campus in 1952. During the summer months the study is open for docent-led tours.
Draper has a number of special tours planned in 2010 to commemorate the 100th year anniversary of Twain's demise. Starting in spring, every Friday and Saturday at 11 a.m. he will have a regularly scheduled "Mark Twain River Town Tour" of downtown Elmira. A Victorian Ladies and Gentlemen tour of Elmira, complete with costumed docents, is planned for late June or early July. Of course, he will be conducting tours by appointment, as he usual.
>If you go
Elmira is in Chemung County, about three hours southeast of Buffalo. From Buffalo take the I-90 (NYS Thruway) to the I-390 South. Follow that until it becomes the I-86 and head east. Get off at exit 56.
Historic Near Westside (607-732-1436; www.historicnearwestside.com); tours Friday and Saturday at 11 a.m., April through October, other times by appointment. Group and individual tours are available.
Park Church, 208 Gray St., 607-733-9104; www.theparkchurch.org.
Painted Lady B&B, 520 West Water St. 607-732-7515; www.thepaintedlady.net.
Mark Twain Hotel, West Gray and North Main Street; museum is every day, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Woodlawn Cemetery, 1200 Walnut St., 607-732-0151; www.friendsofwoodlawnelmira.org.