Downtown Lancaster boasts what could be an impressive showpiece just off Central Avenue.
The 121-year-old former home of Dr. Samuel Potter still has a stately presence, complete with a portico and widow’s walk and stunning leaded front glass windows.
But stand just a few steps from the front door and take a closer look. What unfolds is an extensive history of neglect.
Welcome to the town’s history museum at 40 Clark St. – the centerpiece of the Central Avenue Historic District.
It has been at least 20 years since any substantial work was done on the home. The Lancaster Historical Society, based in the museum, raised $28,000 back then for exterior restorations that were the town’s responsibility.
Now, some predict the long-overdue exterior restoration and repair work easily amounts to more thousands of dollars’ worth of improvements.
“It needs something more than a paint job,” said Town Parks Crew Chief Mark D. Lubera. “Do I think it should be preserved? Absolutely. It’s an old heritage building and more than likely, it will be saved.”
What once was undoubtedly a charming portico isn’t so charming anymore: It now leans away from the front of the home, roof rotting and birds nesting above the front arched window in a rotting gutter.
“The whole portico is shot,” said Terry Wolfe, vice president of the Lancaster Historical Society, which has occupied the town-owned building since 1987. “My fear is, someone will come in and say the whole front of the building is shot.”
The front porch is much the same. So are the porch spindles and railings, which show clear evidence of long-term deterioration. Spindles on the front stairway’s third step are no longer attached to the porch floor and flap in the wind. Two spindles are gone.
Then there’s the light brown duct tape holding some of the front railing together.
Wobbly and rickety, the main porch is falling apart, with gray paint peeling off the porch steps.
“It belongs to the town, and the town should fix it,” Wolfe said. “But they just haven’t cared. It is what it is. ”
Built in 1895, a year after a devastating village fire destroyed much of downtown Lancaster, it was the Potter family home and included his medical office. The doctor, who also served as the school superintendent, had the home built on Broadway at the site of what now is the Broadway Deli.
Inherited by his daughter, Fanny Potter Eaton, the home was relocated in 1940 to Clark Street. She left the family home to the town to become a public library, which it was until 1973.
Senior citizens then used it as a meeting place from 1977 to 1983. The town then closed the building for a while and rehabilitated it. It wasn’t until 1987 that it was dedicated as the Lancaster Historical Society Museum.
Today, the house also is missing its authentic black shutters, which the town removed about 10 years ago and hasn’t replaced.
The Historical Society is far from happy about the appearance of Lancaster’s own “Smithsonian.” Rich in history with a treasure-trove of historical nuggets and artifacts – including what’s believed to be the Opera House’s original piano dating to the 1800s – the building is equally rich in neglect.
Historical Society members say the visiting public complains regularly about the home.
“It’s very bad. People ask us why the porch isn’t fixed,” said Marie B. Schu, secretary of the society. “People come to visit, and go, ‘Ew.’ It’s in deplorable condition.”
But slowly, the museum’s condition is has been moving from the back burner and onto the radar screen of the town and village Historic Preservation Commission.
The town recently hired an architectural firm to do a conditions report to determine what the museum needs on its exterior and interior building systems, items the town is responsible for. The society takes care of interior updates as part of its $1 yearly rental agreement with the town.
“It needs money. We need to get some money to make things happen over there,” said architect Michael J. Meyer, chairman of the Historic Preservation Commission. “What needs to be done are some life safety issues they should want to address pretty quickly, or the portico will be falling down. A building then becomes unusable if the portico comes down.”
The last time a report was done on the home was in 2007, identifying nearly $20,000 of needed repairs.
Many hope the home is eligible for grant funding since it is part of the Central Avenue Historic District, which is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Despite having been moved from Broadway, the building should qualify for grants, Meyer says. Town leaders, Meyer and a grant writer are meeting soon about the museum’s needs.
“This building is an important piece of our historic fabric, and a valuable town resource as it contains an extensive collection of our town’s history,” Meyer wrote in a February 2015 letter to the town out of concern about the building’s deterioration. … As it is a prominent historic building, a level of pride and good stewardship by the town is expected.”
Wolfe couldn’t agree more. “It really is a landmark. It’s the center of the business district,” she said. “When it was built, it was one of a row of stately homes along Broadway.”
Lubera is hopeful of progress. “It has been an issue for years and now, at least, the current administration is trying to set the track straight to at least get some grants,” he said.
Newly elected Supervisor Johanna M. Coleman remembers walking as a child to story hour in the building’s former life as a library.
“Before it gets too out of hand, it needs to be fixed,” she said. “It’s very important. It’s something we need to look at and refurbish what we can.”