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Mysteries abound as couple unearths ruins of Lake Ontario estate

SOMERSET -- On the far eastern edge of Golden Hill State Park, captivating and ornate features hint at the elaborate estate that once stood on the bank of Lake Ontario.

From the curved-top terra cotta stucco-finished walls to the herringbone-design brick patio, from the rectangular fish pond with its frog fountain to the brick and stone wall whimsically inlaid with painted tiles and ornate designs, the remaining features hint at an era of opulent taste and lavish investment in what was once a summer estate.

The only part of this story as incredible as the survival of these evocative features after the state brought bulldozers onto the site in 1962 is the way they were rediscovered and reclaimed from the encroaching woods, underbrush and soil.

That work was done by hand, almost daily for the past year, by a couple from neighboring Medina who learned about the estate two years ago during an "I Love My Park Day."

With loppers, shovels, wheelbarrows and a prodigious amount of elbow grease, Mike and Cheryl Wertman have cleared the briars, brush, saplings and trash from much of the five-acre plot, exposing the walls, river stone pillars, a large stone barbecue and the other structures that remain.

[PHOTOS: Gallery of Drake House ruins in Somerset]

A brick and ceramic wall surrounding parts of the Drake House ruins. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

"This has been their little project," said Renee Campbell, who has worked at Golden Hill State Park for 17 years and been park manager for the past year. "We knew the wall was here and the fish pond was here, that the stone fireplace was here, but I never dreamed what they would be finding."

Most of the features, some of which were knocked down by the state bulldozers but not crushed or removed, were obscured and well on their way to being forgotten until the Wertmans came along.

In probably their most ambitious effort, they couple noticed a small cement curb near the shoreline and began to dig. Their excavation of 12 inches of soil uncovered a 50-foot-long smooth stone path, complete with an area for a seat with a view of the lake. The Wertmans believe that that path may have led to the original house on the site.

"We're hoping some of the foundation is still under there," said Mike Wertman, pointing to a large stone that they believe may have been the home's cornerstone.

"There are so many mysteries here," said Campbell. "There are more questions than answers," said Mike Wertman, a history major who works at the site almost every day.

In a 1990 article, then-Somerset Historian Lorraine G. Wayner recalled seeing the house on the property, a large two-story white frame house with an enclosed sun porch. Although the Wertmans and Campbell have found a few photos that show the house and some of the features on the grounds, they have appealed to the community to search family albums for more photos that would solve some of the mysteries of the property.

"All we need is a couple of pictures, and it will help us figure out what was here," said Cheryl Wertman.

Wayner also wrote two articles about the fascinating estate. She wrote that the land, originally owned by the Holland Land Co., was purchased by Stephen Jackson in 1834. By 1852, a farmer named Aaron Drake owned the land, and was documented as living there with his wife Lodeema as late as 1875, when Drake was 77.

Drake could not have owned the land any later than around 1900, but there is a gap in known records until Robert H. Newell, owner of the Newell shirt factory in Medina, bought it, reportedly around 1915 or 1916.

While Newell and his wife, Anna, lived there, the property boasted a spectacular rose garden, a sundial and a fishpond stocked with huge goldfish, according to Wayner, who visited as a child. She wrote, "I had never seen a sundial before. It was fascinating." She said the Newells had the estate's open-air "tearoom" built, of which only a solid herringbone-design brick floor remains.

Campbell has talked to several now-elderly people who recall that as children they were warned by their parents not to set foot on the property, but Wayner and others said that the Newells welcomed the neighbors onto the estate every July 4 for a fireworks display. A photo believed to be from 1922 shows a crowd of about 50 people identified as workers from the Newell shirt factory standing on the house's porch and lawn, the women in light-colored dresses and the men in light shirts, neckties and dark pants.

People said to be workers from the old Newell shirt factory in Medina gather at the former Drake House in a photo dated to 1922. Very few photos of the house exist, and fewer have been found of the ornate grounds. (Courtesy Alana Koneski)

On Feb. 26, 1936, Anna Newell died after 39 years of marriage. Two months later, her widower sold the property to Dr. Harry Parker, a Lockport physician.

The Lockport Union-Sun and Journal reported the purchase of the home by Parker on April 30, 1936. The brief article read: "Robert Newell has sold his Summer Home, on the lake shore, at the end of County Line Road, to Dr. Harry Parker of Lockport. Mr. Newell's beautiful flower gardens have been visited by persons from all states of the nation, who have been made welcome. Dr. Parker is making extensive renovations."

Little is known of the changes made by Parker, who became a physician in 1910. He lived on Lincoln Avenue in Lockport with his wife and two children and worked as a doctor for at least 50 years.

As the years passed, the land between the house and the lake was worn away by erosion. Ruth Porter, an earlier town historian who was born in 1901, wrote in 1986 that in her childhood she saw apple trees between the house and lake, and she was told that earlier, a small barn stood between the house and the lake.

Porter wrote, "Time has raised havoc with the shoreline. I can hardly believe what I see today, so much has been washed away by erosion cause by high water and storms on the lake. The yard of the old house, the apple trees and barn have all washed away and are now just memories."

On June 23, 1946, just over 10 years after Dr. Parker bought the estate, The News of the Tonawandas reported that the Bethesda Full Gospel Tabernacle in Tonawanda planned its camp meeting at "the newly purchased Camp Site" that was "formerly known as Dr. Parker's Summer Estate."

Grainy black-and-white photos from 1956 published in a 1986 church yearbook show the long stone walls in front of the house, the roofed tearoom, two Adirondack chairs under a tree, and plantings, including shrubbery, an arbor and a small raised urn planter.

Current Somerset Historian Peter Devereaux said that the last known owner before the state took over in 1962 was Mieczyslaw Konczakowski of Buffalo, who, along with his wife Marya, bought the estate in 1958, according to tax records. Konczakowski, a Polish immigrant, operated four Buffalo theaters -- the Senate, the Circle, the Marlowe and the Regent -- before his death in 1959.

Campbell said a family named Thiele operated a duck farm on the site briefly until the early 1960s.

By the time the state bought the property in 1962 to expand Golden Hill State Park, "the house had fallen into almost disrepair," Wayner wrote. "The shrubbery and trees were overgrown, the rose garden had long since disappeared. The house was demolished, all that is left is the crumbling wall."

"What is so surprising to me is that when the state brought in the bulldozers, they didn't knock down the entire wall," Mike Wertman said of the stucco-faced wall made of terra-cotta blocks, parts of which stand relatively undamaged.

Mike Wertman talks about a wall made of terra-cotta blocks faced in stucco, with brick pillars, which still stands at the Drake House Ruins Historic Site. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

Another surprise was the discovery of a 20-pound concrete frog, buried upside down in the silt that filled the still-intact fishpond, as if it had fallen off the concrete lily pad one day. That frog, piped to serve as a fountain, along with a second, smaller frog, have been removed from the site for safekeeping.

Campbell said it's possible that the foundation of the original house on the site still lies under the foot of dirt fill that was smoothed over the ruins, which protected and preserved them.

"It's this thing carved out of time, it's still there, and it's wonderful," said Dr. Douglas J. Perrelli, director of  Archaeological Survey and clinical assistant professor of Anthropology at the University at Buffalo, who visited the site in July with 10 undergraduate archaeology students.

He strongly recommends that the next step to preserving the site will be to bring in somebody to work as diligently with grant applications and historical documents as the Wertmans have worked with shovels and pruning shears. "What they should do is get some grant money, hire an architect to do a cultural landscape study, and bring this thing back to its former glory slowly and carefully and judiciously without impacting it," he said.

A brick cross and mosaic tiles are part of a rustic stone-and-brick wall, just one of many fascinating and mysterious features on the former Drake Estate in Golden Hill State Park. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

But, he warns, time is of the essence. "It's unbelievably amazing, and it's washing into the lake."

A grant of just $30,000 would fund a cultural landscape report, which Perrelli describes as "the history of this site, going back through the records to find out who built it, what it was for, when it was in operation, what were the original materials, how would you go about rehabilitating this to bring it back to something that matches what it used to be."

To fully document the history of the site would take "in-depth research, title searches, looking for the original deeds, looking at all the historic maps, looking for diaries and things that people might have used to document this property," said Perrelli.

A cultural landscape report would be the first step to nominate the Drake House Ruins for the National Register of Historic Places "as an architectural feature, as an archaeological site, two different things working together here," said Perrelli. He thinks that application would succeed, "unless things are removed, taken out of context, for example fixing walls and putting up plaster that doesn't fit with the time period. They have to be super-careful about how they approach this."

While Perrelli believes that bringing public attention to the site, which he calls "a treasure, a jewel," is a good idea, he said more steps must be taken to protect the charming features that have been uncovered. "Bringing this out of the brush and back into the community's awareness is good," he said. "But it's been vandalized."

Perrelli said police patrols must include the site, which is no longer protected by the bramble thickets. "You have to have the local people aware of this site and some kind of system in place for the police to come and have a look, which is all part of what you would do with some grant dollars, some community awareness, and some support from the local municipalities."

Campbell said neighbors are vigilant in keeping an eye on the now-cleared estate area. Still, scorch marks from fires mar the floor of the tearoom and graffiti has been scratched into the stucco walls.

Time is of the essence, Perrelli said. "Your jaw just hits the ground when you realize that the lake has swallowed up acres of that property, it's just gone. So now add the word 'threatened' to the archaeological and architectural masterpiece that this is, and now you've got a need for the Army Corps of Engineers to be involved, because you have lake shore erosion and you've got to stabilize that to save this site. It's going every year. Somebody has to do something to protect it. People need to say, what's our one-year plan? What's our three-year plan? What's our 10-year plan?"

"We, right now, want to make sure the site never becomes overgrown again," said Cheryl Wertman. "We would like to see groups come in and maybe redo some new gardens, make some repairs to the cobblestone wall and the pond. And mainly have it become an integral part of the park so it remains maintained. Most of that can be possible without a grant by dedicated volunteers who come to love the site as much as we do."

Wertman said she would like to see state money devoted not only to the Drake House ruins project, but for other work in the park. "I think this park is the jewel of our region because of what it has to offer that no other park in NYS has," she said.

Perrelli is charmed and fascinated by the ruins. "Think about the pond, the concrete sculpture of the frog," he said. "It's unbelievable. I keep thinking of the art deco movement, the jewelry, the architecture, the kind of parties that would have been held at this place -- can you imagine the lawn fetes that they would have had at this place? I can just see it in the 1920s era.

"This is a wonderful site. This is a gem. They need pockets full of money or a lot of public support."

This year's I Love My Park Day will enable anyone interested in assisting at the Drake House site to do so. The volunteer day is set for May 6. Volunteers interested in hauling brush from the Drake House ruins or cleaning up the beach or lighthouse area at Golden Hill State Park may register here or sign up at the registration desk near the lighthouse at Golden Hill starting at 9 a.m. on the day of the event.

Volunteers should wear sturdy shoes and bring hand pruners, if they have them, as well as a bottle of water. The work crews set out at 10 a.m. sharp, and work until 1 p.m. From 1 to 2, refreshments will be served.


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