With Stella Maris on the auction block, I heard a comment that the building has no historical significance. If I was planning to tear it down, that’s an impression I’d like to promote, but it’s hardly true. So, on the notion that my previous writing and speaking about Stella Maris haven’t reached everyone, I will repeat some of it here, with new information as well.
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The property’s recorded history began in the summer of 1814, when the United States was at war with Great Britain and American troops had captured the British garrison of Fort Erie, across the Niagara River from what is now Buffalo. A few weeks into the prisoners’ march east to confinement, they halted in Skaneateles and bivouacked by the lake, near the home of Samuel Porter. The next morning, the captives continued their journey, little realizing how much history they were going to miss.
Samuel Porter died in 1842 and his heirs sold his house and land to Henry Latrobe Roosevelt. Henry, the son of Nicholas Roosevelt of Skaneateles, had made a bundle in hardware in Charleston, South Carolina, and returned here in 1851. He remodeled the Samuel Porter house, which is today 116 E. Genesee Street.
Henry’s first cousin, once-removed, was Frederick Roosevelt of New York. Fred was the son of Judge James Roosevelt. He grew up in a household with ten servants. He had nine siblings, but five died before he was born; a sister died when Fred was four and a brother died when Fred was six. Only Fred, his brother Charles and sister Marcia lived past the age of 30.
As an adult, Fred was connected with a railroad, an oil company and a bank, as well as the Union Club, the Metropolitan Club, the New York Athletic Club, the Lotos Club, the Automobile Club of America, the St. Nicholas Society, the Holland Society, and the New York Yacht Club.
In 1873, Fred married Mary Loney, of Skaneateles and New York, and after a honeymoon tour of Europe, they came to the village to visit with Mary’s father, William A. Loney. In 1875, Fred’s father died after a riding accident; his mother, Cornelia Van Ness Roosevelt, died the next year, leaving Fred with a lifetime interest in a trust established for the three surviving siblings.
In 1879, Fred bought several acres of his cousin Henry’s land (shown as lot 25 1/2 on the map above, just to the right of the “E” in “LAKE”). Fred wanted a “summer cottage” and his project was brought to the firm of McKim, Mead by architect Sidney Stratton, who was subletting office space from them. William Rutherford Mead designed the house, to be built in pieces in New York and shipped to Skaneateles for assembly. In June of 1879, work began here with Thomas Dobbin of Newburg, N.Y., supervising construction.
In the autumn of 1879, Stanford White joined McKim Mead – the firm becoming McKim, Mead & White – and one of his first assignments was to sketch details for the interiors of several houses already started, including the Frederick Roosevelt house. This would be the only house in Skaneateles, or on the lake, that Stanford White ever worked on.
However, before the house came the boathouse. In May of 1879, local carpenter John Wheeler built a “commodious boathouse” for Fred’s steam launch, the Lotos, named for his club in New York. The Lotos was christened by Belle (Ruth Arabella) Loney, Fred’s sister-in-law, and “glided gracefully and beautifully into the fair waters of our lovely lake.”
In January of 1880, the Skaneateles Free Press reported: “During the past summer, Mr. Fred Roosevelt of New York has built a spacious summer home on the hill just east of the village at a cost of nearly $20,000. The lot stretches down to the lake, where a handsome boat house and substantial dock have been erected. The owner has a fine sailing boat and a staunch little steamer. During the summer a fair day seldom passes without finding Mr. Roosevelt and his many friends on the lake.”
Fred called his finished home “Roseleigh,” and its outlines can be clearly seen in Stella Maris today. For the next 36 years, Fred and Mary summered in Skaneateles, and on occasion dined at Roosevelt Hall, played bridge at the Thayer House, attended a dance at Clifford Beebe’s Lone Oak estate. When Fred died in New York in 1916, Mary Loney Roosevelt moved on to spend her summers with the Loney family in Watch Hill, Rhode Island, and Roseleigh went in search of a new owner.
In the summer of 1917, Burns Lyman Smith of Syracuse leased “the Roosevelt place” and liked it. So, in October, he bought the home and its 10 acres for $25,000. Burns Lyman Smith was certainly one of the most interesting men, and perhaps the wealthiest, to own a home in Skaneateles. He was the son of Lyman Cornelius Smith, of the L.C. Smith Shotgun Company and the Smith-Premier Typewriter Company, which became Smith-Corona. Smith’s typewriter was the most popular in the U.S.A.
Burns Lyman Smith grew up on James Street in Syracuse, in a mansion called “Uarda,” the name spelled out in flowers in the front yard. The staff numbered twenty-two. In the morning, as the family breakfasted, they received their mail in the beaks of silver birds. In addition to his the typewriter company, L.C. Smith was the president of the United States Transportation Company, the L.C. Smith Transit Company, the Hudson Portland Cement Company, the Rochester-Syracuse Eastern Railway Company, and the National Bank of Syracuse, chairman of the board of Halcomb Steel Company, treasurer of the Toledo Shipbuilding Company, and a trustee of Syracuse University. In October 1910, his work load caught up with him. He was stricken with a cerebral hemorrhage and died at the age of 60. His business interests fell to his son.
Burns Lyman Smith had started out as a clerk in the treasurer’s office of the Smith Premier Typewriter Company. By the age of 33, he was an officer and director of 14 corporations, including the typewriter company, several railroads, banks and a steamship line. He was ready to take over.
In 1917, when Smith bought the Roosevelt estate, the newspaper noted: “The house contains ten bedrooms, four baths, billiard parlors, dining room, den and living room, and has a fireplace in every room. There are also a boathouse and a garage on the lot. The property has a frontage of 231 feet on Genesee Street, a depth of 1,120 feet and a frontage of 310 feet on the lake. The grounds are landscaped and will be further improved.”
It was not, however, the family’s only getaway. Smith had a camp in the Adirondacks, summered often in the Thousand Islands and enjoyed steaming on the Great Lakes in one of his yachts. In 1925, the Smiths spent July in Skaneateles, but then Mr. Smith went to the Canadian woods and Mrs. Smith went to the Jersey shore. In 1926, Smith and his daughters spent the summer in Alaska.
In 1929, Smith moved to Seattle, where he had built the L.C. Smith building and had real estate interests, and Roseleigh saw the last of him. That summer, the house hosted the first of its many renters, Mr. & Mrs. Edward Franklin Southworth of Syracuse. For the summer of 1933, the place was leased to James Edward Stearns, the head of E.C. Stearns & Co., a manufacturer of tools and hardware in Syracuse.
In 1939 and ’40, Lewis P. Smith and family spent the summer and autumn at the Smith place. While not a close relation, Lewis Smith had been working with the Smith family as their attorney for decades. In later years, he was joined in Skaneateles by his daughter and son-in-law, Niver Wynkoop, the president of the First Trust and Deposit of Syracuse.
Although the owners of the “Burns Lyman Smith place” were almost never there, there was one constant: George Clarkson, the caretaker from 1903 to 1954. He lived across the street, in a house that Mary Loney Roosevelt sold to him for $100. George Clarkson loved being in the newspaper. Among the items he reported were mountain daisies in February, giant maple leaves, mystery animal tracks, and a young opossum that had been killed by a cat. And in September of 1953, Clarkson told a reporter for the Auburn Citizen-Advertiser that Teddy Roosevelt had visited Roseleigh. I had doubts about that story, until a member of the Loney family sent the photo below:
There, with a crowd of Loneys and Roosevelts, Frederick Roosevelt stands on the far right in a dark jacket, and reclining in striped pants and a nice straw hat is Theodore Roosevelt. George, I’m sorry I ever doubted you.
In 1940, Burns Lyman Smith died of a heart ailment, at the age of 60. The house now passed to his sister, Flora, but she already had a home on East Lake Road, with 1,000 feet of lake frontage, and so she rented the estate to others, most often to the Lewis Smith family.
Then in 1952, Flora Smith sold the estate to its third “family,” the Sisters of St. Francis of Syracuse. She held a $40,000 mortgage so the Sisters only had to put $10,000 down. The Sisters renamed it Stella Maris and added two wings to host retreats and visiting clergy. The additions, to the left and right of the original house, were designed by Pederson & Hueber of Syracuse, i.e., architects Thorvald Pederson and James Murray Hueber.
Stella Maris Retreat Home of the Third Order of Franciscans was dedicated in July of 1954 by Bishop Walter Foery. For the next half century, Stella Maris served as a place of refuge and renewal, hosting religious retreats, conferences and meetings, open to individuals, universities, businesses and non-profit organizations. But in 2014, it became clear that Stella Maris could no longer be self-sustaining and the Sisters of St. Francis, with regret, put the buildings and grounds up for sale.
“We’re happy in the fact that we really feel that over that amount of time the center has served its purpose in helping people find peace and a reconnection to their spiritually,” Rochelle Cassella said. “And hopefully it will have a lovely future of something else down the line.”
Indeed. And let us hope that the only McKim, Mead & White house in Skaneateles, with all its history, survives.