Filed Under Architecture

William Burton House

In his book "How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They're Built," Stewart Brand explores the relationship between people and the structures they create. Referring to Winston Churchill's statement that "We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us," Brand writes that Churchill almost got it right. More accurately, says Brand, "First we shape our buildings, then they shape us, then we shape them again--ad infinitum. Function reforms form, perpetually."

The Burton House at 2678 West 41st Street illustrates Brand's point almost perfectly. Built in 1839 by William Burton, a ship captain from Vermont and early Ohio City pioneer, it is one of the oldest, if not the oldest, homes in Cleveland's Clark-Fulton neighborhood. In the 175 years of its existence, it has changed from elitist country home to middle-class neighborhood home to working class residence in a struggling community and, now, to abandoned home in a neighborhood that is perhaps on its way to rebirth. And along the way, the house has shaped the lives of all of the people who have owned and lived in it, just as they have shaped and reshaped it.

Originally located on thirty acres of land just south of Walworth Run in what was at the time Brooklyn Township, the house was once referred to by Burton's mother-in-law as his "Ohio City cottage." While it is a small house by mansion standards, it was clearly designed for upper class living. When first occupied, it had a large parlor and dining room on the first floor with nearby servant's quarters which had easy access to those two rooms, as well as to the pantry and small servant's kitchen. On the second floor were the family bedrooms. The house was nestled among vineyards and apple, peach and other fruit trees.

Change came to the house in 1854 when Burton sold most of his thirty acres of land to Hiram Stone, a local land developer. Stone incorporated the house into a large residential subdivision that he was building and named the county road upon which the house sat "Burton Street" for William Burton. Stone's subdivision would soon become the newest addition to Cleveland's south side.

In 1861, English immigrant George Howlett bought the Burton House which now sat on an approximately one-half acre parcel of land, but still had almost 130 feet of frontage on Burton (today, West 41st) Street. Howlett saw the neighborhood changing as German and Bohemian immigrants moved in and as industry sprung up along the Walworth Run. He responded by changing the house. He removed the house's south wing and subdivided the land upon which the house sat into five lots and an alley, leaving the now less grand-looking Burton House sitting on a thirty-three foot wide strip of land sandwiched between and dwarfed by two newer houses that were built closer to the street. He also relocated and enlarged what was now a family kitchen, built a cellar, and added a storage shed and lean to to the back of the house. When, after almost four decades of ownership, the Howlett family sold the Burton House in 1899, it no longer was that original elitist country home. It had become, like its most recent owner, middle class.

The process of owners changing the Burton house, and the Burton house changing owners, continued into and through the next century. In the early twentieth century, the home was first owned by a family who added an indoor bathroom-- that new century convenience, and removed the shed and lean to, presumably to make room on the property for another new century convenience, the automobile.

The twentieth century also brought a wave of new immigrants to Cleveland and to the Clark-Fulton neighborhood. Along the Fulton Road corridor, an Italian community grew, which, in 1915, founded St. Rocco parish. In 1944, the Burton House was acquired by an Italian family who owned and lived in it for most of the remainder of the century. As Cleveland experienced decline in the second half of the century, so did the Clark-Fulton neighborhood, and so did the Burton House. Now located in a working class neighborhood, the house again changed with its new owners. Another bathroom was added. The servant's quarters became family bedrooms. The pass-through from the pantry to dining room was plastered over. Upstairs bedrooms were rented out to boarders to help make ends meet.

With help from Cleveland's Department of Community Development in the 1980s, the Burton House was maintained in livable condition until it was sold in 1997. But since then, it has rapidly deteriorated. Its beautiful exterior French doors were removed and sold. So was the chandelier which once adorned the dining room. Now abandoned and boarded up, the question becomes for the house and for the Clark-Fulton neighborhood: Will the next change for the Burton House be restoration?

Images

The Burton House Built in 1839, the Burton House, located at 2678 West 41st Street, is one of the oldest houses in the Clark-Fulton neighborhood. (It is worth noting that West 41st Street, a major north-south road on the west side which extends 1.5 miles from Lorain Avenue to Fulton Road, was formerly called Burton Street, after William Burton.) This photo, taken in 1997, shows the house when it was in still in livable condition. The house's beautiful exterior French doors have, since the time of this photo, been removed. Source: Rosary Orlando Martino
Built by a Vermont Ship Captain This Ad from the St. Alban's (Vermont) American Repertory describes the business of William Burton in 1830--two years before he came to Cleveland. Burton founded an important ship refueling station on the Great Lakes in 1836 and built the Burton House in 1839. Image courtesy of Cleveland State University, Digital Newspaper Collection
The Burtons William Burton (1792-1872), who built the house at 2678 West 41st Street, was an Ohio City pioneer who served on the city's first council and founded an important ship refueling station on the Great Lakes. He is shown in this circa 1850 photograph with his wife Lucy (sitting) and youngest daughter Eunice (standing). Image courtesy of Phyllis Begens
South Manitou Island In 1836, William Burton formed a partnership with Richard Lord, a wealthy landowner in Ohio City and the founder of Cleveland Steam Furnace Co., reputed to be Cleveland's first manufacturing company. They built an important ship refueling station on South Manitou island, located off the northwest coast of Michigan. Circled in red on the above 1847 map of the island is "Burton's Harbor."
That Fine House and Lot In 1854, Hiram Stone placed ads for the sale of several "fine houses and lots" that were preserved among the new lots of the large subdivision he built on the south side of Cleveland. Among those fine houses preserved by Stone was the Burton House. The Fish and Wade residences appear to have been razed long ago. Image courtesy of Cleveland State University, Michael Schwartz Library, Special Collections
Lot 589 When Hiram Stone created his South Side residential subdivision in 1854, he left the Burton House standing on an approximately one-half acre of land with about 130 feet of frontage on Burton (West 41st) Street. The above map shows that the house was still in that location and condition in 1881. Image courtesy of Cleveland Public Library, Digital Map Collection
Changing Owners An English immigrant, George Howlett (1825-1892), acquired the Burton House in 1861. In addition to owning a successful ornamental painting business, Howlett was politically active on the South Side of Cleveland in the late nineteenth century. He was a member of the Cleveland school board, ran for several other elected offices, and was a leader of the neighborhood campaign to curb the pollution of Walworth Run caused by nearby breweries, stockyards and oil refineries. Shown above is a portion of his letter to the editor which appeared in the Plain Dealer on September 8, 1890. Image courtesy of Cleveland State University, Michael Schwartz Library, Special Collections
Becoming a Middle Class Home The above portion of the 1903 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map reveals many of the changes which George Howlett made to the Burton House during his ownership from 1861-1892. The original one-half acre lot created by Hiram Stone in 1854 (outlined in green) was subdivided by Howlett into the five lots and alley shown on this map. In addition, changes in the house itself (circled in red)--including removal of the south wing, and relocation of and additions to the west wing, are observable. Image courtesy of Cleveland Public Library, Digital Map Collection
Twentieth Century Changes The Burton House was owned by the David and Josephine Shoemaker family for much of the first half of the twentieth century. The Shoemakers removed storage sheds and a lean to from the house and lot to make room, presumably, for an automobile. They also may have built the house's first indoor bathroom. This sketch of the house in 1936 by a County tax appraiser shows the foot print of the house in that year as well as recent changes to the house. Image courtesy of Cuyahoga County Archives
At Mid-Twentieth Century In 1944, the Burton House was acquired by an Italian-American family. Shown in front of the house in the circa 1950 photo (above) is Rosary Orlando, who was born and grew up in the house. As the Clark-Fulton neighborhood declined in the second half of the twentieth century, Rosary's mother continued to live in the house, with assistance from the Cleveland Department of Community Development. She sold the house in 1997. Image courtesy of Rosary Orlando Martino
Past Elegance This recently-taken photograph shows the house's once elegant staircase to the second floor and two of the Federal style door frames in the foyer. Image courtesy of Jim Dubelko
The Horse Shoe Porch Once one of the most beautiful exterior features of the Burton House, the horse shoe-shaped front porch, like the rest of the house, has changed over the years. In recent years, the house has been owned by absentee landlords, who, likely for economic reasons, have not, as this recent photo reveals, restored the porch to its original nineteenth-century design or craftsmanship. Image courtesy of Jim Dubelko
A Future for the Burton House What the historic Greek Revival house at 2678 W. 41st Street might look like if restored to its original beauty. Source: Stockyard, Clark-Fulton, Brooklyn Centre Community Development Office

Location

2678 W 41st St, Cleveland, OH 44113

Metadata

Jim Dubelko, “William Burton House,” Cleveland Historical, accessed May 19, 2022, https://clevelandhistorical.org/items/show/660.