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Neighbors band together to rehabilitate Susan B. Anthony Preservation District

Casting their vote 

Neighbors band together to rehabilitate Susan B. Anthony Preservation District

Residents of the Susan B. Anthony Preservation District have a history of working cooperatively for the greater good. In the parlor of her Madison Street home, Anthony herself worked with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Frederick Douglass tirelessly campaigning for women's suffrage and civil rights for all people. And rumor has it that years later, Buffalo Bill Cody started his Wild West show while living on King Street, with financial backing from a neighbor.

Now the neighborhood's current residents are working together to restore the area to its former glory. Dawn Noto, president of the Susan B. Anthony Neighborhood Association, estimates that 10 of the approximately 65 homes in the neighborhood are in various stages of rehabilitation, giving hope that this charming enclave can bounce back from decades of neglect.

An intact example of a 19th-century middle-class neighborhood, the Susan B. Anthony Preservation District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1988 (the Anthony house itself was added to the register in 1977). The nine-block neighborhood located to the north and west of the intersection of West Main and Broad Streets features historic houses in the Queen Anne, Italianate, Greek Revival, and Second Empire styles.

The area suffered a decline when Rochester GeneralHospital moved from West Main Street to Portland Avenue in 1966. The old hospital was demolished and FIGHT Square, a public housing project with a notorious reputation, was built on the site.

"Neighbors came together to advocate for the demolition of FIGHT Square" once it started to deteriorate says Barbara Hoffman, a longtime resident of the neighborhood who, along with her husband, Dan, rehabilitated 8 King Street, the circa 1849 home of an early Rochester mayor. Anthony Square, a new complex opened on the site in 2001, has been a welcome addition to the neighborhood, Hoffman says.

Neighbors are coming together again as an informal network that helps to overcome rehabbing challenges. EvoraSutliff is rehabilitating 10 King Street. Sutliff, whose home is located near homes her mother and brother are rehabbing, cheerfully offered neighbor Michael Warfield a stack of wood-framed windows she couldn't use. "If they work for you, take them all," she said. Warfield in turn offered Barbara and Dan Hoffman an ornate radiator he no longer needed.

Neighbors informally exchange labor, too. "It's pretty common for us to knock on each other's doors and say, 'Can you give me a hand?' whether we need help taking a wall down, or just moving items within our homes," says Dawn Noto.

Having completed the rehabilitation of two homesand begun work on two others, Michael Warfield is a main figure in the movement to renovate homes in the Susan B. Anthony Preservation District. Upon returning to Rochester from Los Angeles in 2003, Warfield looked for a double home he could rehab to serve as his residence, and provide rental income. But he also had a greater purpose in mind. "I wanted to help preserve history. I wanted a project I could point to and say, 'This is what I did,'" he says.

Warfield's love of history drew him to the Susan B. Anthony Preservation District. "People don't come to Rochester from around the world to go to HighFalls or the Port of Rochester. They come here. This neighborhood is a national treasure," Warfield says.

Several Susan B. Anthony Preservation District properties appeared on the list of 400 city properties for sale at tax foreclosure auctions in October 2003. "I casually bid on 28 King Street. I loved that it had a view of Susan B. Anthony Square and [neighborhood resident] PepsyKettavong's sculpture of Susan having tea with Frederick Douglass," Warfield says. "The opening bid was $4,000. I didn't think I'd get it. Then I heard the auctioneer saying, 'Going once, going twice...' I thought, 'Yikes! I just bought a house!'"

The initial surprise wore off quickly. With winter coming on, Warfield immediately began clearing debris from the 1,443-square-foot home built circa 1900, including mattresses, clothes, and furniture left behind by squatters.

One of the first improvements to the two-family home was the installation of new electrical service. Warfield also hired plumbers to upgrade some of the pipes, and had two new furnaces installed.

A few months later, after he installed two new kitchens and baths, removed walls to improve the living space, and painted the house --- all while holding down a full-time job at Excellus --- Warfield moved in. Overall, Warfield estimates he spent between $25,000 and $30,000 to rehab 28 King Street, and it wasn't long before he got the urge to rehab another house in the neighborhood.

"I always admired 32 King Street," says Warfield. "It's a very unusual home, a Tuscan cottage dating to 1850. It's possibly the only one of its kind in Monroe County," says Warfield. Fran Reichenbach, a school principal and close friend of Susan B. Anthony, once lived in the home with her husband, Frederick, a city physician for the poor.

When the home came up for sale at a tax foreclosure auction in November 2004, Warfield seized the opportunity to buy it. Purchased for $25,000, Warfield estimates he has spent an additional $25,000 to rehab the home and reconvert it to a single-family dwelling for his residence.

With work nearly completed on 32 King, and both apartments in 28 King rented, Warfield recently bought 26 and 26 ½ King Street. Both need complete rehabilitation and possibly lead paint abatement as well. Purchased for a total of $1,500, the homes have been vacant for at least 10 years.

It will take approximately 18 months to rehabilitate these properties before they can be rented. "The goal isn't gentrification. There's a good mix of low- and medium-income people in the neighborhood. Preservation is paramount, and the best way to preserve the homes is to have people living in them," Warfield says.

Warfield acquired 26 and 26 ½ King Street through the city's Request for Proposal Sale Program (www.cityofrochester.gov/dcd/srvguide/housingprojdev.cfm), the same program Sutliff used to buy her home. Rather than simply auctioning off these properties, the city required interested parties to submit a detailed plan and timeline for rehabbing the homes, thereby insuring preservation-minded owners would get them.

While the program has been beneficial, neighborhood residents believe the city can do more to revitalize the neighborhood. Warfield and others are especially concerned about the possible demolition of the historic Cunningham Carriage Factory on Canal Street, and the lack of tourist-friendly businesses on West Main Street.

This summer, historic lighting is scheduled to be installed on West Main Street, as well as parking bump-outs and sidewalk markers leading visitors to the Susan B. Anthony House from Canal Street. Plans are also underway for a sculpture on West Main Street commemorating the site where Susan B. Anthony voted illegally in 1872. "The city is beginning to acknowledge heritage tourism and the money it can bring to the economy," says Dawn Noto.

Residents hope the restored homes and other improvements to the neighborhood will finally overcome persistent negative perceptions about the Susan B. Anthony Preservation District. Sutliff states, "This is not the neighborhood it was 20 years ago. It's safe." She continues, "No other place in the world has had the impact this neighborhood has had in terms of women's rights and civil rights. We preserve these homes as a means to give back to the community. If you lose your history, you lose everything."

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