CITYSCAPES


Edsall House endured many changes


By MICHAEL HAWFIELD
from the archives of The News-Sentinel

It's fitting that the Edsall House, 305 W. Main St., was selected in 1976 as the pilot project of ARCH, Fort Wayne's volunteer architectural preservation organization. The group wanted to show the feasibility of saving historic structures - and the Edsall House, built in 1839, is the oldest building in central Fort Wayne.

It is also the last surviving example downtown of the Federal style of architecture. And in all of the Fort Wayne area, only the 1827 house of Chief Richardville, in Waynedale, is older.

The Edsall House was standing in the block slated for demolition in the senior citizens' redevelopment project. Extensive research was carried out, and the Fort Wayne Redevelopment Commission was persuaded to support the preservation of Edsall House as a significant part of the scheme for the entire area.

The excellent exterior renovation of the building was carried out by local architect Gerald McArdle, and the building has become one of the most interesting features of Main Street - a monument to the earliest improvements made on the west end of Fort Wayne on the very eve of its birth as an incorporated city (1840). Structurally, the walls of the 145-year-old house are remarkably sound.

Some changes had been made in the main building, mostly before 1874: The roof was raised about 18 inches, and a new "more modern" Italianate ornamentation was added, as was the overhang of the roof. But otherwise, the building is much as it was originally.

The man who built this fine home was William S. Edsall, a fur trader, merchant, contractor and prominent civic leader who helped establish Fort Wayne as a transportation and market center.

The house was built when the Edsall fortunes were at their crest. The house that he loved and which he made the outward trapping of all that he aspired to be is a two-story brick building, 44-by-20 feet, strictly balanced with two downstairs parlors and two upstairs bedrooms, separated by a central hall and a broad stairway. There are no windows in the ends of the house, but the finely proportioned windows, five on the second floor and four on the first, give the front and back of the house a very open appearance. At each end and on each floor there are fireplaces with double chimneys rising out of the roof.

Two rear additions, neither of which exist today, were added by Edsall over the years as his family needs grew. The first was added in 1857 to the eastern part of the rear, and a second, western addition was built much later. The first addition apparently was built soon after William's wife, Louisa McCarty, died at the age of 37.

Edsall did not manage his money wisely and incurred heavy debts. His brother, Samuel, an important financial adviser, died in 1865, and William soon lost the Edsall House, put his family up with relatives and moved to Chicago to be closer to his brokerage affairs.

The house was lost to an area banker who bought it for $106 in delinquent taxes. The Edsall family rallied to regain the house and pay off the mortgages, but William Edsall himself did not regain full possession of it until 1874.

At once, he had the house "fitted up and furnished throughout in the most elegant style." To celebrate his homecoming and his 63rd birthday, Edsall held a huge ball for the "old settlers."

The Sentinel newspaper reported the evening affair that gives a glimpse of the fineness of high society in Fort Wayne 119 years ago.

''At 7 o'clock last evening, the full flood of light which streamed from every door and window in the house, and the natural sequence of thronging carriages, the soft rush of encloaked ladies up the stairway, the gleams of dainty slippers and billowy folds of tumultuous white dresses on the way to the dressing room, gave promise of the prolonged pleasure of the night."

William Edsall lived only two years more; his funeral was held in the east parlor.

But when he died on March 13, 1876, he once again was broke. The mortgage company assumed ownership of the house, but for about a year after Edsall's death, his daughter, Amelia, and her family, as well as his sister, Isabella, stayed on, joined later by two nieces and their mother. In 1878, a movement led by another of Edsall's sisters, Mrs. W.H. Coombs, created City Hospital, which today is known as Parkview Memorial Hospital. It was to be built on grounds near the Edsall Home. The hospital's organizational and fund-raising meetings began in October 1878, and the Edsall homestead was used twice for "grand-opening" festivals.

But the mortgage company would not allow a hospital to be located in the place, and after a two-day hospital career, the Edsall House was abandoned in favor of a mansion at Lewis and Hanna streets; it came to be called Hope Hospital. This was the last time the Edsall family was associated with the old home.

In 1887, the Edsall property again became a private home, for the Antrup family, until 1907. In succeeding years, the additions to the house were purchased or rented for various uses, and from 1907 to 1916, the main house was rented as apartments. In 1916, owner Jesse Hamlet built the corner store known for many years as Doswell's Flower Shop.

William Edsall's obituary proclaimed that no man had been more intimately connected with the growth of the city and with all its improvements than he, and that a sketch of his life is really a sketch of Fort Wayne from the time it was a mere Indian trading post. The more so could be said about the home that he built, for it today is one of the only material links with years when the city had its beginnings.

--Nov. 2, 1993


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