Monday, April 5, 2021

Syracuse Architect: Clarence S. Congdon, a Man Who Helped Shape the Eastside

Clarence Congdon. Congdon family photo courtesy of Miranda Hine.


Syracuse Architect: Clarence S. Congdon, a Man Who Helped Shape the Eastside

by Samuel Gruber

I have mentioned architect Clarence S. Congdon (1875-1951) in several other posts, notably last spring when I wrote about the 1000 block of Ackerman Avenue, and also when I wrote about the origins of the bungalow type of houses in Syracuse which begin to get mentioned in the local newspapers around 1910. For example, in September 1910, bungalows are mentioned on both Maryland and Ackerman Avenues on the newly developing Eastside. One of them was listed as an "artistic six-room bungalow," a "short walk from the University," for sale by local architect and developer Clarence Congdon.

Congdon was an architect and real estate developer influenced by the Craftsman style of house design. He graduated from Syracuse University’s architecture program in 1897 and was one of several young architects who studied at the University and then made careers in Syracuse. These young men contributed to the growing residential neighborhoods immediately east and south of the “Hill”.

We only have reasonably certain attributions for a handful of houses that Congdon designed, but he probably designed and built many more.

Denser settlement of Syracuse's Eastside could be realized thanks to the development of the public streetcar system. The Highlands, developed by Maurice Graves in 1872 on a hill southeast of the urban center, was the first subdivision in the area. This was followed by University Heights to the south and east, stretching from Comstock Avenue to Sumner Avenue. In 1902, ninety acres of the original 105-acre parcel was sold to the new University Heights Land Company, controlled by W.F. Rafferty and Maurice Graves, and Clarence S. Congdon brought in as a third partner.

Syracuse, NY. 301 Clarendon Street. Congdon House. Clarence Congdon, architect, 1909.

In 1909 Congdon built his own house and another on several lots on Clarendon Street (formerly Clarke St), then a high point of the northern edge of the tract. The house is a modest cottage-like structure influenced by the Arts and Crafts Movement. In the full spirit of the Movement, the house was designed to exist in a natural setting, though within fifteen years this would be more limited as the area to the south rapidly developed. Early photos show it as the sole house on the hill, and in its isolation, it resembles a house featured in the Craftsman Magazine in 1906, described as “A Craftsman Farm House That is Comfortable, Homelike and Beautiful.”

The Congdons previously had lived at the corner of Maryland and Redfield, where their daughter Ruth was born, but moved to the new house shortly afterward. Sometime afterward Congdon apparently left the family and lived elsewhere.

Syracuse, NY. 301 Clarendon Street. Congdon House. Clarence Congdon, architect, 1909.

Syracuse, NY. 107 301 Clarendon Street. Congdon House. Clarence Congdon, architect, 1909. Photo: Samuel Gruber

According to Ruth Congdon (as recounted to Miranda Hine), her father carefully oversaw every aspect of construction, apparently critiquing the mason’s work and having him rebuild a chimney. Inside there are many special touches. Windows open from the bedrooms into the central hall and staircase, providing more natural light into the interior. Low windows in the kitchen were of a size to allow a child to look out. The major changes is the extension of the south shed dormer to expand head room and increase light on the second floor.

Congdon did not, apparently, intend the house to sit as it does in relation to Clarendon Street. Though the street was already described as early 1892, and shown on maps, it was not fully pushed over the hillside, at a grade lower than anticipated, until after Congdon’s houses were built. This created a great difference of level between the north side houses and the street, corrected only by the creation of long stairways. Today, the house is reached by many steps. In the early days when grocers delivered to houses, they apparently charged the Congdons (and others) extra for every step.

By the mid-1920s the isolated quality had lessened as most building lots in the areas were filled in, and the city purchased the Davis Estate, now Thornden Park. But the rural quality has not been fully lost. The house sits on a wider than usual lot and is set back far from the street. Although the apple orchards of the Davis Estate were replaced with Thornden Park athletic fields, the sense of openness remains.

Clarence Congdon and his Daughter Ruth. Congdon family photo courtesy of Miranda Hine.   
Congdon family photo courtesy of Miranda Hine

Ruth Congdon never married and lived in the house until the 1982, when it was sold, and she moved to Brighton Towers. The house was subsequently bought by the Hine family which has lived here since 1983, and to whom Ruth Congdon bequeathed important historic photos.

Today, the Congdon House retains wonderful views to the hills to the south. It also looks southwest to the area the Congdon would soon develop, in 1911, as Berkeley Park. On the adjacent lot he built a small Craftsman style cottage which he sold.

Congdon designed and built houses on 300 block of Clarendon Street.

Syracuse, NY. 307 Clarendon Street. Clarence Congdon, architect, ca. 1911. Photo: Samuel Gruber

Congdon also built a small cottage-like house next door to his own. This house, now 307 Clarendon Street, was completed sometime after 1910. Like his own house, this one shows the influence of the Craftsman movement, but this is lightly applied to a simple cottage with a Dutch Revival gambrel roof, a form he'd use again at 113 Circle Road. J. Joseph Hughes, who worked for the Hughes Electric Co. (333 S. Warren), lived at 307 Clarendon, and presumably bought the house from Congdon.

Berkeley Park

In 1911, Congdon purchased forty-one acres south of Strafford Street from his partners. This was land held by the company for further expansion of the Heights subdivision which is shown on the 1908 map of the city. Congdon radically altered the original design rejecting the grid pattern. Instead, he designed the streets and lots in keeping with the natural topography, including a drumlin. Congdon acted as developer and sales agent for the Berkeley Park Land Company which developed the garden suburb of Berkeley Park. 

Congdon also designed and built several of the first homes in Berkeley Park, including 107, 113, and 117 Circle Road. These houses combine elements of the Colonial and Craftsman styles. He worked with his former partners to secure sewer service to the new development area and when this was achieved in 1911 development and promotion of Berkeley Park really began. 

Preparing the land for Berkeley Park.

Syracuse, NY. Plan of Berkeley Park. Clarence Congdon, designer and developer.

Syracuse, NY. 113 Circle Road. Clarence Congdon, architect. Photo: Samuel Gruber

In December 1916, Congdon joined George Bartlett, Grover Bartlett and Edwin Tanner to form Haverling Builders, Inc., of which Congdon was president and manager. The purpose of the business was to "engage in the building of artistic houses in Berkeley Park." The first house to be built by Haverling Builders was at 107 Circle Road and the design is attributed to Congdon.

Syracuse, NY. 107 Circle Road. Clarence Congdon, architect, 1916. Photo: Samuel Gruber

Syracuse, NY. 117 Circle Road. Clarence Congdon, architect. Photo: Samuel Gruber

Congdon conceived and developed Berkeley Park as an exclusive residential subdivision marketed to the middle and upper middle class. It was intended to appeal to both established and young professionals seeking the "best" Syracuse had to offer. When planning the subdivision, Congdon took into consideration the desires of the affluent middle class to escape the growing problems of city living — overcrowding, noise and pollution. The Berkeley Park brochure promised " flats, no factories, no saloons, no noise, no smoke, no dirt."  Minimum construction costs for set in the protective provisions. These varied, depending on the street, from $3,500 to $5,000. Deed restrictions limited construction to only single family homes and only one per lot, with minimum lot frontages and designated set backs, and barns or garages were forbidden from being built in or near the front yard.

Landscape architecture historian and preservationist Chistine Cappella-Peters, who lives in Berkeley Park, helped draft the history of the neighborhood for the National Register Historic District designation, described Congden’s landscape innovations:

“Congdon took an extra measure to preserve the visual quality of the subdivision by placing all overhead service at the rear of the lots to eliminate unsightly wires along the streets; in some cases, water and sewer lines also were located here. The hierarchical and curvilinear street system set the subdivision apart from the surrounding older neighborhoods, yet still provided smooth connections to these established areas. Berkeley Drive was constructed with an eighty-foot width, much wider than adjacent Stratford Street or Ostrom Avenue. With its center median, it appeared grander than the established streets to the north and, with its curving alignment, much more private. On this hilly site, no two blocks in the subdivision were laid out entirely at the same elevation and only Dorset Road and Stratford Street were essentially flat. By working with the natural curves presented by the topography, Congdon developed sinuous roads that resulted in irregularly shaped lots. The design relied heavily on terraces, elevated sidewalks, public stairways, and shared alleys and drives. Cast iron handrails provided pedestrian protection along public stairs and walks, and streetlights lit the subdivision."

The Berkeley Park Subdivision Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2002 and is also designated a locally protected historic district.


In 1919 Congdon went to work as sales agent for the Scottholm Company which had developed the new Garden Suburb of Scottholm, designed along similar lines to Berkeley Park, but covering a larger area and lying further east, jsut over the city line.  The suburb covered approximately 49 acres located on the east edge of Syracuse approximately two miles east of downtown.  The entire tract had been purchased by Amon Sanderson of the East Genesee Extension Corporation and then developed as “Scottholm Estates,” with an initial layout by landscape architect Arthur C. Comey (1886-1954) in 1914. 

Scottholm developed along a similar pattern to Berkeley Park with some bigger houses, but employing many of the same architects, including Ward Wellington Ward and Howard Yates. Development was slow duirng the wr year until Congdon got invovled. In this way, even when he was not designing houses himself, Congdon seems to have played a role in encouraging the development of the Arts and Crafts aesthetic and also the increasingly popular Tudor Revival variant. 

An advertisement states that it is "The Pleasant Spot for your bungalow," and a house very much like Congdon's own is used as the illustration. In fact, few bungalows were built in Scottholm. By 1930 the streets of the first part developed were lined with Tudor, Colonial and even Spanish Revival houses.

It is not known what role Congdon continued to play at Berkeley Park but presumably he still had a financial stake in the development until all the lots were filled.

After his career as an architect-developer, Congdon worked as an art expert and dealer in Syracuse in the 1930s. Presumably the Depression put an end to his work in real estate. I have not been able to find out anything more of his latter life. He died in 1951 in Detroit, but is buried in Oakwood Cemetery (Section C, Lot 203).

If you have information about Congdon or any of his houses please let me know.


I want to thank my neighbor Miranda Hine for introducing me to the life and work of Clarence Congdon and sharing many of the Congdon family photos, which she inherited from Ruth Congdon.




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