The house where a hero of the Spanish-American War lived is in rough shape, but a Macedon man hopes to restore it to its former glory.
He was a hero of the Spanish-American War of 1898. He had a naval base, an air force base and a state park — all on the same site at different times — named for him.
There are schools in Brooklyn, Detroit and Guantanamo Bay Naval Base that bear his name, as well as four Navy destroyers, one that is in service.
Rear Admiral William T. Sampson, a Palmyra native, was big. Real big.
In fact, no less than the New York Times covered his triumphant return to Palmyra on Oct. 27, 1899, a year after the war with Spain. Some 20,000 people lined Main Street to get a glimpse of the hometown boy done good.
“My place of schoolboy friends, old neighbors, brother and sister, memories of Prospect Hill (a village park), the old schoolhouse, are all a subject of great remembrances, which I experienced here,” he told a crowd gathered at the Western Presbyterian Church.
“Your warm welcome has surprised me somewhat, but I understand it now. You have always met Palmyra boys with a warm and hearty welcome. ... May Palmyra rest with growth and prosperity. I shall always be more than happy to be one of her sons.”
A historical marker, courtesy of the state Education Department and recently repainted by local Boy Scout Jeremy Unterborn, notes that 113 Vienna St. was Sampson’s home before he headed off to Annapolis and on to his impressive career in the Navy, first in the Civil War and later in the Spanish-American War, where as commander of the Navy’s North Atlantic fleet, the rear admiral supervised the blockade of Havana Harbor.
It was Sampson’s fleet that destroyed every Spanish vessel that tried to leave Santiago Harbor during one battle and made him a war hero.
But time has not been good to the admiral’s boyhood home. Converted long ago to multi-family housing, it has been in neglect for longer than Vienna Street resident and Historic Palmyra Director Bonnie Hays can remember.
Sampson stands out
Hays said Sampson stands out in a community boasting many historical figures — from Joseph Smith (who actually lived just south of town in Manchester), to Henry Wells of Wells-Fargo fame, to Leonard Jerome, Winston Churchill’s maternal grandfather.
“He (Sampson) was quite an amazing man, first in his class at Annapolis,” said Hays. “He was phenomenal.”
The home’s decaying condition has been a concern for many years, said Hays.
“It’s absentee landlords,” said Hays. “It’s been a (multi-family) rental property as long as I’ve lived here (some 40 years). It was always in tough shape.”
Man with a plan
Jacques Savoie found that out first-hand.
The owner of Savoie Contracting of Macedon bought the foreclosed property a couple of years ago for about $26,000. His plan: To restore the house to its past glory and convert it back to a single-family home.
Page 2 of 3 - But Hays wonders if the neglect went on too long.
“It may be beyond saving,” she said. “We (Historic Palmyra) can’t do anything with it (financially). If it goes, that’s one connection (gone).”
But Hays said that wouldn’t take away from Sampson’s legacy in Palmyra.
“The house is just a house,” said Hays. “We’ve still got his cannon” in the park, referring to a Spanish gun from one of the ships Sampson’s fleet destroyed in the Spanish-American War.
Palmyra Town Historian Beth Hoad agreed that Sampson’s legacy is more than a home.
“It’s going to be a costly affair to renovate it, especially if he wants to get it back to its original condition,” she said, noting that there is “not a lot of curiosity created” for Sampson in Palmyra, except for the (cannon) display in the park.”
She said it would “certainly be a loss, but an understandable loss if the house was razed.”
Indeed, Savoie joked that he was advised by some that the best answer for the home is a bulldozer. But he’ll have none of that.
“I’ve done tons and tons of remodeling,” he said as he walked through the home on Sunday. “There is nothing here I can’t handle.”
Former Palmyra Mayor Vicky Daly, a friend of Savoie’s, got a first-hand look at the challenges he faces.
She said he has a “miserable job” ahead of him. “It was a much bigger job than he anticipated,” she said.
Still, insisted Daly, if anyone can pull it off, it’s Savoie.
“He is the right person because he knows what he is doing,” she said.
Savoie, 58, who has worked in the building trades since his years at Fairport High School in the early 1970s, said the Vienna Street home isn’t anything he hasn’t seen or done before.
“I knew it was going to be a major gut job,” said Savoie.
In fact, plenty of the “gutting” has already taken place. The home is pretty much a skeleton on the inside, revealing the massive barn beams that are part of the original section of the home, which has undergone many modifications — including its conversion to a multi-family home — since Sampson lived there in the mid-1800s.
Savoie found plenty of substandard work while tearing out the walls and floors, and he’s surprised the home never burned, considering the faulty wiring he found.
As for floor supports, “the grace of God was holding this place up.”
Indeed, if there was an easier way to do it, the previous owners did, said Savoie.
Page 3 of 3 - Some of the most difficult work is nearly done. He dug out the dirt floor in the basement and will replace it with a concrete floor in the spring. Then he’ll be able to put new floor supports in and begin the rest of the renovations.
Still, folks eager to see the home restored anytime soon may be disappointed. Savoie plans on doing the work between the jobs that pay the bills, and he figures it could two years or more before he is finished. He expects to put $60,000 to $70,000 into the home in materials, including plumbing, modern heating and air conditioning. The labor is all his — with some essential help from his son, Omer, a senior at McQuaid.
Once finished, he may keep the house in the family or rent or sell it. But the prime motivation is preserving history, not profit, he said.
“I think it (taking on the job) is more for the guy (Sampson) and what he represents for the community,” he said. “This is where Admiral Sampson grew up. That’s pretty unique.”
When he’s done, said Savoie, it will be “like buying a new home.”
He has the former mayor in his corner.
“I think it’s a great project,” said Daly. “I can’t imagine he would not do what he set out to do.”