The American Cobblestone House

Architectural Byproduct in New York and Other States

two story house, flat roof with overhang, white trim, small columns on either side of white front door, four visible sides in the front with quoins at each angle. inlaid stone siding
James Coolidge Octagon House, 1850, in Madison, New York. Lvklock via Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0) (cropped)

Octagon houses are unusual enough, but look more closely at this one in Madison, in upstate New York. Each of its sides is stuck with rows of rounded stones! What's that all about?

New York's Madison County is not quite like Robert James Waller's Iowa locale with all its Bridges of Madison County. But the cobblestone houses of western New York State are curious — and beautiful.

We went to guest author Sue Freeman to find out more.

Cobblestone Houses: Folk Art Buildings of Western New York

close-up of house siding, large horizontal grooves with stones inlaid
Detail of Logli-Herrick Cobblestone House, 1847, Rockford, Illinois. IvoShandor via Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0) (cropped)

Writer Sue Freeman, along with her husband Rich, is the author of 12 outdoor recreation guidebooks covering where to hike, bike, ski, find waterfalls, and explore cobblestone buildings in Central and Western New York State. Freeman's book Cobblestone Quest: Road Tours of New York’s Historic Buildings (Footprint Press, 2005) explains the history behind these unusual buildings. Here is her exclusive reporting:


"Building with cobblestones was a folk art that flourished for 35 years, from 1825 until the Civil War, in western New York State. In all, over 700 cobblestone buildings were built in this region. Many still exist and are in use today.
"Stone houses can be found in many parts of the world, but New York's cobblestone houses are unique. Instead of larger rocks, builders used rounded or oblong cobblestones small enough to fit in the palm of your hand.  New York had an abundance of these stones because of the glacial deposits and lake wave action of prehistoric Lake Iroquois and the more recent Lake Ontario.
"The stones were an impediment to the early settlers who tried to farm the land. Then, the farmers began to use these stones as an inexpensive building material. Cobblestone construction evolved into an art form with each mason developing his artistic creativity over time.
"New York cobblestone buildings come in many sizes, shapes, designs, and floor plans. They differ from European cobblestones (or flints) in that full stones were used (not split flints). Western New York masons developed unique embellishments of the vertical and horizontal mortars. A few masons from New York migrated west and built a smattering of cobblestone buildings in the Midwest & Ontario, Canada. However, more than 95% of these interesting cobblestone homes are located in New York State."

Logli-Herrick Cobblestone House, 1847

facade of 1 1/2 story side gable house, 5 small horizontal windows under the roof eave, two six-over-six windows on either side of front door with sidelight windows
Logli-Herrick Cobblestone House, 1847, Rockford, Illinois. IvoShandor via Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0) (cropped)

In all their uniqueness, cobblestone homes are not unique to New York State. The Logli-Herrick house shown here is one of the oldest homes in Rockford, Illinois.

Elijah Herrick is said to have settled in Illinois from Massachusetts. Anyone who has lived at this 42°-43° N latitude knows the roundness of stones and their creative uses. The retreating glaciers of the Ice Age left mountains of debris, in fields and on lake shores.  The cobblestones Herrick used in Rockford are said to have been "hauled by ox cart from the Rock River."  The Logli family were later owners who eventually donated the home to "a now defunct local historic preservation advocacy group."

The question of what to do with these old homes is a preservation issue. What owners do with any 19th century home is more than a renovation issue.

Butterfield Cobblestone House, 1849

2 story front gable house with quoins and one-story side gable extension with open porch of 4 pillars
Butterfield Cobblestone House, 1849, Clarendon, New York. Daniel Case via Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0) (cropped)

West of Rochester, New York near the village of Holley and the southern shores of Lake Ontario, Orson Butterfield built this cobblestone-sided farmhouse. The regal style of the day for a prosperous farmer was Greek Revival. Like many other cobblestone homes, quoins and limestone lintels above the doors and windows were the traditional ornamentation. The construction material was local stones from the lake. The builders, no doubt, were the stone masons who built the nearby Erie Canal.

Cobblestone houses are an interesting piece of architectural history. In upstate New York, these homes were built after the Erie Canal was finished in 1825. The new waterway brought prosperity to rural regions, and the stonemasons who built the locks were the craftsmen ready to build again.

What do we do with these old homes? The Butterfield Cobblestone House is on Facebook. Like it.

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