History of the Spence House

View of the front of the 1848 Spence House, now Cobblestone Springs.

About Cobblestone Houses

Rough fieldstones have long been used in construction, but this building style developed a more formal expression in western New York State between about 1825 and 1860, thanks to the availability of smoothed pebbles from the shores of Lake Ontario.

According to an inventory conducted in the 1970s, New York State has at least 660 examples of this specialized architecture, most of which are within 75 miles of Rochester, New York. In Yates County, there are fewer than one dozen. Eight local cobblestone residences are listed on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP). The Spence Homestead, along with others in Yates County, was listed in 1992 as part of a “multiple property” listing of cobblestone structures; it has the distinction of being the southernmost of these buildings. NRHP nominations are good sources of historic details, although sometimes information requires updating.

More about Cobblestone Structures
[Future link] The Spence Family in the 20th Century
The Creation of Cobblestone Springs Retreat Center

The Spence Homestead
Adapted from the NRHP nomination (1978), with corrections from the Spence family

Dr. Henry Spence was born in 1800 in Lodi, NY, the same year his parents moved there from Philadelphia. As a young man he first taught school in Lodi, then studied medicine with Dr. Claudius C. Coan, receiving his degree from the New York College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1823. Shortly after, he settled in Yates County. In 1824 he married Patty Boardman, daughter of Allyn Boardman of Covert, NY. (Douglass Boardman, one of Patty’s brothers, became the first dean of Cornell Law School.)

Dr. Spence was a famous surgeon who was one of the first men in the country to perform cataract surgery. His patients would come to him for operations and remain at his house to recover. He was also a successful farmer, having extensive fruit tree orchards; in 1835 he sold peaches from his orchards to the Oneida Community, a famous New York commune. The success of the family as farmers was such that Dr. Spence was the first president of the Yates County Agricultural Society, and his great-grandson, Robert, achieved the national seven-day milk record for a two-year Holstein heifer in [1913?].

Dr. and Mrs. Byron Spence

Byron Spence, the eldest son of Dr. and Mrs. Henry Spence, was born in 1825. He was one of the first students of the Starkey Seminary, and graduated from New York University in 1850. Like his father, Byron was a doctor. He served as a Union officer with a New York regiment during the Civil War and continued the family tradition of farming.

Dr. Henry Spence built the present Greek Revival cobblestone house in 1848. Dr. Henry Spence brought down from the Rochester area Irish masons who had worked on many of the famous cobblestone houses in that area. To build the house, small stones from Lake Ontario were shipped down from Sodus Point to Starkey Point on Seneca Lake, then hauled inland by ox team. The windows, lintels, sills, and quoins are grey limestone.

Patty Boardman Spence died in 1843 and never lived in this house. Dr. Henry Spence lived there many years with his second wife; he died in 1866. The house remained in the family until 1972, when it was sold. It reverted to Robert Spence in 1978. Generations of Spences are buried in the family plot at Hillside Cemetery in Dundee. Currently Margaret (Peggy) Spence Parker represents the family on the Cobblestone Springs Board of Directors.

Sources cited in 1978 NRHP nomination:

  • Cleveland, Stafford, History of Yates County, 1873.
  • Mr. Robert Spence
  • Schmidt, Carl, Cobblestone Masonry, Scottsville, 1966, p. 208.

Note: Although this source reports use of “stones from Lake Superior,” that would be highly unusual; this is not verified. A second NRHP document, COBBLESTONE ARCHITECTURE IN NEW YORK STATE, was prepared in 1992 for the multiple property listing; this more thorough source does not mention Lake Superior.

Architecture and Design

The courtyard or patio between the north and south wings, October 2017 open house.

According to the 1978 NRHP nomination,
“The first story floor-plan consists of a central hall with two large rooms on either side, a kitchen in the south wing and one room in the north wing. The second floor consists of about six rooms and servants quarters in the south wing….
This is an unusual example of Greek Revival architecture with its very heavy entablature and four bay width on the gable ends.”

These north and south wings are offset at the rear corners of the house, creating a sheltered courtyard or patio between the two wings.

“The home… on the Himrod-Lakemont road was built by Dr. Henry Spence in the years 1848-51. Myron Wheeler of Big Flats was the architect. Its location is the farthest south of all cobblestone houses.

The stones, which were sized by being passed through a hole in a board, were brought by boat from Sodus Point to Starkey Point and by ox team from there to the site of the house. The original wallpaper, paint and decorative plaster bas-relief with the shining crystal pendants of the chandelier of the room called the front parlor make it one of the show places of the county.”
—Chronicle-Express, Dec. 30, 1954

Details of Spence Homestead and its Construction