Rochester’s last cobblestone house could become a Dollar General parking lot
The cobblestone house at the corner of Culver Road and Grand Avenue in Rochester has survived the Civil War, the Great Depression, and World War II.
But the house, which is the last cobblestone building standing in the city, may not survive its owner’s plans to demolish it to make room for a parking lot for a Dollar General next door.
The building, known as the Lockwood-Alhart House, has stood vacant for more than a decade and is in a state of severe disrepair.
But as word has spread through the Beechwood neighborhood that a dilapidated piece of Rochester history might be razed, residents have scrambled to find a way to save it.
Longtime resident Tim Keller started a Change.org petition calling on the city or the owner to preserve the property. The Beechwood Neighborhood Coalition and the North Winton Village Neighborhood Association have been promoting the petition.
As of Wednesday, that petition had about 1,300 signatures. Supporters plan to present it to the Rochester City Council.
“We can not only preserve it but develop it into what I like to call a gateway into Beechwood and North Winton Village, because it’s right in the center of both neighborhoods,” Keller said. “It can serve as a catalyst for further vitality and development in our neighborhoods.”
The Lockwood-Alhart House was built by Roswell Lockwood in 1835 in the middle of what was then a 100-acre farm in the town of Brighton, according to the Landmark Society of Western New York. The neighborhood was eventually annexed by the city.
In 1949, according to newspaper archives, the house was bought by Eugene G. Alhart, a leader in the local Christian temperance movement, one-time state Senate candidate, and the father of local television news broadcaster Don Alhart.
The house and its adjoining property would become the base for the family’s Alhart Electrical Co. The Alharts would end up purchasing the whole block. At one point, the cobblestone house became a showroom for the family's furniture store.
"I remember it kind of being a playground for us when we were kids," Don Alhart said. "And it being one of the last of the cobblestone houses, it really added to the uniqueness of it."
By the end of the 1980s, the Alhart family had sold off the last of the block. Meanwhile, Alhart has watched the house decay over the years.
"It's sad, from a family point of view," he said. "It's sad losing that whole block."
In 2006, it was purchased by Long Island real estate investor Arthur Kirsch. It has been vacant since 2011.
The house has 28 code violations, and the city has cited Kirsch on 14 occasions for issues including a crumbling roof and exterior, missing gutters, and infestations of rats and pigeons.
In May, city housing attorney Mike Furlano sued Kirsch in state court, alleging that he defaulted on the citations. The complaint read that if Kirsch failed to remedy the problems, he would be fined $500 per day per violation, or $14,000 per day.
“The city is concerned that the owner has neither the means nor the motivation to maintain the property,” Furlano wrote, adding that the city has no other option but seeking court intervention to remedy the violations.
The complaint acknowledges that, under any other circumstances, the house would be a “prime candidate for demolition.” Because of its historical significance, however, the city does not want to see it torn down.
But the house has never been added to any state or local historic preservation list.
In his written response to the city, Kirsch said demolition is his best option for his investment, which includes an agreement he has to lease the land to Dollar General. The house is a haven for squatters, he said.
“It is hoped that the development will bring new life to the parcel, to the surrounding retail establishments, and to the neighborhood as a whole,” he wrote.
But during a phone interview, Kirsch said the city has declined his offers in recent years to donate the house to the city. The offer is still on the table, he said.
“If it’s a cobblestone building and it’s the last one in Rochester, let me give it to the city,” Kirsch said. “I’ll have a tax deduction and they get the building. That makes sense for everyone.”
The city’s top lawyer Linda Kingsley said that kind of arrangement simply passes the responsibility to City Hall after years of neglect.
“It sounds very honorable that he’s like, ‘I’ll give the city the building,’” Kingsley said. “Well, what he’s doing is giving us a half-million-dollar liability.”
Kirsch said he had a brief conversation with the Beechwood Neighborhood Coalition and would be willing to sell the property to it if it made a good offer. He did not give his asking price.
How the house could be saved is a matter of some debate among advocates. Salvaging it in its current state would require significant investment. Likewise, the city cannot stop Kirsch from demolishing it.
“If the owner were to walk into City Hall tomorrow and go up to the (Neighborhood and Business Development) counter with a demolition permit application, and the right level of insurance, we would have no basis for denying that application,” Kingsley said.
The Lockwood-Alhart House has been recognized for its historical significance. The Landmark Society of Western New York in 2015 added the house to its annual “Five to Revive” list. The Cobblestone Society and Museum in Orleans County has also called the house a notable structure.
Dana Miller, commissioner of the city’s Department of Neighborhood and Business Development, said the best hope for the house would be a wealthy benefactor or an organization like the Landmark Society stepping in to serve as its steward. He acknowledged, though, that the likelihood of that happening was slim.
The house stands in Councilmember Mary Lupien’s district. She said the city could seize the opportunity to protect the house and avoid repeating mistakes of the past. She pointed specifically to the 1954 demolition of Frederick Douglass’s first home in Rochester on Alexander Street.
Options include moving to place the house on an historic property registry or taking it through eminent domain, she said.
“This is the last one (cobblestone house),” she said. “I think we should learn from the past and know that future generations would want us to preserve it.”