The History Center has in its collection a large, framed photograph of a fire engulfing what appears to have been, a least at one time, a large, elegant-looking structure. The building was unidentified but after some research, it was ascertained that the building was the Governor Hunt Apartments at 252 Genesee St. The fire occurred on Sunday, March 10, 1940.
The building did not start its life as the Governor Hunt Apartments but as the Ashley mansion. Eugene M. Ashley purchased the property from the estate of Dr. D. F. Bishop sometime between 1885, when Bishop died, and 1887, when Eliza Ashley’s father was waked from the house.
Eugene Ashley was born in 1850, in Bethany, Genesee County, and came to Lockport in the late 1870s to study law in the offices of Levi F. and George W. Bowen. In 1880, he was admitted to the New York State bar, elected district attorney for Niagara County and married Eliza Adriance two days before the year ended. Miss Adriance was a niece of the Florida millionaire Henry Morrison Flagler. Ashley then formed a partnership with his brother, Franklin Ashley, and Daniel Brong.
In the early years of their marriage, Eugene and Eliza lived at 107 Genesee St. Over the course of their marriage, the Ashleys would reside at three different addresses on Genesee Street.
In addition to his law firm, Ashley also began to invest in real estate and home building, buying up properties throughout the city. One of his first purchases, in 1884, was a lot on Locust Street between Spalding and High streets in which he planned to “erect a handsome, though not large, residence of the Queen Anne style thereon, quite different from any house now in the city.” Nothing came of this and the lot was sold two years later. Ironically, a few years after this, Thomas Oliver bought a lot in the same block and built an elaborate Queen Anne style house that is now Luther Haven.
At about this same time, Ashley also became a partner, with John Hodge, in the new “street car system,” the horse-drawn trolley that started in Lockport in 1887 but only lasted three years.
During the 1890s Ashley built up both his law practice and his real estate empire. He traveled throughout the state trying cases and soliciting investors. He served as treasurer of the United Boxboard and Paper Company and was the attorney for the Niagara Falls Power Company.
The Ashleys divided their time between Lockport, New York City and Florida. In 1898, the couple took out a mortgage on their Genesee Street property and “rebuilt the place in Colonial style, surrounding the grounds with a high wall.” It was described as “the finest residence in town” and its estimated worth was $25,000.
In 1903, Eugene Ashley was nominated by some of his Republican colleagues to run for the 1st District seat from Niagara County in the New York State Assembly but, after seriously considering it, decided to refuse the offer.
It’s possible that Ashley declined the nomination because he had another, more ambitious project in mind.
Later in 1903, a new real estate company was formed in Lockport with Eugene Ashley, Col. T. E. Ellsworth and E. H. Boynton as the directors, with $200,000 in capital. The Holland Patent Realty Company objectives were “to acquire land, to build, to enlarge, alter and improve buildings, houses and works thereon, convert the land so acquired into such streets, roads, etc. as may be desired and to generally deal in property.”
If you examine the 1908 Atlas of Niagara County, the Holland Patent Realty Company, as well as E. M. Ashley, own a considerable amount of property in the city. Two years later, Ashley was reported to be the largest real estate owner in Lockport. The newspapers are full of reports of Ashley’s real estate purchases and sales, building of new homes and plans for existing structures and neighborhoods. Not all of his transactions were looked upon favorably.
In 1902, Ashley “issued orders … to have the families residing in the several houses at the south end of Elm Street, which he recently purchased, vacate at once. He will remove the houses and have a large and handsome court laid out there to enhance the beauty and value of his [Genesee Street] property.” Although Ashley acquired the properties on Elm, South and Genesee Streets, adjacent to his home, the planned courtyard never materialized. However, he had other ideas and grandiose plans for the city of Lockport.
NEXT WEEK: Ashley’s proposed race track and other real estate holdings.
Ann Marie Linnabery is the assistant director of the History Center of Niagara.