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Published: Monday, 4/28/2008

River Road Mansions: Demolition foes fear rallying cries going unheard

BY JC REINDL
BLADE STAFF WRITER
The Mather estate at 30027 East River Rd. in Perrysburg Township was a 43-room brick mansion when it was torn down in 1985. It was replaced by Waterford Beside the River. The Mather estate at 30027 East River Rd. in Perrysburg Township was a 43-room brick mansion when it was torn down in 1985. It was replaced by Waterford Beside the River.
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It was a monumental 43-room brick mansion with fluted pilasters, marble trim, and a jumble of gables and chimneys. For a young Christine Mather, it made visits to grandpa and grandma's place unforgettable.

Her grandfather, Gordon M. Mather, Sr., was the founder of Mather Spring Co., the Toledo automobile supply company giant. He and his wife, Charlotte B. Mather, built their grand Belle Alliance riverfront estate in 1926-1927 in what is now the Waterford Beside the River development of Perrysburg Township.

As a young girl, Christine Mather would join cousins and brothers in epic games of hide-and-seek inside the mansion, darting past marble columns and sneaking through hidden doorways in the library.

Decades later these memories remain bright and idyllic, although Ms. Mather admits to lingering bitterness over a new owner's 1985 decision to tear down the Queen Anne-style mansion and replace it with what she and others considered a very ersatz replica. Historic preservationists at the time treated the Mather mansion's demolition as a rallying cry to ramp up and expand their preservation efforts.

"There was a lot of history in that house. It was beautiful. It was so grand," Ms. Mather said last week. "People said that this would never happen again."

But this month it did happen again.

On April 16, workers started tearing apart Graystone, an 18-room estate along East River Road that was built in 1927 by the widow of glass industrialist Edward Ford. The property's current owner, Jim Brennan, Jr., said he plans to build a new home on the site for his family.

Christine Mather shows a photo of the River Road mansion her grandfather, Gordon M. Mather, Sr., had built and where she played as a girl. The 43-room brick home was razed in 1985.
Christine Mather shows a photo of the River Road mansion her grandfather, Gordon M. Mather, Sr., had built and where she played as a girl. The 43-room brick home was razed in 1985.
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This most recent razing caught many preservation advocates off guard, including Stepper LeBoutillier, a past president of Historic Perrysburg Inc. Graystone became the first large historic estate in the Perrysburg-area to be demolished since the Mather mansion 23 years ago.

"It was a shock to me, it was a shock to most everybody," Mrs. LeBoutillier said. "Now there's just this big hole between these two beautiful, old, stately homes."

The demolition also has raised questions about the efficacy of preservation efforts that came in the aftermath of the Mather mansion's razing, and has shown light on the fact that historic buildings within historic districts are not as safe from the wrecking ball as some may believe.

The Mather and Graystone estates were in Perrysburg Township, within historic districts on the National Register of Historic Places.

"Preservationists are good at waiting until there's a crisis, and then running around worrying what to do about it," said Glenn Harper, preservation services manager with the Ohio Historic Preservation Office. "This is not the last one. If they don't make some move to protect these places, we're going to see it again next year, or next month."

The stately Knight mansion at 28523 East River Rd., shown in this copy of an older photograph, was purchased by Jim Brennan, Jr., and torn down recently. The stately Knight mansion at 28523 East River Rd., shown in this copy of an older photograph, was purchased by Jim Brennan, Jr., and torn down recently.
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Most of the grand old riverfront estates lining River Road between Rossford and Perrysburg date to the 1920s and 1930s and belonged to Toledo's wealthiest families.

Many were built as the year-round replacements for the families' smaller shingle-style summer homes of wide-sweeping porches that they had put up around the turn of the 20th century. The area was known as the Gold Coast.

Yet by the 1960s, many of the estates' heirs had established lives elsewhere or found their homesteads too large and expensive to keep up. Real-estate developers then began to transform a few of the estate grounds into exclusive residential communities for a new generation of the well-heeled.

An early and large example is The Hamlet, which was developed in the mid-1970s from the estates of W.W. Knight, George Ross Ford, and Henry L. Thompson. The development contains dozens of older and newer homes along with the area's largest mansion, built in 1922 by George Ross Ford, and which has since been converted into three living units.

The redevelopment phenomena was going strong as the Mather home was razed in 1985. The following year a group of preservationists led by the Midwest office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and Historic Perrysburg Inc., met and outlined strategies for preserving the riverfront's remaining estates. They compiled a report: A Plan for the Future: Preservation Opportunities in the East River Road Area.

The group included Ted Ligibel, now the director of the historic preservation program at Eastern Michigan University. Mr. Ligibel said that then, as now, one of the greatest challenges to preserving River Road estates is the lack of regulation at the Perrysburg Township level.

Despite widespread belief to the contrary, a federal historic property designation doesn't restrict private property owners such as Mr. Brennan from demolishing a historic structure. Only local regulations like the zoning overlay districts in Toledo's Old West End and in parts of Perrysburg may prevent owners from demolishing or altering historic homes and buildings.

"It's a common misconception: Being on the National Register does not prevent you from changing your property in any way you please unless you're using federal money," Mr. Ligibel said. "Many people are confused, because they confuse the local controls with something at the national level that doesn't exist."

Mr. Ligibel also defended the work of the preservationists who drummed up support in the aftermath of the Mather home demolition.

"There probably were some pending demolitions of mansions along East River Road that maybe didn't happen because of this," he said.

Bringing preservation controls to Perrysburg Township could require more than just the support of the township's three trustees. Mr. Harper of the Historic Preservation office said it's unclear whether Ohio law allows townships the same abilities as municipalities to protect historic buildings.

As Perrysburg Township Trustee Craig LaHote put it: "We can pass a resolution, but I'm not sure it would have any teeth."

Thomas LaFarree, president of Historic Perrysburg Inc., said his group plans to discuss how it can better preserve the River Road estates at its next meeting.

"Anything that can help preserve these places, we are 100 percent behind," he said.

The families who built the summer houses and estates along River Road often first made their homes in Toledo's Old West End. During the 1950s and 1960s the Toledo neighborhood witnessed the demolition of several of its older grand estates such as the General Ceilan Milo Spitzer mansion, the Henry Marvin House, and the William Simmons mansion.

Such losses eventually led to a preservation movement which birthed the Old West End Historic District Commission. Since 1980, the nine-person commission has had the ability to grant or deny certificates for most demolitions or alterations, although the city's plan commission retains the final say in the appeal process.

Back in Perrysburg Township, recent activity on the grounds of the 1931 George M. Jones riverfront estate, 30357 East River Rd., has perked the curiosity of some passers-by.

The owner, George M. Jones III, who has undertaken a renovation and expansion project for the home, issued a statement last week to ease any apprehensions.

"The outward appearance will be the same as when the house was first built. There are no plans to develop the property or tear down the house," the statement said.

Contact JC Reindl at:

jreindl@theblade.com

or 419-724-6065.



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