Out and about in Trumansburg, pedestrian activity has risen exponentially. Since the onset of the pandemic, everyone, it appears, is routinely walking.

Cayuga Medical doctors, nurses start treating COVID-19 patients in New York City



It seems the chosen exercise for both physical and mental well-being while keeping a social distance. 

On a recent jaunt, the fascinating village architecture drew a distraction from the gloom of everyday news, and we rediscovered the legacy of Clinton Vivian, who died 90 years ago this October.

His work is most prevalent in Ithaca. He is arguably best known for the 1906 Neocolonial Williams House in the DeWitt Park Historic District, which some have called a “masterpiece.”

Clinton Loop Vivian was born in Carthage, Jefferson County, New York, in 1861 but grew up in Boonville, Oneida County.

Determined to be an architect, he came to Ithaca in 1882, when he was barely 21, to work as an apprentice in the office of noted architect William Henry Miller. There, he remained for a decade, honing his skills before going into partnership with Arthur Gibb, a fellow draftsman in the Miller office.

Aside from their Ithaca commissions, the partners, Vivian and Gibb — in business together from 1892 until 1904 — designed or renovated several summer cottages in Ulysses along the west shore of Cayuga Lake.

These included “Umphville,” in 1899, a club founded three years earlier for bachelors. Although, by the organizations 25th anniversary, most of the members were married. Located at 1101 Taughannock Blvd., “Umphville” is now a private residence.

At the same time, Vivian and Gibb designed a summer house for Edwin Gillette, a partner in C.J. Rumsey & Co., hardware, and his wife, Laura Graves Gillette, a T-burg native. The Gillettes named their cottage “Rest-a-While,” and in 1901, the architects were commissioned again by the Gillettes to design and construct a dock shelter. 

In 1902, Vivian even took the time to design his own summer house along Taughannock Boulevard, which he shared with his wife, Elizabeth, and their only child. It was destroyed by fire the year after Vivian’s death.

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Walking tour

Our stroll about Trumansburg began at 16 Elm St.  

“Juniper Hill” was commissioned by William Pierson Biggs and his wife, Lydia. Although the house was not completed until 1921, Vivian began drawing renderings of the house as early as 1917.

Vivian’s portfolio contains a plethora of stately homes — many in Cayuga Heights — but he was not known for his estate houses. With Gibb, he designed “The Hickories” in Cazenovia in 1897, which is now on the National Register of Historic Places, and “Juniper Hill” would be comparable.

Ultimately, it was decided that the Biggs house would be built in the Federal Colonial revival style, appropriate for the grandson of Hermon Camp, who’d served in the War of 1812 and whose own Greek revival house is kitty-cornered.

Currently, “Juniper Hill” functions as a bed-and-breakfast and art gallery, with a phenomenal collection of American Impressionist paintings for sale. Coincidentally, the estate, too, is for sale, listed by Lindsay Hart, of RE/MAX.

Leaving “Juniper Hill,” head toward Main Street and turn left. Halfway down the block, at 17 W. Main, is the Biggs Building, where the Gemm Shop is now located.

Vivian was commissioned to design the building in 1908 after a fire destroyed the company hardware store the prior year. It was the beginning of a long relationship between the architect and the Biggs family.

Cross Main Street and face Tompkins Trust Co. The building, at 2 W. Main St., was originally the First National Bank of Trumansburg, designed by Vivian in 1923 at the urging of William Biggs, who was bank board president after another devastating fire.

It was no doubt the worst fire in the village history. The bank, along with the entire block, began burning at about 2 a.m. on Sunday, June 25, 1922. An unrelenting wind made the fire humongous and concerned firefighters that it would spread to neighboring homes.

It took a battalion of local firemen and ladder companies from Ithaca and Interlaken to get the fast-moving flames under control.

Vivian’s 1923 building remained the First National Bank until it was purchased by the Tompkins Trust Co. in 1936. Although the façade has been altered, the major elements are evident.

Walk only a few feet to 1 Union St. and what is now Ontario & Trumansburg Telephone.

Look beyond the extensive renovation at the bones of the building. It was Vivian’s design for the Trumansburg Fire Department (1924), built at a cost of $17,000, and village offices that were added the following year.

Wander up the hill to Congress Street. Pass the Trumansburg Conservatory of Fine Arts on the left. When you reach 19 Congress, at the corner of Seneca Street, you are at Holton House.

The Queen Anne-style house was designed by Vivian in 1904, for Trumansburg druggist Isaac Holton and his wife, Florence.

Florence died a year after the house was completed, but Holton continued to live in the home until his death there in 1919. His son Charles, following in his father’s footsteps, became the local pharmacist and lived in the house until his sudden death from a heart attack there in 1954.

Charles Holton’s widow, Mable, eventually left the house and moved to be near her son in Ohio. Today, Holton House stands as least altered among Vivian’s Trumansburg structures.

A gentle man

Vivian was known to be among the kindest of gentlemen, never ostentatious or braggadocios, and not one for fluff or folderol. Perhaps that is why his designs all seem to have a convivial simplicity.

When Vivian’s wife, Elizabeth, died in April 1930, he lost all interest in living. His health declined rapidly, and six months later, he died, too. At age 69, with his son living in Newark, New Jersey, Vivian was cared for at a nursing home in Lansing during his final weeks.

Vivian and his wife are entombed next to one another in the mausoleum at Lake View Cemetery in Ithaca.

Like the architect of the great St. Paul’s in London, whose marker is inscribed si monumentum requiris circumspice (if you seek his monument, look around), Vivian’s monuments remain visible and viable if we take the time to notice.

Ulysses Town Talk appears every other Saturday/Sunday. Contact David Wren at [email protected]

This article originally appeared on Ithaca Journal: Ulysses Town Talk: Remembering Clinton Vivian’s legacy during a tour of Trumansburg’s architecture

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