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The Button House, part 1: Origins

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The Button House Part 1

The Button House at 97 Tremont was home for more than a century to a rather eccentric family. Photo: Jim DeVinney.

After moving into Corn Hill four years ago, I sometimes took evening walks through the neighborhood. I often ran into the late Janet Mlinar, patrolling the streets with her trusty camera. Two years ago we took note of the house at 97 Tremont Street. It was for sale and Janet seemed eager to learn more about its history. More accurately, Janet seemed eager for me to learn more and to write about it.

She promptly emailed me the real estate listing—the house was seriously overpriced for the market. Each time the price dropped, I heard from Janet. To all appearances, no lived in the house and I was reluctant to call attention to a home that was standing empty. I began a series of articles about William Kimball and the story of the Button House, as it is known, remained on hold.

In the past week, as I began writing this article, Ginny Brown shared copies of early Gazettes with me that dated back to the 1980s when a previous Corn Hill historian, Helen Newburg, wrote about topics of interest in the neighborhood. She had an advantage over me in writing about the Button House—she lived in it!

I’m finally ready to tell what I know, wishing I could have satisfied Janet’s curiosity before she died. I’m sure she would have enjoyed hearing about a curious family whose origins go back to an early time in our nation’s history. First, let me share some information about the origins of the house itself.

The Tremont Street house was built in 1850 according to a plaque on the front of the building but Helen Newburg said its history began much earlier. As the homeowner she may have had the property’s abstract which could have outlined transactions farther back in time. She refers to an early Rochester mayor, Charles J. Hill: “Mr. Hill bought four lots (on which the house is exactly centered) in the 1820s from Josiah Bissell Jr.” Bissell became one of the Third Ward’s earliest settlers when he and two partners built the first mill along the Genesee River in Nathaniel Rochester’s One Hundred Acre Tract.

With the opening of the Erie Canal, Rochesterville became a boomtown, resulting in a great deal of speculation in local real estate. In January of 1840, Hill took out two mortgages to build the front part of the Tremont house. Newburg suggests that the original house was probably “a two-story, hip-roofed Villa style with a cupola.” It was built with two front doors, one on the front of the home and a second one on the east side of the building, a feature that remains to this day.

Because Hill lived on South Sophia Street (now South Plymouth Avenue) during this period, the house on Tremont must have been rental property. By 1850, Rochester’s “boom” turned into a “bust” and Hill was struggling financially, unable to cover a one thousand dollar balloon payment on the property. Following foreclosure, the house went up for auction. Newburg tells us that, over the next fifteen years, the property would change hands five times and suggests that the place might have been jinxed because misfortune befell so many owners, beginning with Hill’s economic woes. The first owner after Hill was a real estate agent who purchased the property as an investment. He died of pneumonia a year later. The property passed to his daughter who sold it to an unnamed third party, the first owner to actually live in the house. A fourth owner lost the house when he was arrested for embezzling. In the early 1860s, George C. Buell bought the house, also as an investment. Buell ran a wholesale grocery business and lived in a very nice home on Livingston Park, next to the Hervey Ely House. During the three years he owned the Tremont property, his wife died.

The Tremont jinx apparently came to an end in 1865 when Buell sold the house to Nelson Lord Button. It would remain in the Button family for three generations, over a period of 108 years. On the other hand, there was a whiff of witchcraft in the Button family’s past and I wouldn’t be surprised if at least one family member who died in 1973 may still inhabit the home, upset that her final wish was not granted.

The Button House, part 1: Origins
The Button House, part 2: Witchcraft and Fire
The Button House, part 3: Editha, Last of the Line