Roswell and Romanta Hart

~ By Jim DeVinney

Part 1

There are two men with the same last name—Roswell Hart (1773-1824) and Romanta Hart (1800-1877)—who moved from Connecticut to Brighton, New York in the early Nineteenth Century. I am uncertain how they are related if, in fact, they are. Father-son? Uncle-nephew? They could be cousins or even siblings, despite being born a generation apart. Both remained in Brighton, where they died, but their children grew up and moved across the Genesee River into the Third Ward, often marrying children of our city’s Founding Families, acquiring great wealth and high social standing. When researching the second generation of our ward, the Harts are ever-present.

For some time, I have been curious about this family. Recently a man wrote to me through the Corn Hill website asking what I knew about the house at 199 South Plymouth on the southwest corner of Troup Street. It is known as the Hart-Wiltsie House. His grandmother had lived there in the 1960s and he was curious about its history. Last year, Cynthia Howk of the Landmark Society of Western New York sent me a 1936 photo of the house, urging me to use it in the Gazette. The time had come for me to learn more about that building and get into some serious Hart Family research. I immediately came across a news item in the Democrat and Chronicle, January 30, 1877, written by a witty Nineteenth Century copywriter.

“John Carroll, arrested for stealing two pairs of boots from Charles E. Hart, was examined in the police court yesterday. It is expected that during the next ninety days John will frequently wish himself in his neighbor’s shoes.”

I know nothing more about Mr. Carroll, but I can’t help wondering just where those boots might have traveled before the theft occurred. Charles Edward Hart was an adventurer and entrepreneur who speculated in mining and oil fields across the United States. In 1866 he moved into the aforementioned house that would remain in the family for the next 72 years.

199 S Plymouth Ave
1936 photo, perhaps by Walter Cassebeer. Courtesy Landmark Society of Western New York

Charles, first child of Romanta Hart and Ruth Cowles, was born in Brighton. Ruth’s parents, Sylvester Cowles and Sarah Northrup, came to the area from Berkshire County, Massachusetts at the beginning of the Nineteenth Century. A daughter was born in 1802, a year before Nathaniel Rochester purchased the One-Hundred-Acre Tract on the west bank of the Genesee. A second daughter arrived in 1804 but each of those girls survived for only a year. A son was born in 1805 and daughter Ruth came along in 1807, five years before the first lot was sold in Rochester’s Tract. One more child, a boy, would be born in 1814. By then, three years before Rochesterville was incorporated as a village, the population of Brighton was 2,860.

Sylvester Cowles died in 1825 and is buried in Brighton Cemetery. It is not known when Romanta Hart, born on March 19, 1800, at Hartford County, Connecticut, first arrived in Brighton but, thanks to the records of the Daughters of the American Revolution, we know he married Ruth Cowles in 1826. Charles was born on September 13, 1827.

In February of 1849, hearing reports that gold had been discovered in California, twenty-one-year-old Charles headed west and became part of that great wave of “forty-niners” seeking their fortune. According to his obituary, he worked in mining, farming and merchandising. One story says he was the first person to plant fruit trees along the shores of San Francisco Bay, trees imported from Rochester.

In 1858, Charles was back in Rochester, which by then had annexed portions of Brighton. He soon married Mary Elizabeth Potter, the daughter of Henry Sayre Potter, an early investor in the Western Union Telegraph Company and its first president. He is the “Potter” who once owned the Hoyt-Potter House where the Corn Hill Neighbors Association maintains its office.

The newlyweds moved to St. Louis, Missouri where Charles worked in real estate and their first child Harriet (Hattie) was born on March 6, 1860. The couple soon returned to Rochester where a son, Howard Mortimer, was born on September 22, 1861. Another girl, Mary, was born in 1864. During these years, the family was living on East Avenue.

Their move to the Third Ward came about in 1866 when Henry S. Potter gave the Plymouth house to his daughter, Mary Elizabeth Potter Hart. Within a year, the two-story house was enlarged to three floors, a square tower was added and mansard roofs covered the building to give it the Second Empire style we see today.

Part 2

In November’s Gazette, I described the early adventures of Charles E. Hart as he went to California at the height of the Gold Rush, then returned to Rochester and married Mary Elizabeth Potter whose father, Henry, gave the couple a house that still stands at 199 South Plymouth Avenue. When the Harts moved into the home, city directories only stated the location—the corner of Plymouth and Troup. Not until 1875 did a house number appear, 61 Plymouth Avenue. In 1884, during citywide renumbering of Rochester houses, the number became 123. It changed to 199 in 1940. No distinction was made between north and south Plymouth until the 1931 directory.

Mr. Potter actually gave the house to his daughter. It was not uncommon for married couples to put their home in the wife’s name, especially if there was risk in the husband’s business that could result in bankruptcy or other lawsuits. If creditors went after his assets, the home would be protected.

It’s difficult to determine Charles Hart’s professional and financial success. Most records don’t even state his occupation. There are two exceptions. When he registered for the Civil War draft in 1863, he listed his occupation as “Gentleman.” The 1870 Federal Census describes him as an Oil Speculator. That same census record says that his wife, Mary Elizabeth owned $20,000 in real estate (including, no doubt, the Plymouth Avenue home) with a personal estate of $5,000.

In 1859, just ten years after the California Gold Rush that lured Hart to the west coast, oil was extracted from the earth at Titusville, a small village in the pine and hemlock forests of northwestern Pennsylvania. Everyone knew the oil was there, it oozed out of the ground and coated the surface of Oil Creek with an iridescent glow, but no one knew how to retrieve it. On August 28, a tall wooden derrick tapped into reserves deep underground and oil came bubbling to the surface. Commercially available at last, oil fields and refineries soon lined the Oil Creek Valley. By 1866, the village’s population of 250 people had grown to 10,000 and Titusville was incorporated as a city. A number of men became wealthy from that oil but none more so than John D. Rockefeller with his Standard Oil Company.

The Hart-Wiltsie house
The Hart-Wiltsie house as it looks today.

I know only slightly the role that Charles Hart served in the midst of this boom. It comes from these vague lines his obituary: “[H]e returned east [from St. Louis] to begin the most eventful period of his life which comprised fifteen years in drilling and operating wells in Western Pennsylvania. He became an expert in oil well matters and was involved in the business during the height of the oil excitement.”

Charles must have been away from home a lot even though city directories list him at the South Plymouth home during this period. In the 1870 census mentioned above, he and Mary are living with their three children Hattie E., age 10, born in Missouri, Howard M., 8, and Mary, 6, the last two born in New York. There are also two Domestic Servants, Susan Nellis, 16, born in New York and Mary Dalton, 25, born in Ireland. If Charles was as actively involved in the oil operations as the obituary suggests, he must have been gone for long periods, leaving Mary and two servants to care for house and children.

In 1879, again citing Hart’s obituary, “he became interested in mining in Colorado where he remained for about five years, but ill health compelled his return to Rochester.” Could he have been separated from his family for all those years? In December 1882, the Democrat and Chronicle published this brief report: “Messrs. Charles E. Hart and C. D. Tracy of this city, have located a very promising silver mining claim in the celebrated Lake Valley district, New Mexico….” It must have been shortly thereafter that his health began to fail.

In 1880, his father-in-law Henry S. Potter had named Charles as executor of his will. However, in August of 1883, Potter annulled that decision, “by reason of his impaired health and the character and locality of his business, it being so very remote and requiring his absence from this city to conduct it….” Potter died January 9, 1884.

Hart-Wiltsie House, Part 3.

In the foreground, Mary Elizabeth Potter Hart and her husband Charles Edward Hart are buried in a corner of her father’s plot on an elevated plane that overlooks Mount Hope Avenue.
In the foreground, Mary Elizabeth Potter Hart and her husband Charles Edward Hart are buried in a corner of her father’s plot on an elevated plane that overlooks Mount Hope Avenue.

In 1884, after years of pursuing gold and silver in western states or drilling for oil in Pennsylvania, illness finally brought Charles E. Hart back to Rochester and his Plymouth Avenue home —the house known today as #199. The “illness” he suffered was not identified in any public accounts. His 1894 obituary said he “had been an invalid for the past two years…,” However, his health was clearly not good during the previous eight years, if it had forced him into retirement.

In his final years, Charles spent several months each winter in Florida. That’s where he was with his daughter Harriet on Thursday, April 9th, 1891, when his wife back in Rochester became ill with pneumonia. At first it did not seem serious but took a turn on Saturday alarming her son Howard who was with her. He immediately informed the family that the situation was dire. Father and daughter made arrangements for the long trip home. So did the Harts’ youngest daughter Marabel, living in New York City with her husband, Jacob Scudder Farlee. Two days later, on the afternoon of Monday, April 13th, Mary Elizabeth Potter Hart died. She was sixty years old. Marabel arrived in Rochester sometime that day but it is not known whether it was before or after the mother’s death. Charles and Harriet were still en route from Florida.

Mrs. Hart’s obituary celebrated this “most estimable lady” for her participation in “many charities,” including “at the time of her death [service as] one of the managers of the Home for the Friendless.” On April 16, she was interred in the northeast corner of the Potter family plot at Mount Hope Cemetery.

Following his wife’s death, Charles found comfort in the fact that two of his children still lived with him. Howard Mortimer Hart, the middle child in the family, had for several years been part owner of a construction company, Hoffman & Hart. Like his father, he developed health issues and removed himself from the company around 1891-2 to lead a less active life.  Unencumbered by professional duties, he joined his father and sister when they once again departed for Florida on Thursday February 4, 1892, where they spent the next three months. The father’s health declined dramatically during the coming year and he was declared an invalid.

In 1893, a couple of happier events brought significant change to this close family. On June 14, Howard married Eleanor Silsby in a ceremony that took place at her parents’ Seneca Falls home. Then the couple moved into an apartment at 60 Plymouth Avenue on the north side of the Erie Canal, several blocks from the father’s residence.

Four months later, on Thursday evening October 6th, Harriet married Charles Hastings Wiltsie in a ceremony that, according to the Democrat and Chronicle, would “be remembered as one of the more prominent social events of the season.” As the service began at the First Presbyterian Church, “ushers, the bridesmaids, two little maids of honor, the maid of honor and two little pages preceded the bride up to the altar.” Immediately following the ceremony, family and “a few intimate friends” gathered at Powers’ Hall for an elaborate dinner supervised by an unnamed but curiously described “New York genius.” Perhaps the reporter was unimpressed by this “prominent social event.”

When the meal was done, the bridal couple was “driven to the Central Hudson station and started upon their wedding journey” to a secret destination. Upon their return, three weeks later, they would live with Charles at 123 Plymouth Avenue. 

Over the next eight months, Charles Edward Hart suffered a series of paralyzing strokes until June 16, 1884 when he died in the home now shared with his daughter and son-in-law. Two days later, he was buried next to his wife in the Potter family plot.

When Howard got married, he and his wife moved into their own home and began a family. The Wiltsies would remain in the Plymouth Avenue house for half a century more. It would seem, not only did Miss Hart take her husband’s name, so did the Hart home, which has become known as the Hart-Wiltsie House. In the next issue of the Gazette (July), I will conclude this story, describing how the house finally passed out of the family with pieces of it ending up in Pittsford.

The Hart-Wiltsie House, Part 4.

Charles Hastings Wiltsie, the son-in-law of Charles E. Hart by virtue of his 1893 marriage to Harriet Potter Hart, was a brilliant Rochester lawyer. His reputation was due in no small measure to a treatise he published in 1885. Entitled “The Law of Mortgage Foreclosure,” it reportedly became a standard among attorneys for four decades, the last printing coming in 1927.

Wiltsie George B PHS Charles Hart House 123 Plymouth Ave
The Hart-Witsie House at the corner of South Plymouth and Troup Street has multiple apartments today. Photo from an earlier time courtesy Perinton Historical Society, Karl Jost Collection.

He was born on January 13, 1859 in a house on North Main Street in Pittsford Village. He attended Brockport State Normal School before graduating with honor from the University of Rochester in 1880. For the next two years, he did further studies in Germany, attending the universities of Gottingen and Berlin before being admitted to the Rochester bar in 1883. During the four years preceding his marriage to Ms. Hart, he traveled extensively, circling the world through locations in Africa, Asia, and Europe. After the marriage, he and his new wife settled into the Hart’s Plymouth Street home.

In addition to his professional career, he devoted much of his time supporting numerous community institutions, particularly those that advanced education. His served as a trustee for Mechanics Institute, the forerunner of the Rochester Institute of Technology, which for years was located in the Third Ward. He was president of the Rochester Historical Society for more than a decade. However, his greatest accomplishment was the creation of the Rundel Library on South Avenue.

For years, an earlier Public Library had been based in the home of Mortimer F. Reynolds, son of Abelard Reynolds who founded the original Reynolds Arcade. Most of the books in that library had once belonged to the Rochester Athenaeum but were purchased by the younger Reynolds at a sheriff’s sale after the institute went bankrupt. Following Mortimer’s death in 1892, his will stipulated that the Spring Street home should become a public library using the Athenaeum’s books to start its collection.

Over the next several decades, the library struggled financially until Rochester mayor, Harold Edgerton, determined that money ($400,000) from the estate of Morton W. Rundel, who died in 1911, should be used to support and expand the city’s library system. Although that money remained under litigation for the next seventeen years, the Mayor was confident that it would eventually be awarded to the city. Toward that goal, he appointed a Board of Trustees that included Charles H. Wiltsie. 

Wiltsie eventually became the board’s president in 1922. During his tenure, a court finally determined that Rundel’s well-invested money, which by then had grown to $800,000, could go to the city. The board moved forward with plans to design and build the South Avenue library.

Wiltsie was a zealous advocate for the project during most of its planning. “We are told that anyone with the will to read has within reach ‘the essentials of a liberal education’ if the proper reading matter is available…. That is what makes our Public Library in a very real sense the ‘People’s University.’ ” Sadly the Wiltsies both died while the library was under construction. Harriett’s died in November of 1933; Charles’ death occurred eighteen months later on May 9, 1935. The Rundel Library opened to the public on October 5, 1936; 3,200 books were checked out that first day.

The couple had a daughter Mary Emily who, at the time of her father’s death, was living in the Plymouth Avenue home with her husband, Harold L. Field, and their two sons. Mary became the primary recipient of the Wiltsie estate valued at $681,000—equal to more than thirteen million dollars today. Two years later, the couple moved to Brighton, ending seventy years of residence by five generations of the Hart-Wiltsie families. Before Mary let go of the homestead, however, she dismantled parts of it. When a British comedy was being staged on the University of Rochester campus, she provided a chandelier and wall plaques from the Wiltsie drawing-room.

To honor her father, Mary purchased the Pittsford house where he’d been born, installed woodwork taken from the Plymouth Avenue home, and gave the renovated house on North Main Street to the Town of Pittsford to serve as its community library. Then she oversaw renovations to the house where she had grown up (including new woodwork) before donating it to the American Red Cross to serve as its headquarters.

I Wonder Where the Woodwork Went

As I was researching this month’s After Thoughts, I was struck by the fact that, 85 years ago, woodwork from the Hart-Wiltsie House had been removed and installed into a Pittsford house, which then became the town’s library. Today the Pittsford library is a fairly recent structure, so what became of the Charles Hastings Wiltsie Memorial Building. Of course, I was more concerned about what happened to the woodwork!

I sent emails to Pittsford Town Historian Audrey Johnson and Deputy Historian Vicki Masters Profitt. I received a prompt reply from Ms. Profitt who, it turns out, is as big a fan of the Wiltsie family—a significant name in Pittsford history—as I am of the Hart family in Corn Hill. “Yes!” she assured me, “The (old) library is still around. Today it is the Pittsford Village Hall, located at 21 North Main Street. The woodwork in it is amazing, as are the stained glass windows….

”Vicki (we’re now on a first name basis) shared historic photos of the Village Hall as well as several photos of the Hart-Wiltsie House in Corn Hill from a collection at the Perinton Historical Society. A week later, I visited Vicki and Ms. Johnson, at the Historian’s Office and then was taken over to the Village Hall so I could see the Hart-Wiltsie woodwork for myself.

It is always my joy to meet with local historians who work so diligently to preserve their community’s past. They never get the credit they deserve.

Jim DeVinney
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