May 1989

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The Aisle of Pines


Donald Rowland

Until 1973 a magnificent house stood on a knoll between Keuka and Waneta Lakes just south of the hamlet of Wayne. Surrounded on three sides by columns with Doric capitals, the three-story building was a prominent landmark.

For the last sixty years of its existence this showplace was called “The Aisle of Pines,” but its first owner, Samual Hallett, referred to the house as “the Lake Home.” Local people called it “the Hallett Mansion” or simply “the Big House.”

The house was built in 1854 for Hallett by John Quick and Jesse H. Foster. Who actually conceived the design is not known. Quick was a carpenter who had a shop in Hammondsport and built houses there.

The elegant house stood for nearly 120 years as a monument to Sam Hallett’s ambitions, and as a testimony to the designer’s architectural taste as well as to Foster and Quick’s solid construction.

The original cost is not known. When it was moved and remodelled in 1912 and 1913 the Hammondsport Herald reported that around $30,000 was being expended on the place. In later years it passed through a number of hands and completely exhausted the resources of at least one temporary owner. The house went through periods of glory and longer periods of neglect. When it burned March 12, 1973, the monument to the fame and legend of its originator and his family was gone.

Samuel Hallett was born into a large family in Canisteo in 1827. He must have been a young man with great ambition and confidence and full of the enterprising drive of the frontier people.

At Alfred University he met Ann Elizabeth McDowell from Wayne, New York. They were married in 1848, when he had graduated from the Albany State Normal School. Some reports say that they taught school for several years. He also clerked for John B. Mitchell, Ann Eliza’s uncle, who ran a store in Wayne.

John Mitchell had other business interests, and young Sam became his confidential secretary acquiring business acumen from his employer.

In 1851 with his wife’s brother, Francis Marion McDowell, he got into the lumbering business in the Canisteo valley around Adrian. They prospered. The next year they set up a bank in Hornellsville and soon a branch in Bath. He even visited Europe at this time to promote the Hocking Valley Railroad. Sam Hallett must have been a person with great persuasive ability to convince people of the soundness, or at least the profitability, of new ventures.

He paused in 1854 when he was only 29 years old and had built for his family a plantation-size summer home at Wayne. Hallett’s new construction was added to an already existing house. The property there had been owned by John B. Mitchell as early, maybe, as 1815.

This handsome new house became the symbol of Hallett’s rapid success. In addition to his impressive house, Hallett had great ideas for Wayne including a girl’s seminary and a railroad. Wayne had been his wife’s home and the place where he began his business career.

In 1856 Hallett’s aspirations led him to run for Congress. He lost this race. Never daunted, the next year, in 1857, he opened a bank in New York City. Samuel Hallett and Company had their offices at No. 53, Beaver Street, NYC. With him were his wife’s brothers Frank M. and George W. McDowell and his wife’s sister’s husband, Nirom M. Crane.

Hallett, the salesman, then went back to Europe selling stocks and bonds for the Atlantic and Great Western Railroad, and promoting the Nautilus Diving Bell. Europeans as well as Americans were caught up in the great speculative enthusiasms.

These were years of great living and entertaining and travelling for the Hallett family. They had a brownstone residence in Brooklyn and this imposing estate at Wayne for their summers where they entertained politicians, financial tycoons, deposed French royalty, and literary celebrities.

In 1863 Hallett’s firm, in association with John C. Fremont, bought the controlling interest in the Leavenworth, Pawnee and Western railroad. This line became the eastern division of the Union Pacific. They soon ran short of money and Hallett went before Congress to get additional funds for the road. Fremont withdrew but Hallett took over and continued construction of the Kansas link of the railroad to the Pacific. Suddenly, on July 27, 1864, Hallett’s phenomenal success ended, when, as the story goes, he was shot down in the street outside his hotel in Wyandotte (now Kansas City), Kansas. Sam Hallett was only 37 years old.

His young widow came to live the year ’round in the summer mansion at Wayne, her home town. The place went into slow decline. Timber and property was sold off and eventually the tenanted farm could barely pay the taxes. Mrs. Hallett secluded herself in the house and lived on until 1893. During the last years of her life her daughter-in-law, Mrs. Robert Leslie Hallett, with three children, lived in the Hallett mansion with her. One of these grandchildren, Margaret Hallett Lang, wrote of her happy childhood there and described the house and its furnishings in a long letter to Lola Austin Morse in 1951.

After Mrs. Hallett’s death the house was vacant until George K. Birge leased it for twelve years in 1912. The Halletts were unable or unwilling to maintain the house, yet they would not sell nor lease the place for a longer period of time.

Birge was the president of the Pierce Arrow Motor Car Company in Buffalo. His father had started the first wallpaper company west of New York City, M. H. Birge and Sons, and had succeeded. George expanded the wallpaper company and went from making bicycles to manufacturing fine automobiles.

George K. Birge married Carrie Humphrey, daughter of Judge Guy Humphrey of Bath. When Birge saw the Hallett place, he approached Samual Irving Hallett of Denver to buy the property. All Birge could get was a 12-year lease with a written agreement to renew the lease.

In 1912 Birge began extensive improvements to the whole place, first moving and rotating the house to a new position midway in a long double row of Norway Spruce that had been planted years before as a windbreak. The house was now situated so that the front side faced toward Lake Keuka and the dining room side looked toward Lake Waneta. There were vistas up and down the aisle of pine trees. At this time the place acquired the name it is most often remembered by, “The Aisle of Pines.”

Birge carried out landscaping changes, as well, and added buildings, replacing stables that the Halletts had, with garages and accommodations for chauffeurs. He rebuilt gardens, added fountains, and a swimming pool. The Halletts had had a race course; Birge contemplated a golf course.

In February, 1918, George Birge died. His widow never returned to “The Aisle of Pines.” The lease expired October 12, 1923. The Birge family attempted again to buy or re-lease the property but Samuel Irving Hallett’s widow refused. The Birge family sold the adjoining 300 acres they had purchased to Clay Turner who had been a manager of the estate.

The Hallett property was later deeded to New York State with the understanding that it be used for a public institution. The Hallett heirs did give $12,000 for its upkeep. Samuel Irving had made a fortune in mining in Colorado, and his widow left an estate of $700,000 when she died at 86 in 1933.

The state did not use the property and it returned to private ownership, going through numerous hands and absorbing more money in fruitless attempts at its restoration. The fire that burned the house in 1973 consumed the beautiful structure and ended the monument to ostentation.


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