May 1990

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The House John Magee Built

Now the Davenport Memorial Library


Bill Treichler

In 1831 John Magee brought his new wife, Arabella Stewart, from Maryland back to Bath, and built a handsome brick house on the large corner lot where the road from Cameron joins West Morris Street.

Set well back from either roadway, the house has two full floors that are elevated nearly a half-storey above ground level. An old print of the residence of John Magee shows the house with a cupola and wide-bracketed eaves. In that picture it has a delicate front entrance porch with upturned roof corners, almost oriental in appearance.

When you enter the house, now the library, from the front, you go into a central hall that opens into rooms on either side. On the right side is a large room extending the full depth of the house. It has two fireplaces along the outside wall. The hallway which goes only about two thirds of the way through the house is separated from this room by only two columns. Opposite this long room, across the hallway, is a room about the same length as the hall. Here there are leaded-glass windows between the room and the hallway. There may have been similar windows on the other side at one time. The open and the glassed interior partitions allow light from the side rooms into the hall that would have been very dark otherwise. The whole front part of the downstairs is light and pleasant. The house looks to have been planned for entertaining.

During some recent work upstairs in the library, strengthening floors to support the books stored there, a large wheel was discovered built into a pocket space inside a partition just above the middle of the long downstairs parlor. The wheel's use is a mystery. Could it have been used to raise a partition from between two smaller parlors and combine them into a single large room. The Magees may have wanted more open space when they had many guests.

There is a smaller room in the back corner on the south side of the house that is thought to have been a dining room. Between it and the back hall, where the stairs are, is a dumb waiter. This must have been used to bring food from the kitchen in the basement to the dining table.

The Magees raised ten children in this house. They must have felt a bit crowded at times. Certainly not all of the children could have eaten in the dining room with their parents. In this room now is a large oil painting of four of the Magee children and a smiling servant boy peering through a doorway. The door frame is recognizable as that of the door opening into the back hall.

The Magee's house required a lot of help to run. The placement of the kitchen on a lower floor represents like elaborate living. John Magee and his wife may have been more interested in appearances than convenience. He had acquired money, and he wanted recognition for his achievements. A pretentious home could be one way to gain admiration.

About the first that is known of John Magee is that he and his father went from Erie, Pennsylvania, to Niagara, New York, to join the fighting in the War of 1812. He became a courier between the lines and Washington, D.C., and may have ridden through Bath on his trips.

After the war he walked from New Jersey to Bath and began work for his brother-in-law, Adam Haverling. Magee soon became sheriff of the county and later went on to Washington as a Congressman.

All this time Magee was active in business ventures. There was his stage line enterprise followed by the Fall Brook Coal Company that shipped coal from Blossburg, Pennsylvania, mines by railroad to Corning, and from there, when the Chemnug Canal had been extended, to Elmira, and then north to Havana and Seneca Lake and the whole Erie Canal system.

Magee was one of the promotors of the Erie Railroad out through Bath. Old correspondence tells of the warring between the canal factions and the railroad interests in the legislature over the issue of state support for the railroads. The Erie did build through Bath, and water from the railroad water tank did supply water to the fountain in the lawn in front of Magee's house.

John Magee became a very wealthy man. He established the Bank of Steuben County in Bath and had a bank in NYC. He and William McCay were the main officers of the Steuben County Bank. Magee had been with Constant Cook in his bank for awhile; then later they became rivals, finally each trying to outdo the other in the churches they would build in Bath and Watkins Glen.

In the political struggle of New York City bankers to wrest control away from Philadelphia bankers, Magee sided with Andrew Jackson against Nicholas Biddle and his bank in Philadelphia. At this time Magee was running for elective office in Bath and was known to support Jackson. Just a few days before the election a political poster appeared in Bath disclaiming this position and signed by "John Magee." His opponents had printed this bill and found another John Magee to sign it. Magee didn't have time to expose their ruse before the voting, and he was defeated. Whether this ploy confused his supporters isn't known. John Magee soon moved from Bath to Watkins Glen where he built a church to rival Cook's St. Thomas Episcopal in Bath.

Ambrose Spencer Howell bought the house in Bath from Magee in 1866. The Howell family lived there until 1885. The Howells were merchants, and built the cast-iron-front building on Liberty Street in Bath where Madigan's restaurant is now.

When Magee sold the house he had built in Bath, he reserved the iron picket fence, two hitching posts, two iron dogs, and two large chandeliers in the parlor of the house. The story is that he never took them. He died in 1868, five years after going from Bath, leaving an estate of 11 million dollars.

The Howells may have made changes in the house. Its external appearance now is more Federal style now than it was in the earlier print. The wood fireplace mantels in the downstairs rooms have been replaced with arched-top marble surrounds. A brick front-entrance vestibule was added that has a half-round window above the outer door which looks very similar to the interior windows on the left side of the hallway. This window and one at the back of the building may have come from the right side of the hallway.

In 1885 Daniel Howell took the property by foreclosure. He sold it in 1893 to Ira Davenport, Jr. Ira Davenport left the Magee house, Elm Cottage, and the Liberty Street business property where Cohn's store now is, plus $40,000, to the library association in 1904.

The last Magee descendant known by the library was Duncan Edwards who got the painting of the Magee children for the library some years ago. He is no longer living.

The basement of the house which contained living quarters for the Magee family servants as well as the kitchen was remodelled by the library into additional reading rooms and a room for historical book collections.

A reconstruction program in 1980 included a new roof and gutters, cleaning and sealing the exterior brick work, repair of floor joists, and refinishing of ceilings and walls.

In 19_ the Davenport Library moved to a new building and the Magee House became the home of the Steuben County Historical Society.
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