As you stroll along Wyoming Avenue one picturesque spring day, your eyes may fall upon a plaque near 310 Wyoming Avenue: “James McIlwain – A Concerned Citizen”. It begs the question – “Who is he, and why was he concerned?”
The story of James McIlwain is richer than a stone plaque would lead one to believe. It is a story of history and of the revitalization of Wyoming. The placement of the plaque is no coincidence. Mr. McIlwain was behind the restoration of the Victorian-era George House family residence at 310 Wyoming Avenue, and he and his wife are acknowledged as among the first citizens to recognize the beauty and importance of the historic homes in Wyoming.
A House as Old as Wyoming Itself
While the house at 310 Wyoming Avenue is now one of the most admired homes in Wyoming, when James and Gertrude McIlwain purchased it in 1947, it was a shadow of its former self – divided into a two-family home and much in need of repair. It took the McIlwains two years to get up the courage to buy and renovate the home.
The home got its name from its original owner, Col. George House, a Civil War veteran who co-owned the Palmer Bros. & House Flour Mill on the (then) nearby Miami-Erie Canal. House built the home in 1868 and, according to the Wyoming Historical Society, is believed to be just the third house built in the village.
Wyoming itself had just been named in 1861 and did not officially become a village until 1874.
In the Italian villa fashion of the day, the home once had a square tower above its front entrance. The tower is believed to have burned down in the late 1800s or early 1900s. House moved out of the home in the early 1900s when the mill went out of business, but stayed in Wyoming, moving to 614 Burns Avenue.
A Risk for Home Ownership
It may be surprising to more recent residents of Wyoming, but the village section of town was not always the fashionable neighborhood that we think of today. In the late forties and early fifties, the late 19th and early 20th century houses in the village were showing their age, and while Wyoming was attracting new residents, they were largely moving into new homes in the hills west of Springfield Pike.
The McIlwains had been village pioneers for 12 years, renting an apartment on the second floor of 19 Worthington Avenue for $75 a month before making the leap to home ownership.
James McIlwain, a fire protection engineer, immediately began to put his skills to work, overseeing the replacement of the home‘s heating, plumbing and electrical systems. A new kitchen and bathroom soon followed. Those familiar with older Wyoming homes would not be surprised to learn that the house needed new windows, roof repair, siding repair and a new coat of paint.
The McIlwains then turned back to the interior of the house, documenting 738 hours of work to strip, repair and re-varnish the original virgin white pine woodwork.
McIlwain did as much of the renovations as he could by himself, but because he worked full time and could not be there during the weekdays, he hired a handyman to do requested tasks day by day. While the handyman was a hard worker, sometimes communication failed. When McIlwain was working on the pocket doors between the living room and the dining room, he had removed the trim around the door to begin the repair process, but then had to go to work. When he returned home for the night, the handyman proudly showed off the new banister that he installed for the basement steps. Asked where he found a piece of wood long enough for the staircase, the handyman replied that he found a nice piece of scrap wood laying in the living room (part of the pocket door trim!). McIlwain was more than a little upset and the handyman made a hasty exit that evening. Of course, McIlwain had to special order another piece of 12-foot pine for the pocket door trim.
A Living Part of History
While the home now belongs to another family, Mary Ann McIlwain Dodson, the daughter of James and Gertrude, continued her parents’ dedication to preservation in the years after they had passed away. She regularly made the home available for the Wyoming Historical Society’s historical house tour and allowed, even encouraged, the inclusion of the home in the third grade tours that took place several times a year.
Visitors, and especially the children, loved the stories told about the historical furnishings, windows and other peculiarities of an older home, and often marveled at the antique doll collection that was housed in the room below the old turret.
Recognition and Thanks
The McIlwain’s dedication to the restoration of 310 Wyoming Avenue can safely be said to be part of making the city of Wyoming, and especially the village area, what it is today.
In recognition of their contribution to preservation, the Wyoming Historical Society presented the Col. Robert Reily Award to Mary Ann McIlwain Dodson and, posthumously, her parents James and Gertrude McIlwain on April 17, 2011 and later installed the bench and the plaque in front of the home.