The house’s architect was arguably the most famous to ever design a structure in all of north central Ohio.
Two months ago, however, no one knew that was the case.
On Monday afternoon, October 3, four people gathered in the offices of a local bank to engage in what was only the third major transfer in the house’s almost-110 year history. When the process was completed, the Gill House at 342 Harding Way West was purchased by a new limited liability company which will conduct repairs, winterize the property, and market it to buyers who will restore and preserve it. The house was purchased from Harding Way Center, Ltd., a company which was organized by the late attorney Philip Hesby and his wife, Jean. The Hesbys had acquired the Gill House in the early 1950s from the Talbott family.
The new company, Preserving Galion History, LLC, currently has one member – the Galion Historical Society, Inc. — which provided funding for the acquisition. For the first time in its 56-year history, the Society has sought and obtained the opportunity to take an active role in securing the future of a significant piece of local history outside of the area of South Union and West Walnut Streets. According to a letter sent to all Society members on Tuesday announcing the purchase, this action is called for not only in the organization’s Constitution, but by a recent membership survey which indicated that “preservation of local historic buildings” was to be given highest priority.
The Gill House was constructed about 1903 by Bloomer B. and Nellie Stewart Gill. Bloomer was the grandson of David Gill, an early Galion pioneer and its first school teacher. The original Gill family holdings extended to the north and west from the corner of Harding Way West and Gill Avenue, and encompassed what is now the area of Heise Park. Mr. Gill owned a drug store and was later associated as an executive with the Howard Buggy Works and Howard Automobile Company.
The house itself is a masterful representation of the Neoclassical style of architecture in its purest form. Although the original two story semicircular front portico is gone, the remainder of the house exhibits extremely sophisticated and refined decoration. The interior is breathtaking. This is no surprise when one realizes that the architect of the house, Louis Kamper, was trained in the offices of McKim, Mead & White – the leading Neoclassical and Beaux-Arts architectural firm worldwide in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Kamper was a protégé of the renowned Stanford White, one of America’s best-known architects.
After being trained with the firm in New York City, Kamper started his own firm in Detroit, where he became the Midwest’s leading classical-style architect. In addition to many residential commissions in Detroit for that city’s industrial magnates, Kamper was the architect for many of the city’s famous large buildings and hotels – including the famous Book-Cadillac.
Many of Kamper’s residences are now lost. The Gill House is, in fact, the only known structure in Ohio to have been designed by the architect. When it acquired the structure, Preserving Galion History, LLC actually also obtained all of the original architectural drawings and renderings of the house (including the porch) – which also happen to be some of the only known to survive from the architect, as Kamper’s studio burned in the 1950s. Until those plans were shared with the prospective purchaser some weeks ago, no one in Galion was aware of the designer’s identity.
When he learned of the acquisition of the Gill House late Monday night, a Michigan architect and Kamper biographer immediately started making plans to come to Galion in the coming weeks to view the house.
In recent weeks, Historical Society members have also been unearthing what is a likely strong connection between the Gills, the house, and the inventor Thomas Alva Edison. This intriguing story, which GalionLive will profile soon, involves the Chautauqua Institution in New York, Edison’s second wife, and a Gill family “story” that was shared fifteen years ago by one of Galion’s most beloved librarians.
Almost twenty years ago, the house was the planned site of a new Taco Bell restaurant, and an effort to save the building was front-page news for months in local media. On Monday night, after the sale had taken place, members of the Galion Historical Society Board and Staff, as well as their spouses, joined in the oval dining room of the Gill House for a champagne and finger food event in celebration of the purchase.
Many Galionites are also fond of the towering copper beech tree which graces the front yard of the property. There is actually a second copper beech tree behind the first. While the largest tree — which fronts on Harding Way West — is in great shape, the company is in the process of determining whether the second, smaller tree can be saved.
Now the real work begins. Repairs will begin immediately, and investors in the limited liability company are being actively sought. Of course, the property will also soon be available for purchase. For more information on the project, please contact Society Executive Director Amber Wertman, who is serving as communications point person for Preserving Galion History, LLC pursuant to an agreement between it and the Society.
Because of the private nature of the former owners, the public has not been allowed in the house for almost 60 years. This will end soon, as the Society is already making plans to allow limited tours.
Below are the first-ever public photos of the interior of the Gill House. These were taken in August of this year.