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The Historical and Architectural Significance of the Holley-Rankine House

By Francis R. Kowsky
Excerpts from the Holley-Rankine House National Register of Historic Places Nomination

Historical significance

During the 19th and early 20th centuries, the Holley-Rankine House served as the residence of men prominent in the economic, political, and social life of Niagara Falls, a city which owed its early development to the abundant power available from the Niagara River. Numerous mills, which had been established along the river in the early 19th century, were by mid-century consolidated into several companies. One of the largest of these was owned by Porter Brothers, a firm created in the 1840s by A. Augustus Porter and Peter Porter, together with George Washington Holley (1810-1897) who was a distant relative of the Porters.

Holley, whose family was involved with politics, was elected to a term in the New York State Assembly in 1853. He was later appointed to serve as U.S. Consul in Naples before becoming Deputy Collector of Customs at Niagara Falls in 1865.

In 1855, during his tenure in the state assembly, Holley purchased from Peter Porter a wooded tract of land overlooking the Niagara River, just above the American Falls. On this land he built his substantial villa, which was mentioned in Holley's will of 1879, and created elaborately landscaped grounds which included carriage drives and an artificial pond. (The landscaping has since been destroyed by the construction of the Robert Moses Parkway.)

From this agreeable residence beside the rapids, Holley, who became enamored of local history, surveyed the falls and the surrounding landscape which he described in his book Niagara as "like a beautiful and true, an excellent mistress, (for) the faithful lover may return to it with ever new delight, ever growing affection. (George Washington Holley, Niagara, Its History and Geology, Incidents and Poetry. Toronto: Hunter, Rose & Co., 1872, p. ix.)

After Holley's death in 1897, the house was unoccupied until 1902 when it was purchased by William B. Rankine (1858-1905). Rankine, who was trained as a lawyer, took a more pragmatic view of Niagara than did Holley. Early in his career he became interested in the possibility of harnessing the falls for the generation of electric power. This interest was stirred in him while he was reading law in the office of A. A. Porter in Niagara Falls. After being accepted to the bar in 1880, Rankine moved to New York City where he established himself as a successful attorney.

In 1890, however, he gave up his practice to devote himself entirely to his dream of utilizing the falls to produce electricity. Drawing upon his New York connections, he became largely responsible for the establishment of the Niagara Falls Power Company which built the famous Adams Power Plant Complex in 1895-1900.

The Adams plant was the world's first hydroelectric plant to transmit power over long distances. Power lines were extended to Buffalo in 1896 and to Syracuse in 1905. This application of long distance power transmission eventually led to the present Niagara Mohawk system which distributes electricity throughout western and central New York.

Rankine returned to Niagara Falls in 1899 and he continued to develop his association with the growing hydroelectric industry.

In recognition of his service to the city and the state, a bronze bust of Rankine stands on the grounds of the Niagara Falls city hall, dedicated to his memory as "Father of Niagara Power."

Since Rankine's death in 1905, the house has passed through several owners, but it has always remained a private residence. In the 1920s-40s it was the home of Frederick Laurens Lovelace, director of the Niagara Falls Power Company, and a man prominent in business and banking in Niagara Falls. The present owner has plans to redecorate the interior in the style of the Gothic Revival.

Architectural significance

Undoubtedly constructed in the late 1850s-1860s, the Holley-Rankine house is significant both architecturally and historically. The best preserved Gothic Revival cottage in Niagara Falls, it epitomizes the style of rural domestic architecture of the mid-19th century that is associated with the writings of Andrew Jackson Downing. In works such as his widely read and often reprinted Cottage Residences (1842) and The Architecture of Country Houses (1850), he extolled the esthetic and functional virtues of the Gothic style, which he found especially appropriate for locations having grand or picturesque scenery.

The constructive and decorative features of the exterior of the Holley-Rankine House, as well as the local materials of which it is built and the picturesque setting it was conceived to complement, all seem calculated to illuminate Downing's contention.

In addition, the remarkably well-preserved interior woodwork of "warm and dark tones," which Downing especially recommended for Gothic villas, imparts a "mellow, furnished look" to the rooms that is evocative of the artistic ideals of ante-bellum America.

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