Glimpses of the Past
People, Places, and Things in Letchworth Park History

The Story of the Glen Iris Inn

Although today the Glen Iris Inn is just one of the many attractions of Letchworth State Park, for those who love the history of the Park, it is the most special of places. For it is at the Glen Iris, surrounded by the mist and roar of the Middle Falls, that you can most easily step back into the past and feel the presence of William Pryor Letchworth.

The story of the Glen Iris Inn does not begin with Mr. Letchworth, however. To find the beginning we must reach back nearly two centuries, back to the pioneer days in the Genesee Valley.

James Monroe was the President of the United States when Alvah Palmer came to the small terrace of land overlooking the Portage Falls. With the help of his family he built a mill on the Middle Falls and farmed the flat lands to the south of a little cabin he had built with his own hands. It was a rugged, but beautiful place to carve a living out of the new land. The Palmer's were successful enough to enlarge the log cabin into a small two-story house.

Around 1832 a man named Michael Smith and his family arrived in the Valley. Smith was an immigrant who had once served in Napoleon's army. He became interested in the Palmer property, but not just for the farm and mill. The Falls would eventually bring tourists, and tourists would bring a good living to him and his family. So with a business partner, Theodore Olcott, he purchased the land for $5.50 an acre.

Years later, Smith's daughter Melinda, recalled that "the southern part of the house stood on the place where it was bought, but father had the kitchen and pantry moved off and the rest of the house moved back and built the upright, finishing it in 1850." Smith leased the house out to several tenants over the next few years, including one that tried to run it as a "temperance tavern" called the Cataract House.

Michael Smith and his family moved back into the house in 1854. Smith's dreams for the house and his land quickly faded as his financial problems grew. By 1859 he was ready to sell the house and his 190 acres to the first buyer who came along.

Luckily, that buyer was the Buffalo businessman, William Pryor Letchworth. Letchworth was looking for a place to get away from city life and pursue his interest in art, literature, and nature. Viewing Smith's property from the deck of the Portage High Bridge, Letchworth knew that, if the price was right, he had found the perfect place.

It was. Letchworth was able to purchase the entire property in 1859. He paid Smith $1.00 for it, for Smith by this time was heavily mortgaged to his former business partner, Theodore Olcott. Olcott got the remainder of the money - $7000 in all. The former Cataract House was now in new hands.

It was on the Fourth of July of that same year when Letchworth stayed at his new country home for the first time. The house and the surrounding countryside must have seemed wild and rugged to the young businessmen and his Buffalo friends who accompanied him on this first adventure, but Letchworth knew he had done the right thing. Immediately he laid the plans for what would become the Glen Iris Estate.

Work would have to be done on the old Cataract House. It would no longer be an Inn or Tavern, but his home and headquarters for the estate. Although Letchworth's tastes were not extravagant, he did want a certain level of comfort for himself and his guests. Suitable arrangements would have to be made for his growing art collection, along with shelves for his extensive library and cabinets for his future collection of natural and historic curiosities.

First of all he would need a name. On November 6, 1859 he used "Glen Iris, Portage" for the first time in a letter to his mother. His new home would now be named for the Greek goddess of rainbows. (See early photo of the Glen Iris)

By the time he had hired a landscape architect to lay out the rest of his estate, the Glen Iris and nearby barns and buildings had already undergone extensive renovations. The architect, a man named William Webster who had studied under Frederick Law Olmstead, tried to talk Letchworth into letting him tear down the older structure and build a more stately home on the flat land to the South, farther away from the main gates. But Letchworth had objected, leaving Webster no choice "but to let (it) remain for the present." (See Ornamental Farm).

For the next fifteen years, Letchworth spent as much time as he could at his beloved Glen Iris. Weekends and other extended periods, when work did not keep him in Buffalo, found him at the Glen Iris. He was joined by a wide range of family and friends. Among them were the members of the "Nameless Club", a group of Buffalo friends who delighted in sharing art and literature discussions, and the "Portage Rangers", as Letchworth's nieces and nephews loved to call themselves when they came to explore the trails and shaded glens of their Uncle William's estate. (See Letchworth and family on porch)

Some special guests planted memorial trees on the lawn or at the Council Grounds, many of which still stand today. Others left original poems to the Glen Iris and its owner. Letchworth collected the poetry into an album, which he kept at the Glen Iris. Later, he published them in a little volume called "Voices of the Glen". (See Voices of the Glen)

By the 1880's Letchworth, now retired, saw the need for a larger house. Perhaps he thought of Webster's recommendations to tear down the Glen Iris and build a more stately mansion, but if he did, he decided quickly that his "cottage" would suffice. He simply added a third floor to the main upright of his house, carefully retaining the Greek Revival architecture of the house that Smith had built. The new third floor would hold his bedroom and a new study that served as his office as a member of the New York State Board of Charities. (See before and after photographs of the Glen Iris)

Letchworth's Glen Iris was quickly becoming a tourist attraction. Descriptions were published in many magazines and weeklies, including Picturesque America which in 1874 described the Falls and Council Grounds in great detail, and described the Glen Iris as a "rural home, the fortunate owner of which is evidently the possessor of a sympathizing and appreciative taste for the beauties with which he is surrounded." Soon the railroad companies were running Sunday and holiday excursion trains, bringing scores of visitors from places such as Rochester and Buffalo to see the wonders of the Portage area. (See railroad broadside)

This popularity was a mixed blessing for Letchworth and the Glen Iris. Believing that the study of nature and history could elevate and illuminate the common man, he encouraged visitors with a public reading room, his Council House Complex, and numerous paths and rustic benches. Signs on his gates did not warn the public about trespassing on private lands - they simply asked the traveler to shut the gate behind them. Another sign on an unused building offered the shelter to anyone who needed it free of charge, but "are respectfully requested to leave the premises in good condition, free from litter, and return the key to Mr. Doolittle. (at the Glen Iris)" (see photo of visitors at the Glen Iris)

Soon the sheer numbers of tourists began to strain the Glen Iris grounds and Mr. Letchworth's nerves. His sister, Mary Ann Crozer, who came to stay with him noted often in her diary that there were "a great number of people on the lawn", and it was not unusual for some of them to peer through the Glen Iris windows when Letchworth was at dinner. As Letchworth complained in a letter to a friend, he had offered his Estate "for the rational enjoyment of good people", but now where once were "the flowers and the sweetness and freshness of the woods, but everywhere instead (we now find) trampled grass and broken shrubbery, here and there empty liquor bottles, remnants of lunches, etc." He even tried unsuccessfully to stop the railroad from running their cheap Sunday excursion trains. (See photos of Picnics at Portage)

Despite these problems, Letchworth still chose to give his beloved Glen Iris Estate to the State of New York in 1907. The deed reserved for him life use of the Glen Iris and the grounds, and so he lived out the remaining years of his life in his "cottage" overlooking the Middle Falls. In the evening of December 1, 1910, William Pryor Letchworth passed away peacefully in his bedroom at the Glen Iris.

For a few years it was unclear what role the Glen Iris would play in the new Park. At first it served as the Park "headquarters" and was maintained, just as Mr. Letchworth left it by his secretary, Caroline Bishop. But the Letchworth Park Committee, which ran the Park, quickly realized that the Glen Iris could also serve as an Inn for the growing number of tourists who were coming to the new Park. Michael Smith's old dream of a prosperous Inn overlooking the Middle Falls was reborn.

At first a housekeeper was hired at $50.00 per month who could provide meals for guests at $.75 (at her own expense) and charge another $.75 for a night's lodging. These early visitors truly felt as if they were Mr. Letchworth's personal guests - they actually ate at his table and slept in his beds. Letchworth's furniture, library, and collections of art and history all remained intact for the visitor's enjoyment.

It quickly became apparent that if the Glen Iris was to become an Inn, changes would have to be made. By the time the Glen Iris Inn officially opened on May 11, 1914 by innkeeper Charles Baeder, extensive renovations had been made. Twelve sleeping rooms and a second floor bath and toilet were added or renovated, the Inn was electrified for the first time by means of a gasoline generator. Public bathrooms were added on the first floor for women and in the basement for men. The dining room was enlarged to 17 by 29 feet. But despite these changes, Mr. Letchworth's original furnishings were still retained and available for public use. (See photograph of Glen Iris Dining Room and Early Brochure)

As Letchworth Park grew and evolved, the Glen Iris Inn continued to play an important role in the Park. Renovations and additions continued as the building served generations of Park visitors as an inn, restaurant, and gift shop. In recent years a major renovation has been completed, which has done much to restore the structure back to the days when it was the home of the Park's benefactor.

Although the Glen Iris is now a commercially run Inn within one of the most popular State Parks in the East, it is still a place to enjoy and experience as much for its place in history as for its hospitality and fine dining. It is the place that is central to the long history of Letchworth Park, and it is there that one can still sense the loving hand of the Park's benefactor, William Pryor Letchworth.

 

Tom Cook
June 2000

Sources:

Anderson, Genesee Echoes

Barnes, The Glen Iris Story

Beale, A Man for Others

20th Annual Report of the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society, Letchworth Park Committee

 

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