A 210-year-old log cabin that is believed to be Erie County’s oldest surviving building is not exactly “surviving” anymore.
The rotting Gipple cabin in Lancaster is now heaped in a pile of about 45 pine timbers.
Thomas Jefferson was president when the one-room, 1½-story log cabin in Lancaster was built by New Englander Amos Woodard around 1803.
And aside from Fort Niagara’s historic buildings, the tiny cabin also may well have been the oldest surviving structure in Western New York.
Considered too fragile to move after decades of neglect, weathering and overgrowth from trees, severe deterioration had overtaken the cabin that was nestled from public view on the late Russell Gipple’s farm at the southwest corner of Harris Hill Road and Wehrle Drive.
In recent years, the cabin had come to resemble a rotting shack with trees growing up through its roof – hardly what anyone would envision as a historic treasure, and certainly one that many forgot about over time.
The Hull House Foundation hopes to give it a “rebirth” of sorts, though it acknowledges the cabin can never be fully restored.
“It’s so badly deteriorated that we cannot fully restore it. It was deteriorated to the point where most people would give it up,” said Gary N. Costello, foundation president, who figures about half of the 45 timbers can be preserved.
“We will use new timbers to replace the missing ones and ones that can’t be saved. It could have been lost completely, and now it has a chance to be re-created. And it fits our story line beautifully, with the Hull House.”
A niece of the late Hazel Gipple, who also is the executor of Gipple’s estate, agreed last summer to donate the cabin to the foundation with the hope that it can be reconstructed for what its pioneer history represented. The family farm was once 80 acres, but some of it has been sold, and it now comprises 33.5 acres. The farm was known for its sweet corn, hay and oat crops, and it was farmed on a large scale up until 1995.
“I think it’s wonderful that the Hull House wants to do this,” said Sharon L. Taylor, the niece. “We kept telling my aunt, ‘There are no more Gipples. You need to let it be restored, and the Gipple name will live on.’ ”
With the family unwilling to part with it for years, deterioration set in, robbing the cabin of much of its authentic history. Many forgot it, though the Lancaster Historical Society and other preservationists had hoped to restore it.
Today, Hull House volunteers and architects have identified, tagged and photographed the logs. There also were three weekends of work, removing vegetation and what remained of the cabin roof and plaster. What followed were three separate trips – the last of the logs were moved a little more than a week ago – with a rented truck, plus a 16-foot trailer, to cart the dismantled cabin logs to the historic stone Hull Family Home & Farmstead heritage campus on Genesee Street in Lancaster.
Costello knows just how lucky the foundation is to have that pile of logs, even though half are rotted.
“We’re thrilled to have the opportunity to preserve this,” he said. “The Hull House Foundation refused to be the final ones to preside over its demise, which is why we went to such extreme efforts to save it.”
The foundation has a huge dream to reconstruct the 20- by 20-foot cabin with as much of the original material as possible with the V-notched pine logs and chinking, using a mix of mud and straw to hold the timbers together.
The plans are twofold: to preserve the Hull House and reconstruct the Gipple cabin on the same site.
“It’s a perfect match,” Costello said. “This will allow us to tell another component about the early history of Western New York.”
Costello knows it’s not an easy feat and that it will take considerable time and money to complete. The aim is to reconstruct the cabin to one that early settlers would have lived in, similar to what visitors see at the Genesee Country Museum in Mumford.
“We’re trying to do the right thing,” Costello said.
Architectural historian John H. Conlin, along with the Niagara Frontier Landmark Society, had hopes of restoring the cabin in the 1980s, when the cabin’s roof was repaired. Delays and Gipple family liability concerns prevented the bigger plan from happening.
“It was the oldest building in Erie County, and now it’s not, because it’s not a building anymore,” Conlin said. “So, I don’t know what it is. Years ago, it was too delicate to think about moving it. The walls were thin, and some logs were missing.”
Conlin praised the efforts of the Hull House Foundation, though he said it will be very hard to make the cabin into an exhibit.
Even though it would have been ideal to restore such a cabin at its original site, the cabin still is worth salvaging to help tell the story of the early 19th century, said Tim Tielman, executive director of the Campaign for Greater Buffalo, History, Architecture & Culture.
He acknowledged the difficulty when the deterioration was so severe and the complications of having been privately owned and on private land for years. Tielman said he hadn’t seen the cabin in about 20 years.
“But even as a reconstruction, it is valuable. As much material as they can salvage would be good,” Tielman said.
But the cabin’s value may be surpassed by two barns on the Gipple property, dating to about 1820, Conlin said.
“The salt box barn is the most important. They’re more important than the cabin. That’s where I would focus on, instead of the cabin,” he said. “Those two barns are Lancaster landmarks in themselves, and both could be saved.”