Dennis-Newton House, 421 North Albany Street, Ithaca, New York
The Dennis-Newton House at 421 North Albany Street in Ithaca, NY is historically significant on a national level for its direct connection to the early formation of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, the first Greek letter, African-American collegiate fraternity in the United States. It is also significant locally for its connection to its African-American owners, the Dennis family. The house was originally built c.1869-70 for Norman Dennis (1833-1908), an early African-American resident of Ithaca who was born in New York and worked as a laborer and mason. Dennis help found the first African-American lodge of the Odd Fellows in Elmira, New York. Norman Dennis’ daughter, Lula (1859-1928), married Edward Newton (c. 1856-1932), a longtime employee at the Psi Upsilon fraternity house at Cornell University and an active member of Ithaca’s African-American community. In this house in 1905, Edward Newton provided a welcoming environment by hosting the first meeting of the social study group of African-American male students at Cornell, a group that soon evolved into the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity when they formally established themselves in 1906. Lula Newton died in 1928 and Edward Newton continued to live in the house until his death in 1932.
Ithaca’s Early Settlement and African-Americans in Ithaca
Ithaca’s origins as an organized community date to 1807 when Simeon DeWitt laid out the basic street grid for Ithaca with the settlement centering on North Aurora between Seneca and Buffalo. The Catskill Turnpike was an important stagecoach route, traveling through Ithaca along what became known as Owego Street (and is now State Street) and heading west from the settlement. This road served as a main thoroughfare and development by white settlers along the street continued during the first half of the nineteenth century. Owego and Aurora were the main streets of Ithaca, which was incorporated in 1821 as a village. By the early 1830s, Ithaca was an important land, water, and rail transportation center for Tompkins County and the community continued to grow in the 1840s and 1850s.4 The opening of Cornell University in 1868 played a crucial role in the growth of Ithaca and encouraged its expansion, a fact that is reflected in its change in status from village to city in 1888. The rise of local businesses and the presence of manufacturing concerns such as Ithaca Gun Company, Ithaca Paper Company, Ithaca Glass Works, and later the Morse Chain Company all contributed to Ithaca’s growth in the late nineteenth century.
A small number of slaves and free persons of color were included in the census of Tompkins County in 1820. By 1830, the African American population of Ithaca was listed as 112.5 Within Tompkins County between 1820 and 1850, a number of runaway slaves settled in the community before the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, and Ithaca was a known station of the Underground Railroad. An early African-American church in Ithaca, St. James AME Zion Church, was first chartered in 1833. The lot to erect the church on Cleveland Avenue (then Wheat Street) was purchased in 1836. St. James became an important religious and cultural center for the African-American community in Ithaca and served as a significant place of support and safety for those seeking freedom on the Underground Railroad. Some of its early pastors were escaped slaves. St. James was visited by important abolitionists, including Harriett Tubman and Frederick Douglass, and served as an enlistment site during the Civil War for soldiers of the 26th Regiment United States Colored Infantry. The church was built in the neighborhood known as Southside, an area whose neighborhood boundaries are based primarily around South Cayuga, Clinton, Meadow and State streets. From the 1830s onward, African Americans settled in Southside. This neighborhood was not the only location in Ithaca where African-Americans established residences: the neighborhood of North Albany, Cascadilla, and Esty Streets in Ithaca was also popular in the mid-to-late nineteenth century and had its own neighborhood church. Calvary Baptist Church at 507 North Albany Street was originally known as Wesleyan Methodist Episcopal Church “(Colored)” and was first established in 1857 as an offshoot from the Methodist Church. A church structure first appears in this location on North Albany Street on the Ithaca Bird’s Eye view of 1873 by O.H. Bailey. On the Sanborn map of 1888, it is listed as an A.M.E. church. In 1903, the church became known as the Calvary Baptist Church. The present church was constructed in 1917 and has been altered several times. While both Southside and the North Albany neighborhoods housed African-American members of the community, they were not exclusively African-American and white residents were also living in these areas.
As historian Field Horne noted, there were 117 black heads of households listed in Ithaca by 1900 with 33% owning their own homes. Several local organizations formed during this period, such as the black Masons, known as the Henry Highland Garnet Lodge, and the “Young Colored Men’s Club,” a group that met in spaces at 116 South Tioga Street in 1908 and 141 South Aurora Street in 1911. Although Ithaca had a small African-American population in the early twentieth century, close relationships were fostered through the churches and the activities of local organizations.
421 North Albany Street: House Ownership and Additions
Early Ithaca village and city maps, Sanborn Insurance maps of Ithaca, and property deed transactions help date the construction of 421 North Albany Street and its later additions. In a deed dated 24 October, 1867, Norman Dennis (1833-1908) is listed as the purchaser of the lot at 421 North Albany Street. According to the Ithaca directory, Norman Dennis is first listed at this address in 1869. In the 1872 map of Ithaca by J. H. Rutherford, the house appears with the name “N. Dennis” inscribed across the lot (fig.4). Based on this evidence, the house was first built around 1868-69 in an area just west of downtown Ithaca that saw increasing levels of residential construction and growth in the then village of Ithaca from 1851 to 1872. The original appearance of the house can be roughly determined by examining the 1882 L. R. Burleigh Bird’s Eye view of Ithaca (fig. 5). In this view, a basic sketch image of the house can be seen. The house is depicted as a two-story hipped roof structure with a small enclosure on the left side of the building around the front door, presumably with steps leading to it. The house began its life as a simplified, vernacular form of a late Greek Revival-transitional-Italianate dwelling. There is no carriage house indicated behind the house and Sanborn maps do not show any structures of this type on the lot. Like many of the neighboring houses on the street depicted in this 1882 image, Norman Dennis’ house is part of a residential strip one block north of a school and one block east of the Ithaca gasworks. This streetscape is composed of primarily two-story houses built in close proximity to the front lot lines with their main facades facing the street.
Norman Dennis (1833-1908) first appears in the 1850 census of Tompkins County as a 17-year-old working at the Clinton House hotel on North Cayuga Street. Dennis is later listed as a laborer and mason in the Ithaca directories and he was married to Helen M. Dennis, who died in 1893. Information about his life can be gleaned from his 1908 obituaries published in local newspapers. He was the founder of the African-American lodge of the Old Fellows in Elmira, New York, and lived in Elmira in his later years, where he died while working in the home of Jacob V. Shappee, an insurance agent. Norman Dennis was buried in the Ithaca City Cemetery. When Helen Dennis died in 1893, Lula Dennis inherited the house from her mother but transferred the deed in 1898 to her husband, Edward Newton. Lula and Edward Newton had both been living at this address since 1880 and continued to live there until their deaths in 1928 and 1932 respectively. The house remained in the Newton family until 1982 when the deed to the house was transferred by Lula and Edward Newton’s son, Norman Dennis Newton, to a new owner.21 In total, three generations of the Dennis–Newton family lived in the house. The house stands as a surviving example of a dwelling built for one of Ithaca’s early African- American residents.
The first minor addition to the house appears to have occurred between 1872 and 1888 (compare figs.4 and 6) when a single-story addition at the rear extended the footprint of the dwelling. More significant additions to 421 North Albany Street took place during the period between 1898 and 1904 and are revealed when comparing this dwelling on the 1898 Sanborn map and the 1904 Sanborn map (see figs.7 and 8). A wooden, single-story porch was added to the front of the house sometime between 1898 and 1904 and it is now covered with modern roofing. The ornamented Victorian style porch has a shed roof, decorative brackets between the posts, and a wooden railing running across the façade. Between 1898 and 1904, the rear of the house was also altered and an additional story was added to the single story rear (east) elevation of the house. This rear addition has a flat roof and appears to be missing its original roof cornice along the eastern elevation of the house (fig.9). During the same period, a small addition was built on the southeastern corner of the house. These additions correspond with the period when Norman Dennis’ daughter Lula and her husband Edward Newton assumed full ownership of the house, suggesting that they made these additions and alterations to suit their own family’s needs.
Another phase of additions can be determined by comparing the 1904 Sanborn map and the 1910 Sanborn map (figs.8 and 10). By 1910, an exterior door with a covered porch was added to the southeastern corner addition and another small single-story porch was added to the northeastern rear corner of the house. A final addition to the house occurred sometime between 1919 and 1929. By 1929, a small bay window was added to the middle of the north elevation (fig.11) and is visible on the Sanborn map from that year.
421 North Albany Street: Edward Newton and the Connection to Alpha Phi Alpha
Edward Newton, his family and his house at 421 North Albany Street are directly connected to the early history of Cornell’s Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, the first Greek letter, African-American collegiate fraternity established in the United States. Edward Newton first appears in the 1870 U.S. Federal Census for Ithaca as a fifteen-year-old living with his family. His father, mother, and one of his younger brothers are listed as being born in Virginia. Ithaca directories first list him as a laborer in 1876 and then as a porter in Sage College at Cornell University in 1878. The 1880 U.S. Federal Census for Ithaca lists Edward M. Newton as living as a boarder at Norman Dennis’ house at 421 North Albany Street. Edward married Norman and Helen Dennis’ daughter, Lula, in 1883 and is listed at this address from 1880 until his death in 1932.
For 56 years, Edward Newton maintained a long connection with fraternity life at Cornell University. He worked for the Psi Upsilon fraternity at Cornell, starting in 1876 as a waiter for the fraternity’s table in the dining room of Sage College and moving on to janitor, then valet and steward for the fraternity. He worked in their first fraternity house at Quarry and Buffalo Streets in Ithaca and continued working for the fraternity when they moved in 1884 to their large fraternity house on the Cornell University campus at 1 Central Avenue. Newton remained an employee of Psi Upsilon until his death in 1932 and was well-regarded by the Psi Upsilon fraternity brothers at Cornell. Upon his death, tributes and obituaries appeared in the Cornell Alumni News, the official newsletter of Psi Upilson, and in the Ithaca Journal News newspaper.
Fraternities have been a part of Cornell University since its inception. Cornell’s first president, Andrew Dickson White, was a fraternity member during his own college days and he looked favorably upon these organizations. The earliest fraternities at Cornell – Zeta Psi, Chi Phi, Kappa Alpha, Alpha Delta Phi, Phi Kappa Psi, Chi Psi, and Delta Upsilon – were all established during the university’s first year. Although most of the fraternities initially met in rented spaces in downtown Ithaca, by 1878 the first of many chapter houses was built, the Alpha Delta Phi house at 503 Buffalo Street. By 1881, President White granted leaseholds on university land to allow for the construction of independent fraternity houses. Because Cornell did not build large numbers of male dormitories until the 1910s, male students in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries lived in rooming houses or rented rooms near the campus and a small number lived in Cascadilla Hall, a former water cure establishment purchased by Cornell during its early years. Limited university-provided housing opportunities made fraternity lodges appealing to many male students. From the 1880s through the early 1900s, many new fraternity chapters were established at Cornell. Numerous large and impressive fraternity houses were erected on the north and west sides of the campus. An estimated one-fourth of the student body participated in fraternity life by 1894. By 1908 the Cornell yearbook listed 42 fraternities, of which 32 had fully established residential fraternity houses or “lodges.”
The rise in fraternity culture at Cornell was not warmly embraced by all students. Cornell historian Morris Bishop recounted that the 1880-81 academic year saw “a war between fraternities and independents, with two sets of class officers and two rival class-day programs in June.” Many fraternity members dominated the athletic and extracurricular social activities of the campus in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, a situation that created tension amongst the students. A sense of separation was certainly felt by Cornell’s early African- American students who were excluded from joining these white fraternities. While they were prevented from membership in Cornell’s white fraternities, many of these students, in fact, knew a considerable amount about fraternity life on campus because they worked in these very fraternities.
The experience of African American students at Cornell in the early 20th-century was full of challenges, many of which have been recounted by historian Carol Kammen in her book, Part & Apart: The Black Experience at Cornell, 1865-1945 and by the Alpha Phi Alpha historian Charles H. Welsey in his 1929 book, The History of Alpha Phi Alpha, as well as other scholars writing on the founding and history of Alpha Phi Alpha. As Kammen notes, Cornell’s early African American students “were a part of the university, but also apart by virtue of their race.” Black male students lived in rented rooms, apartments or in Cascadilla Hall, but Kammen remarks that even when white and black male students lived in the same building, they “lived separately.” East Hill, a residential area near the campus with many rooming houses for students, was a popular choice and some students also lived downtown. Addresses on East Hill – 214 Linden Street and 411 East State Street – appear often as listings for residences for African- American students. 411 East State Street was owned by the Singleton family, an African American family who often rented rooms to African-American Cornell students, including the early members of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity. Others found rooms with African-American families living in Southside.
Although African-American male students at Cornell in the early twentieth century were able to connect with members of the Ithaca African America community at church services and local activities, there was no central place for them to meet on campus. Cornell’s student union building, Willard Straight Hall, was not built until 1925. By the fall of 1905, fifteen African- American students were studying at Cornell and their desire for socializing and mutual support was evident although they lacked a central gathering place on campus.
Edward Newton’s connection to fraternity life at Cornell extended past the white fraternity world to the nascent African-American fraternity realm. Newton knew several of the male African-American students who studied at Cornell in the early twentieth century and he played an important role in supporting their aspirations for fraternal life. Charles C. Poindexter, one of the early members of the African-American students’ social study group that grew into the fraternity, boarded at Newton’s 421 North Albany Street house in 1905 and 1906. A graduate student in agriculture at Cornell, Poindexter married the Newtons’ daughter, Florence. Poindexter initiated the idea for a regular social gathering of the African American students. Born in West Virginia, Charles C. Poindexter (1880-1913), attended the West Virginia Colored Institute and then received a degree in agriculture in 1903 from Ohio State University. He arrived at Cornell in the fall of 1905 to pursue graduate studies in agriculture and left in January of 1907 to work at the Hampton Institute before moving to Nashville, Tennessee to become a professor of agronomy and biology at Fisk University.
The initial social gatherings evolved into an idea for a social study group and literary society. Poindexter gathered the male students for an official meeting of the social study group and in the fall semester of 1905, they met at 421 North Albany Street, Edward Newton’s house. 421 North Albany Street, therefore, served as the birthplace of the future fraternity. In Charles Welsey’s history of Alpha Phi Alpha, he explained that Edward Newton “had acted as a father to all the students” and “expressed great interest in this particular occasion.” Clearly, Newton and his hospitality to the students were crucial for the early days of the organization. By providing a physical space in the form of his house for the students to meet, Newton helped the group launch themselves as a group.
According to Alpha Phi Alpha historian Charles Wesley, the students joining Poindexter at this 1905 meeting were Nathaniel A. Murray, Robert H. Ogle, Charles H. Chapman, George B. Kelley, Henry A. Callis, Morgan T. Phillips, George Tompkins and Vertner W. Tandy. Many of the original meeting attendees went on to productive careers after leaving Cornell. Nathaniel A. Murray came from Washington, D.C. to study agriculture at Cornell and his mother and siblings were all college-educated. After Cornell, Murray became a high school teacher in Washington, D.C. Robert H. Ogle was also from Washington, D.C., and returned there after graduating from Cornell. He became the secretary for the Senate Appropriations Committee and also clerked for two municipal court judges. Charles H. Chapman was older than some of the other students, having taken some courses at Hampton College and Ohio State University. He came from Cayuga County in New York and studied agriculture at Cornell and later taught this subject at Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical College, Jackson State College and Florida Agricultural and Mechanical College. George B. Kelley had taken some courses at Renssalaer Polytechnic Institute before coming to Cornell to study civil engineering. After graduation, Kelley worked for the New York State Engineering Department and later for the State Department of Taxation and Finance. Henry A. Callis was the son of an AME pastor and grew up in Binghamton, New York. After completing his studies at Cornell, he received a medical degree in 1922 from Rush Medical College in Chicago, becoming a physician. Throughout his life, he helped promote the idea of medical training for African Americans to increase the number of African American physicians in the nation. Vertner W. Tandy came from Kentucky to study architecture at Cornell, after first studying at Tuskegee and after graduating he went on to have an architecture career in New York. He was one of the first licensed black architects in New York.
Although the group hoped to meet twice a month, they met irregularly over the 1905-06 academic year in different locations. In March of 1906, they met at 411 East State Street, the home of Archie Singleton, where Ogle and Phillips were boarding. On June 2, 1906, the group met in Murray’s rooms at 604 East Buffalo Street and elected their officers, selecting Charles C. Poindexter as their president, Henry A. Callis as secretary, and George B. Kelley as treasurer. When the 1906-07 academic year started, the group meet up again on October 16, 1906 and, as Wesley noted, the idea for a fraternity was taking “more definite form.” They agreed to hold an initiation banquet at the Ithaca Masonic Hall (also called the Odd Fellows Hall or Red Man’s Hall). On October 23, 1906, they voted to become known as Alpha Phi Alpha and on October 30, 1906, they held their initiation banquet with speeches by Kelley, Ogle, Tompkins, Callis, Murray, Poindexter, and others.
By the fall semester of 1906, there was still a split between some of the students about whether or not to remain a literary society or become a formal fraternity. By the time of their December 4, 1906 meeting, Poindexter sent in a letter of resignation because he opposed the idea of a fraternity. Because of his early involvement in the group, Poindexter is known in Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity history as an Alpha Phi Alpha “precursor.” By January of 1907, Poindexter had left Cornell and moved on to Virginia to teach. George Tompkins also withdrew from participation and the remaining members voted to establish themselves as a full Greek letter collegiate fraternity. Morgan T. Phillips, who was present at the 1905 meeting, did not return for the 1906-07 academic year. Nathaniel A. Murray, Robert H. Ogle, Charles H. Chapman, George B. Kelley, Henry A. Callis, Vertner W. Tandy, all of whom were at the 1905 meeting at 421 North Albany Street, were joined by Eugene Knickle Jones, who arrived in 1906 to pursue a master’s degree. These seven individuals are considered the seven founding “Jewels” of Alpha Phi Alpha and they helped incorporate and establish the Cornell chapter as the Alpha Chapter. By the end of 1917, there were 18 other Alpha Phi Alpha chapters established at universities across the country and the fraternity would continue to grow and expand throughout the twentieth century to over 550 collegiate chapters nationwide.
Within the history of Alpha Phi Alpha, the Newton family has been held in high regard. Lula Newton, Edward Newton’s wife, was considered a “mother” of Alpha Phi Alpha, for the encouragement that she her husband provided to the group. The Newton family have been viewed by the fraternity and its historians as valuable community members who were supportive of the students during their early years. Their house at 421 North Albany is still held in high esteem by the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity as the birthplace of their organization. This historical connection between the fraternity and the house make it a site of significance for an important episode in African-American history and the history of American collegiate education.
Narrative Description of Property: Dennis-Newton House, 421 North Albany Street, Ithaca, New York
421 North Albany Street (fig.1) is a two-story dwelling covered in clapboard situated on a lot measuring 33 feet wide by 99 feet deep on the northeast side of North Albany Street. The main façade of the house faces the eastern end of Esty Street where it terminates at North Albany Street. The main body of the house has a hipped roof covered in modern roofing with a single brick chimney. The foundation is made from rough stone. The house maintains its basic rectangular plan with some additions. A wooden, single-story porch was added to the front of the house sometime between 1898 and 1904 and it is now covered with modern roofing. The porch has a shed roof, decorative brackets between the posts, and a wooden railing running across the façade. Between 1898 and 1904, the rear of the house was also altered and an additional story was added to the original single-story rear (east) elevation of the house. This rear addition has a flat roof. During the same period, a small addition was built on the southeastern corner of the house. By 1910, an exterior door with a covered porch and stairs was added to the southeastern corner addition and another small single-story porch was added to the northeastern rear corner of the house. By 1929, a small bay window was added to the middle of the north elevation.
The form of this house is a simple rectangular block covered in clapboard. The front porch of the house sits near the edge of the sidewalk on the North Albany Street lot line. Both the south and north elevations of the house stand just a few feet from the lot lines of the neighboring houses. There is no driveway from the street to the house. The house’s wood frame construction and proximity to the sidewalk are consistent with several of the neighboring houses dating from the late nineteenth century along this stretch of North Albany Street. With its neighboring properties, this house is part of a tight residential streetscape that is typical of many Ithaca streets with residences erected in the mid-to-late nineteenth century (fig.2).
The front façade of the house is three bays wide; the three window openings on the second story are vertically aligned with the front door and the window openings of the first story. The spacing between the second and third windows on the second story is wider than the spacing between the first and second windows. An undated old black and white photograph of the house (fig.3) shows shutters on these windows but these shutters are no longer extant. The fenestration patterns on the south and north elevations are different from the front façade. The south elevation has four windows on the first story with an exterior door on the rear addition. This door leads to a set of steps exiting to the west of the house and some pavers leading to the front sidewalk. On the second story, windows are closely spaced and grouped near the rear of the house and are vertically aligned with all but one of the windows on the first story. On the north elevation, there are few windows (likely due to the proximity with the neighboring structure to the north of this lot) with the exception of a three window bay located in the middle of the first story and a window near the rear on the second story. All of the windows are two over two windows with wooden frames. Wooden dentils are also found in the window lintels.
The front façade of the house has a single-story wooden porch that was added after the initial construction of the house. Built in an ornamental style typical of the late Victorian period, the porch has decorative fan brackets located between the turned wooden posts of the porch with an open wooden trim of vertical bars running between the posts under the eaves. A similar open wooden railing of vertical bars also runs along the lower level of the porch. A few modern pieces of wood have been placed vertically to reinforce the porch posts. The sloping shed porch roof is covered in modern roofing and extends the full width of the front façade on the first story. A set of wooden steps with a wooden railing extends down to the right side of the porch toward the neighboring house on the south side. The porch skirt is covered in wooden shingles. The front entrance door is glass and wood with a glass transom and is located on the left side of the front façade. Wooden dentils are visible under the projecting roof cornice and the dentils run around the main façade and the north and south elevations of the house. The main roof of the house is a hipped roof and a flat roof is found on the rear addition.
The rear (east) elevation (fig. 9) of the house has wooden shingles covering the foundation level and a flat roof. A wooden board now covers one of the rear basement windows. On the left side of the first story of this elevation, there is a large window with a small fixed pane over a single large pane of glass and a deteriorated single-story porch area is located on the right side. This wooden porch is now boarded up but appears to have originally had shutters on either side of it with an opening. On the second story, there are three windows: the two on the left and center of the elevation are two over two wooden windows while the far right window is a smaller square with a single pane. The cornice on the rear of the house is missing. A flat grass yard extends from the rear of the house to the rear property line.
The paint on the clapboard on the house’s exterior is peeling and some boards show signs of decay. On the rear, vegetation has grown over and attached itself to some sections of the exterior walls. Some shingles from the front porch skirt are missing along with some vertical rail posts. Several stair treads are cracked and damaged. Several of the window frames also show signs of damage and a few windows have broken glass panes. The overall exterior condition of the house is deteriorated.