History of the House
104 Washington Street
Home of Judge Oliver Cromwell, 104 Washington Street, Circa 1870s
The Colonial Era Background
During the French and Indian War of the 1750s, a frontier stockade was erected on the banks of Wills Creek that encompassed the eastern end of what 1s now Washington Street. Its grounds included the present lots of Emmanuel Episcopal Church, the Allegany Court House, the Public Library, and 104 Washington Street, the only residence built within those original boundaries. Cannonballs and an officer’s saber dating from this period were found on the property in the 1940s.
The Perry House 1836-1873: The Federal Style
The lot on which this house stands became the property of Judge Thomas Perry. who had this residence built for his family in 1836. This is thus among the oldest houses on Washington Street; only a handful of the beautiful homes which line this street were built before 1850.
The Perry home was traditional in style, harking back to the Federal style which had flowered in the early decades of the new nation: three stories high, with a simple, well- proportioned rectangular facade, a shallow hipped roof, and graduated windows, taller on the ground floor than on the second story. In appearance, it was a plainer structure than the present one. There was a basement kitchen, and there were no dormers on the third floor. The entrance was a set of plain cement steps, and all the windows were unshuttered .The outbuildings, still seen today, included the tall smokehouse, three privies, and a chicken coop.
Thomas Perry died in 1871. The Perry’s circumstances evidently declined, for soon the house stood empty and in disrepair on a neglected plot of land. The estate had to be liquidated to pay creditors. In 1873, Judge Oliver Cromwell Gephart bought the property at public auction for $10,000. Judge Gephart and his descendants would occupy the home for the next 120 years.
The Gephart Family Home 1873-1994: Greek Revival Additions
During the 1880s, Cumberland reached its economic apogee. It was a bustling railroad, coal, and canal hub, the county seat, and a lively commercial city. Along Washington Street large and elegant new homes in a rich variety of architectural styles reflected the city’s prosperity. Perhaps to keep pace with this architectural flowering, the Gepharts enriched the house with many new features and additions.
The renovation probably took place in two phases. First, the exterior was embellished with shuttered windows on the second floor, pedimented dormers on the third floor, a columned side porch and most striking, a stately portico at the entrance.
With its bold horizontal transom, the entry porch is typical of the Greek Revival style that had-come into fashion in this country in the 1840s. Later the Gepharts greatly expanded the house by adding a new wing that included a large indoor kitchen with running water (far larger than the present one), a fifth bedroom upstairs, upper and lower back porches, and a sleeping porch pocketed between the bedroom wings on the Cherry Alley.
In the I 880s, the family’s furniture already included original pieces such as a magnificent, nine-foot tall walnut Federal secretary, which eventually stood in the library for over 100 years. It had been made for Judge Gephart’s grandfather, the first mayor of Cumberland, during the early days of the Republic. To these pieces, they added newer ones, such as a vast mahogany sideboard and a table in the dining room which seated 18. matching loveseats and sofas upholstered in rose satin in the double parlor, and sleigh beds and armoires in the bedrooms.
An ornate gas-lit Victorian chandelier illuminated the central hall. Crystal- faceted Empire parlor chandeliers were installed in the double parlors, and majestic “pier glass” mirrors were installed at either end of the parlors and in the hall. The Gepharts also added the marble Beaux Arts -influenced fireplace mantels, and the extraordinary painted wrought iron steam radiator coverings still seen today. These latter features of course could not be added until the invention of steam heat. They suggest Art Nouveau in their foliated design and for all these reasons they may be tum-of-the-century additions. At some point Gepharts installed another new luxury: indoor plumbing, fitted into two bathrooms on the second floor.
Outside, a carriage house was built. In the late nineteenth or early twentieth century, a fire station with an interior of beautiful carved woodwork, complete with pole, also stood on the premises along Cherry Alley below the carriage house.
Mrs. Gillette’s House 1916-1954
Judge Gephart’s wife Mary died in 1899, though he himself lived on until 1916, and the responsibility for maintaining the home passed on to their two daughters, Mary Gephart Gillette and her sister Susan. Susan died in 1921, and Mary would become the home’s longest occupant, for she lived in it for more than sixty years, until her death in 1954. (She married George Gillette and moved to Baltimore during the decade of the 1880s. She moved home with her fifteen- year- old son in 1894, but never officially separated from George Gillette). Some of Cumberland’s oldest residents still think of this house as “Mrs. Gillette’s’ house.” Some of the features described above may have been installed at her direction; it is not known which were planned by her parents and which she and her sister undertook.
Mary Gillette was an inveterate traveler and an avid acquirer. True to the ornate and cluttered High Victorian interior style of her youth, she filled her luxurious home with a wealth of beautiful and fascinating objects and furnishings from her travels. There were collections of Chinese porcelain dishes and tall figured vases, rosewood end tables inlaid with ivory, silk hangings, glittering Russian icons, Egyptian and Russian bronze statues and sculptures, curios and traditional objects from late nineteenth and early twentieth twentieth century Europe, Asia, and India. Some were as peculiar as they were esthetic, such as a seated porcelain Mandarin in a turquoise robe with a trailing beard of real hair.
Outside, the carriage house became a garage for Mrs. Gillette’s motor car when she acquired one during the 1920s. When the carriage house and firehouse were tom down in the 1960s, the woodwork and a fire pole were still intact, and a pair of chauffeur’s gloves from the earliest days of motoring was found in a comer of the old carriage house/garage.
The Pipers and the Current Era: 1954-Present
When Mrs. Gillette died in 1954, the house became the property of her granddaughter Christine and her husband Charles A. Piper. The Pipers both modernized and lovingly preserved the house and gardens that had such historic significance for Mrs. Piper’s family. She lived here for the rest of her own life following her husband’s death in 1958. Christine Piper died in 1994, and after over a century and a quarter of unbroken descent of ownership, this house passed from the family. It was purchased for the Cumberland Cultural Foundation through the generosity of Mrs. William Gilchrist in 1999. After renovation for its new role, the house opened as the Gilchrist Museum in 2000.
Jo Beynon, Editor and Director,with the assistance of Ronald A. Andrews, Historian, Cumberland’s Victorian Historic District, published in 1975 by Allegany County Tourism; revised in 1984 by Ms. Beynon with the assistance of Lois Sherrard, History Intern Frostburg State College History intern.
John C. Poppeliers et al. What Style ls Jt? A Guide to American Architecture National Trust for Historic Preservation in the United States/Historic American Buildings Survey, Preservation Press,John
Gephart Gillette family documents, including wills, deeds, photographs, and personal recollections. All wills and deeds are matters ofrecord available in the Allegany County Court House.