Why This Place Matters

Posted Aug 31st, 2010 by Gary Barnby  Category: Community Interest


“Grandfather’s old house, ‘Harbor View,’ sat on a bluff overlooking Lake Erie like a fort to guard the town. It had grand steps that ran from the street at the foot of the lake up to the majestic front door. Along the way were pots filled with bright red geraniums and a mighty flagpole to carry the proud American flag flapping in the wind. It was a wondrous house with three floors and a full basement and two porches that were perfect for putting on the many theatrical plays we children wrote and acted in each summer for an audience made up of beloved aunts and uncles who never failed to show up for the big show. I loved to explore the massive house, first to tour the large basement and see Grandfather’s old tool room where he put one of the boys’ BB guns into his vise and closed the muzzle after a careless mishap…to teach the six boys that guns were dangerous. To see grandfather’s old den, the stately staircase and formal rooms, the old fashioned kitchen and pantry, then to run up the servant’s staircase to see each bedroom where my grandparents, uncles and aunts had slept when they were young. And especially I loved to visit the third floor where my own father had slept when he was a boy with his two younger brothers. It seemed to me, as a child, like holy ground.” — Mary Wakefield Buxton

Like the lighthouse that shares the shoreline property, the grand estate once known as “Harbor View” has become a symbol of Vermilion, Ohio. Many childhood memories have been made at this historic property that was carved out an old apple orchard in 1909. The majestic building is a tribute to Lake Erie itself. Its very foundation was taken from the shore…gravel and sand hauled up by horse and wagon from the natural shoal on the beach and the concrete made on the site.

Vermilion’s Inland Seas Maritime Museum, which currently owns and occupies the estate, will close its doors this Fall to relocate to Toledo, Ohio. The future of the Harbor View property adjacent to Vermilion’s Main Street Beach in Vermilion is uncertain. In an attempt to save this historic landmark, this ‘small town on a great lake’ has come together in a grassroots effort to raise awareness and funds to keep Harbor View a community use property. The building has been entered in the “This Place Matters” national competition where residents can vote at to win $25,000 towards saving the property following the museum’s relocation.

Vermilion is a small town nestled on Lake Erie where visitors are reminded of a simpler time when an afternoon at the beach, a hand-dipped ice cream cone and a stroll along Main Street made your day special. This enchanting little town has always been a seaside community with New England style atmosphere. This is the kind of town that still has a working soda fountain, a town square and summer concerts on the green. People here actually sit on their front porches on a summer evening. Visiting boats are not only welcomed, they are an important part of the ambiance of what locals call “Harbour Town.”

The City of Vermilion is situated along the Southern shore of Lake Erie and embraces the Vermilion River. Vermilion was once known as the “Village of Lake Captains,” and no other place in Ohio has so many beautifully maintained captains’ homes in its historic district.

Steeped in history, the Harbor View mansion in Vermilion was once the grand home of Frederick William Wakefield, a prominent inventor and mayor of this nautical village. Wakefield was born in England in 1863. His family moved to Cleveland during his early years, where he was educated in public schools. By 1905 he established a lighting fixtures business in the Old Arcade in Cleveland. He was a commodore of two yachting associations, and his interest in yachting brought him to the shores of Vermilion.

In 1906, he founded the F.W. Wakefield Brass Company in Vermilion to produce brass illuminating gas fixtures and gas, electric and combinations patented by F.W. Wakefield in the U.S. and Canada. The company became a leader in the production of electric lighting fixtures and was responsible for numerous innovations in the field. Wakefield revolutionized the lighting industry by implementing what would later become known as assembly line production.

Wakefield went on to serve as mayor of Vermilion from 1910 to 1914. His influence was considerable in the development of the town. He was likely the most influential person in Vermilion during the 20th century.
The grand Wakefield home was built in 1909, the walls an incredible 14 inches thick. It soon became an enchanted gathering place for family, friends and community. On Sundays, during winter months, large skating parties gathered in front of Harbor View.

The Wakefields and their eight children lived in the home until the death of Mrs. Wakefield in 1951. Shortly after, the home was established as a marine museum and the Great Lakes Historical Society. To assure its perpetuity, Mrs. Wakefield donated the historical property to Bowling Green State University in 1972. Bowling Green State University then leased the site to The Great Lakes Historical Society. Eventually the Society purchased the building from BGSU. In 1968, a unique two-floor wing was added to Harbor View to house the Inland Seas Maritime Museum.
In 1992, a new Vermilion Lighthouse was dedicated on the property; decades after the town lost its original light.

In the summer of 1929, Theodore and Ernest Wakefield, teenagers at the time, noticed that the Vermilion Lighthouse was leaning toward the river. The Wakefield boys reported what they had seen to their father, Commodore F.W. Wakefield, who contacted the U.S. Lighthouse Service in Cleveland. The U. S. Corps of Engineers came to Vermilion and determined that the light was indeed unstable. Within a week, the lighthouse had been dismantled. In its place, an unsightly, steep-sided, 18-foot steel pyramidal tower was erected.

Commodore Wakefield offered to purchase the old lighthouse to move it to his property, Harbor View, but his request was denied. Instead, the cast-iron pieces were loaded up and hauled away. The residents of Vermilion were sad to see their beloved lighthouse go.

Ted Wakefield, one of the young men who had noticed the lighthouse leaning in 1929, had very fond memories of Vermilion’s past and its lighthouse. As an adult, he put his efforts into encouraging downtown Vermilion to maintain its historical 19th century appearance and created the Harbour Town 1837 historic district concept. He spearheaded a fundraising campaign to build a new lighthouse. By 1991, Ted and his fellow fund-raisers had collected $55,000—enough to build a 16-foot replica of Vermilion’s 1877 lighthouse. Ground was broken for the new lighthouse on July 24, 1991. According to rumors, before the base was attached to the foundation, an 1877 gold piece was placed under the vertex of the octahedron that would point true north. It seemed only fitting that a piece of 1877 be part of the new lighthouse’s foundation.

The “This Place Matters” Community Challenge is a national competition by the National Trust for Historic Preservation of communities from all over the country vying to win $25,000 to be used towards saving an historic property. The contest revolves around communities taking photos of historic properties they are seeking to save with residents holding signs stating, “This Place Matters.”

The City of Vermilion scheduled a community photo shoot on August 19, 2010. Minutes before the photo op, local photographers were concerned to find only a couple residents waiting on the lawn of the property. But moments later, looking down Main Street, they witnessed a community that cares about its history and its culture. Hundreds of people walked together to gather at the Harbor View mansion to support the grassroots effort. So many people turned out in fact that they couldn’t all be included in the photo.

Harbor View matters to this small town’s sense of history, of community, and of aesthetics. The history of a community contributes to its personality. Preserving the history of a place gives a community its unique character. Historic preservation provides a link to the roots of the community and its people.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation’s contest runs to September 15, 2010. To vote for Vermilion to help a small town preserve its history, visit

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Gary Barnby - City of Vermilion | 5511 Liberty Avenue | Vermilion, OH 44089 | | (440) 204-2404 No Comments »

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