Look inside: What will happen to the Elmira mansion?

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ELMIRA, N.Y. (WETM) – 615 Columbia Street is a standout feature in the City of Elmira. The 41-room mansion has sat empty for years, but the new owner has plans to restore the castle to its former glory.

From a viral social media post to a crowded bidding war and a potential Hollywood movie, Mehdi Hasan, a general contractor from Brooklyn, N.Y. said the process of buying this house has “been quite a journey.”

The front stairs inside 615 Columbia Street

History of 615 Columbia St.

The mansard-style mansion was built in 1876 for Jane and Lorenzo Webber, according to the Chemung County Historical Society. Webber was part of a coal company, a dry goods store and real estate.

Twenty years later, the two-story side porch was added on the south face of the home, as was a stone bay with a stained glass window.

That same year, Adelle Webber Gray, the daughter of Jane and Lorenzo, inherited the house and later sold it to Mrs. John Kelley and her eight children in 1915.

The Historical Society said that Kelley expanded the home in 1931, putting an addition on the north side, expanding the kitchen, and adding extra bedrooms upstairs.

The house was sold again in 1966 to a Mrs. Ann Hapeman who renovated it into four apartments. The new owner said one of the apartments was in the barn out back.

Going Viral

The house found its way to the Facebook Page “Historical Homes of America” in July 2021. A post with photos from the real estate listing soon went viral, racking up almost 30,000 reactions, 26,000 comments, and 60,000 shares.

Hasan wasn’t aware of the fame when he found the home online until people from downstate started talking about it.

South side in 1986; the steps and second story of the porch have been removed/Courtesy: Chemung County Historical Society

He “showed them pictures and they went, ‘Yeah, we knew about this.’ This was publicized really well.”

Hasan originally found the listing on Zillow, and he said it took time to track down the real estate agent from Signature Properties because so many people were after the property. He said he was just one of almost 1,000 people bidding on the house.

Below are the original photos from the listing, courtesy of Signature Properties.

Taking a Chance

In order to secure his place as a top prospective buyer, Hasan doubled the offer of the original $100,000 asking price. “I know about these houses a little bit. And as a contractor, I can figure out how this place will be inside. So I took a chance. Yeah, I said, you know, I’ll buy the house for 200.”

Because he lives four hours away, never looked too closely inside the home. In fact, our interview was only the second or third time he had looked at the details of the interior.

But when he did step inside for the first time, he realized he had nothing to worry about.

“I was very surprised how good-looking the house is inside, how intact all the mouldings and all the details are. I thought this place needed to be gutted… there’s not much of a structural issue here.”

North side in 1977. The steps on the right have been removed/Courtesy: Chemung County Historical Society

During our walkthrough on an unseasonably warm December day, the moment Hasan opened the doors, the cold air inside came rushing out. But he was right, much of the original detail remains intact. Mouldings, baseboards, fireplaces, railings, mirrors and even chandeliers sat untouched. The hardwood floors that cover almost every room creaked but held our weight.

The electric and heat do work, but only in certain sections of the house; the back bathroom is the only room that’s fully functional. We had to string bulbs on extension cords in order to better see down the main hallway.

The two-story porch is no more, along with two entrances that are boarded up and simply drop several feet to the lawn outside since the steps have been taken out.

In the third-floor servants quarters, most of the walls were torn down, so it was challenging to envision just where the 41-rooms were exactly placed.

Hasan pointed out the staff staircase that avoided the front of the house. It doesn’t connect with anything anymore, but in a nook on the south side a few of the steps curving from the basement to the back of the house are still visible under the kitchen floor. The stone countertop that Hasan said would’ve been where the staff prepared food still sits in a side room in the basement.

Former servant stairs that once connected the basement to the back of the house.

Turning Back Time

He said the previous owner bought the house 16 years ago and started work on the basement. Work lights still hung across the ceiling, bricks were piled up, and a chest stood unlocked in the corner. By all appearances, it seemed that work could pick back up immediately.

But Hasan remains confident in his ambitions to see the house return to its former state.

“I’d like to bring it back to its old glory, exactly to the point to the point which this was right in 1876. I would love to do that really.”

That goal includes restoring the wrought iron fence that enclosed the property of the original house. Some of the original iron cresting seen on the original roof is stored on the third floor. And one room at the front of the second story also houses much of what Hasan said was original furniture.

Northeast corner in the 1800s, seen with a fenced-in lawn/Courtesy: Chemung County Historical Society

Even though it had been split into apartments, Hasan plans to return it to a one-family home.

And after that?

“Down the road, I want to keep this house as a prestige and glory for the people of Elmira. I just want to be on the back of it as the owner, but this is sort of a museum for the whole city.”

He hopes to partner with the historical society and mingle with local people to get to know the community and hopefully turn the house into a place where people “can just come in and see the beauty of this place.”

He even said a movie scouting company came to look at the property, but ultimately they didn’t choose it.

Iron cresting stored on the third story

He acknowledged that this was no small task, though.

“I have to get my men together, which means that I have to get local people on board. Obviously, I cannot bring people from New York City to come work here.”

So taking into account the need to get local electricians, plumbers and contractors on board, Hasan said he thinks the renovations should take about two years.

If his plans work out, the people of Elmira might just get the chance to travel back in time.

A complete walkthrough of the house can be viewed in the player below.

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