SKANEATELES — When Scott Feldmann's father, Robert, first saw what became the Feldmann family home — Reuel Smith's Cobweb Cottage at 28 W. Lake St., Skaneateles — from Skaneateles Lake in the family boat, he said, "You're kidding," as he gazed upon what he thought looked like a haunted mansion.
The 16-year-old Feldmann, on the other hand, "became immediately enamored with the eccentric and unique home," he said in an email, that Feldmann, his parents and siblings moved into in 1976 during America's bicentennial.
In fact, Feldmann said he fell in love with the family home and its history so much that he wrote what he calls "a little love letter to to the house, essentially" by creating the website reuelsmithhouse.com to share information about the home, its architect and its residents with others.
"People who are as smitten with the thing as I became over the years are welcome to visit that," he said.
People who are as smitten with the Cobweb Cottage as Feldmann still is may consider purchasing the home and living it in themselves, as he and his siblings decided to find "new caretakers for our treasure" after their father and mother, Shirley, died in 2011 and 2015, respectively.
He said the Feldmanns have moved to other corners of the country — New Jersey, Florida and California — while the one branch of the Feldmann family that remains in Skaneateles has their own home and no desire to give it up.
"This one-of-a-kind home needs a steward," Feldmann said of Cobweb Cottage. "It calls for a person or people who cherish it and celebrate it and understand its significance in American architecture and in the history of Skaneateles."
'The next heirs'
Kristin Hunt, of Finger Lakes Realty Partners that is overseeing the sale of the home, said Cobweb Cottage was built between 1848 and 1852 for Reuel Smith by renowned architect Alexander Jackson Davis.
Smith, Hunt said, was a partner in a New York City shipping firm and made his money in that industry. He decided he wanted to build a summer home in Skaneateles and bought on the lake's western shore near the home of his good friend, Henry Latrobe Roosevelt.
"This is what he ended up purchasing, which actually has become a lot smaller over the years," Hunt said. "I believe his original plot of land went all the way back to the (Lake View) cemetery, so he owned a lot of the land up here."
The Smith family owned Cobweb Cottage — also known as the Reuel Smith House, the Gingerbread House for its architecture and the Cove for its location on the Lake — for 125 years. Reuel passed the home on to his son E. Reuel, a prominent figure in village having married Skaneateles royalty in Elizabeth DeCost, the granddaughter of Col. William Vredenburgh and Capt. Nash DeCost.
E. Reuel and Elizabeth's son, DeCost Smith, a noted painter of the American West whose Indian artifacts have been placed in the Smithsonian, was born and raised there. Sedgwick Smith, another of Reuel's grandsons who brought hockey to Skaneateles in the icy months, lived in the home with his wife, Elsa Watts Smith, who sold the home to the Feldmann family — the only other owners of Cobweb Cottage.
Feldmann said his mother bought the home from Elsa, her oil painting teacher and Skaneateles Garden Club friend.
"Many people wanted to buy the place, but Mom, a friend and also a Realtor, was Elsa's pick," he said.
"Now, they're passing it on to the next heirs," Hunt said.
The Feldmanns, Hunt said, were "the ones who intricately put all the details back into the home that kind of just got lost over the years," and they received a grant to restore its historical features.
"Our family rehabilitated the home with sweat equity, stripping paint to reveal beautiful oak and maple, re-plastering rooms and refinishing wood floors, and ultimately replicating the defining feature of the house: its gingerbread gables," Feldmann said. "Living in an Alexander Jackson Davis-designed cottage taught me an appreciation for art and architecture, as well as historic preservation."
He said builder David Lee studied the original drawings of the gables provided by Judy Kaspar, who grew up in the home and still lives nearby. Lee also looked at the Brace House on Frankin Street and worked on the gables with his master carpenter.
As a result of the Feldmanns' efforts, Hunt said, Cobweb Cottage was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979 as one of two Davis homes in Onondaga County — the other being a home in Syracuse that she said has since been demolished.
Aside from the restoration, the Feldmanns also added the garage and, above it, the master bedroom onto the home. Feldmann said they modeled it after the home's former servants quarters, which had been detached, relocated and sold off as the house next door to Cobweb Cottage.
Working with Lee and architect Paul Vaivoda, Feldmann said the family referenced the exterior design features of the house next door — its board and batten siding, for one — but designed the roofline and windows after the main house.
"It was scary for us to be altering the footprint of a house listed on the National Register of Historic Places, one of the few remaining examples of one of America's most influential architects," Feldmann said. "But, it was necessary to accommodate family visits and add modern amenities."
Though it now contains the master bedroom with walk-in shower, gas fireplace and cathedral window with a tall, facetted ceiling, for the Feldmanns it was a family room with a hot tub in it for a while.
Feldmann said he took such an interest in the family home that shortly after moving in and getting his driver's license, he drove the family station wagon to Washington, D.C. to look up the architectural records in the Library of Congress.
Over the years, the family conducted tours many times, and Feldmann said he once came home to find Arnold Palmer's wife, Winnie, sitting on the porch talking to Shirley because she was so interested in the home.
"Indeed, it was more than a house we lived in," he said. "It was a showcase of another area and a curiosity. I loved that."
'That was magic'
Some of his favorite memories of the family home include operating Feldy Professional Art in the wine cellar-turned-basement that he thought as the dungeon. There, he silkscreened signs and T-shirts and sketched "with no pesky parents to look over my shoulder," he said.
He also relished the sport of throwing a Frisbee from the front porch into the lake — Hunt said the home's property includes about 40 feet of lakefront across the street from the home. Once, his sister Debbie had a horse-drawn hay wagon slide up to the front door and take them away.
"Perhaps the most memorable was a surprise serenade by the Dean Brothers and friends with Christmas carols on a crisp winter night with a backdrop of fresh flurries and a white blanket of snow," Feldmann said. "That was magic."
Along with those memories, Feldmann said he misses seeing his father — "Bob of Bob's True Value and SAVES acclaim," he said — sitting on the porch holding court with passersby or tearing around the yard on a riding mower in the summertime and his mother deadheading the beognias in the entryway urns and watering the hanging baskets on the veranda.
Then, there are the unexpected moments, like the time Feldmann sat on the porch with a bottle of wine and enjoyed a live concert by Wilson Phillips courtesy of neighbor's birthday gift to his wife.
"I'll miss watching fireflies and the Judge Ben Wiles cruise past our lakefront on a moonlit night," he said. "I'll miss the home and its design and its location, too, with its swimming area and short walk to downtown band concerts and ice cream shops."
'Here he comes'
Though Alexander Jackson Davis lived in New York City, Hunt said some records show that he spent part of childhood growing up in Auburn and went back down to city, "where his career really began and that's where he got a partner and his architectural career took off," she said.
"There's all kinds of books and drawings and sketches of all the work he used to do all around," she said, pointing to photographs of Kaspar's drawings that are on display on the top floor of the home.
Hunt noted that the home is of the Gothic Revival style characterized by several high peaks, a style that was not of the norm for the time period.
"For the time and the area that he was building, they were traditionally building very box homes," she said. "They were just building houses square, and then here he comes along with all these high peaks and cool windows."
According to a fact sheet provided by Hunt, the Metropolitan Museum of Art named Davis as one of America's most notable architects, and he enjoyed the pinnacle of his career from the 1840s to the 1850s during the design and construction of Cobweb Cottage.
He is admired as one of the preeminent designers of country homes, and prominent Americans sought and cherished his Gothic Revival approach with peaks, extensions in many directions, unique windows and verandas that pushed boundaries in an era of box houses.
'Time to let go'
The more she writes about Cobweb Cottage, talks about the home with people and thinks about it, Hunt said, the more she feels that living in the home and knowing that one is a part of its history would be an amazing opportunity for the right person.
"I just think it'd be so cool to be able to do it," she said. "This is a style of home, and it's something unique that you have to really be a part of. it will find the next heir, the next steward of the home."
As for Feldmann, he said his words to the next homeowners would be the only ones appropriate: "Here are the keys. Congratulations."
"Of course, I'll hope that they will continue to honor and respect the provenance of the unique A.J. Davis house, birthplace of painter DeCost Smith, appreciate its craftsmanship and enjoy the accolades of owning it," he said. "But, for our family, it's time to let go."