Oldest house on campus sees new life

  • bedroom
  • bathroom
  • diningroom
  • Scenes from the Lewis-Syford
  • kitchen
  • Photo tour of the historic Lewis-Syford House.
  • Syford House/Round Table event/Morrill Hall
  • Syford House/Round Table event/Morrill Hall
  • staircase

[column size=”one-half”]Cole Sartore sits on his front porch and watches the sunset.

This is nothing out of the ordinary for the junior anthropology major, and many students across the country. But when he notices the hitching post in front of the house, the ordinary drifts away and his mind is filled with images of people riding horses in the streets and grasslands surrounding the home.
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“It’s nice that [the hitching post] is around to give a perspective of how, in the span of things, not too long ago people were riding their horses down the street right in front of this place,” Sartore said.

Sartore’s mind is often filled with images of the past, which comes as a natural side effect to living in the oldest structure on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus.

Sartore and his four roommates live in the Lewis-Syford House, which was built in 1878 and is the third oldest house in Lincoln. Sartore can’t help but be inspired by the home.

[column size=”one-half”]“Some evenings it’s quite awe-inspiring to see it … and it’s just really nice to see it still standing,” Sartore said.

A lack of records makes it impossible to find a specific date the house was built, but census data indicates it was first inhabited by Reverend Elisha Lewis in 1878. The Lewis family owned and lived in the house until 1904 when the property was sold to DeWitt N. Syford. The Syfords maintained ownership until Constance, last remaining Syford, donated the property to the State Historical Foundation upon her death in 1965.
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A Daily Nebraskan reporter talked to former State Historical Society director Marvin Kivett about the house in 1967.

“Our goal is to preserve this house for the future,” Kivett said. “It is the oldest remaining landmark on the University campus.”

The article also mentioned how old landmarks on the campus had been all but eliminated in the years leading up to its publication.

“In spite of this flurry of change, the old Syford home still stands, destined to link the past with the present,” the article said.

[column size=”one-half”]One of Sartore’s roommates, Jeremy Payne, thinks that statement rings true even 47 years after the DN article.

“There are so many little things about the house that remind you of how old it is,” Payne said. “And that makes the experience of living on-campus even better.”
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The Historical Foundation did little with the house after acquiring it. They housed some of their staff at the home before eventually leasing it to the University, who used it as offices for several years.

Eventually, the Kinder-Porter-Scott Foundation bought the house and attempted to turn it into a school for autistic children. That foundation put the house up for sale again after the City Council denied their bid to start the school. Then, in January 2013, the Sartore family purchased the home.

Sartore was in his second semester living in the dorms and was considering his living arrangements for the next year.

“I thought, ‘how cool of a place to live’” Sartore said.

After some discussion, Sartore was able to convince his family to buy the property.

Cole is the son of renowned National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore, and together the family has restored a number of old properties in southeast Nebraska.

This one, however, was the most daunting.

“You probably could have lived in it, but it wouldn’t have been a fun place to live,” Sartore said.

The list of problems included leaking water into the second floor, holes in the first floor ceiling as a result of water damage, a deteriorating limestone foundation and a toilet that was mysteriously placed in the kitchen.

[column size=”one-half”]The Sartores worked nearly every day over the summer of 2013 to get the house inhabitable before Cole went to start his sophomore year. When it was complete, Sartore said he felt a sense of accomplishment.

“The workmanship is really what we enjoy seeing and fixing up so future generations can see it as well,” Sartore said.

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Payne said the building still shows its age even after the renovations, but that can be a good thing.

“When I walk around I feel like I’m in a museum as opposed to the dorms where I feel like I am walking around a prison,” Payne said.

The public has taken notice of the historic value of the home, naming the house to the National Register of Historic Places and designating it as a Historic Landmark.

But Sartore is, perhaps, the person who most appreciates the antique home.

“The greatest memory of this ongoing process is keeping this place around for future generations,” Sartore said. “We don’t want it to be lost to time.”

The Lewis-Syford house is going to be in the care of the Sartore’s for many years to come according to Cole, who says the family plans to continue renting the house to students. So while the building has seen 140 years of history, it is important to remember that everything on campus is seen through the youthful eyes of the college student.

“My favorite part about living here is waking up five minutes before class and still being on time,” said Sartore.

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