Biography of Otis Leonard Wheelock

(1816 - 1893)

Otis Leonard Wheelock was born in 21 Aug 1816 in New York, and died 23 Jan 1893 in San Jose, CA. He was an architect of considerable note; many of the buildings he designed are still standing in Watertown, NY and Chicago, IL. A Google search on "Otis Wheelock" architect will yield several websites with photos of his buildings. He is the son of Amariah Wheelock and Roxellana Darby, of Townshend, VT and Watertown, NY. Otis married Minerva Meroa Mansfield in Sep 1850. She was born in 1828 and died on May 1, 1893 in San Jose, CA. They had two adopted children,  Charlotte Mansfield Pettes (daughter of Minerva's sister: Ann Saphronia Mansfield and William Henry Pettes) and Harry B. Wheelock. He appears in the 1850 Census living in Watertown, Jefferson Co, NY. The 1870 Census shows him living in Chicago with his wife, Minnie, and daughter, Charlotte. He is still in Chicago in 1880, living with his wife Minnie, and son Harry.

The following newspaper article about Otis Leonard Wheelock was published in the Watertown, NY Daily Times, 10 June 1990, and kindly supplied by Brian Gorman.

Architect Puts His Stamp on NY

(Copyright (c) 1990, Watertown Daily Times.
Story published June 10, 1990.
Byline: Marsha J. Davis Times Staff Writer)

His name was Otis Leonard Wheelock.

His profession was architect.

For more than a century, his designs, and those of his proteges, have influenced the architectural appearance of the north country, from Lowville to Watertown to Lake Placid. Little information on Mr. Wheelock has survived the years, and much of what he designed and built has fallen to the wrecker's ball, but O.L. Wheelock apparently was at the forefront of 19th-century architecture and business life, not only in Northern New York, but in Chicago.

It was during research on the history of Watertown's First Presbyterian Church, the city's oldest standing house of worship, that Assistant City Planner Patricia S. Falton began frequently encountering the Wheelock name and put together the limited information available on Mr. Wheelock. O.L. Wheelock helped rebuild and reshape the look of Watertown following the "Great Fire" of May 13, 1849, the most devastating blaze to ever hit the city.

He also helped form the City of Watertown's professional fire department after that blaze. In Chicago, he helped design buildings erected after that city's famous fire of October 1871. Watertown's fire of 1849 started in the rear of the American Block, the site now occupied by the old Woolworth building. Buildings were destroyed down Arsenal Street "for quite a distance," according to accounts in the Watertown Daily Times files. The flames then "leaped the road" and burned buildings on both sides of Court Street and along the north side of Public Square. The fire destroyed the American Hotel and outbuildings, Paddock's block, Woodruff's Iron Block, the Episcopal Church on the Court Street site of the former City Hall, three printing offices, 30 large stores, the post office inside the hotel, the city's three banks, the YMCA, the surrogate's office and many private houses, according to historic accounts.

The Only Architect

Mr. Wheelock, born in 1816, was the only architect in Watertown after the fire, Mrs. Falton said. An 1850 business directory of Watertown announced that: "O.L. Wheelock, architect, is now prepared to furnish the citizens of Jefferson and adjoining counties, designs, plans, elevations, sections and working drawings for churches, public buildings and private dwellings, after the most modern and approved style of architecture, with details and specifications in full for the builder, on the most reasonable terms. He will also give instruction in architectural drawing. Office in east end of Woodruff Block." The 1855 Business and Residence Directory for "Watertown, North Watertown and Juhelville" announced that Mr. Wheelock would furnish "Drawings, Bills of Materials Etc. for Public and Private Buildings at Reduced Prices." His offices were then "Over No. 21 Public Square, Third Story." His Stamp on Watertown While doing research at the Flower Memorial Library during efforts to put the First Presbyterian Church on the National Register of Historic Places, Mrs. Falton discovered that Mr. Wheelock "rebuilt two-thirds of downtown after the fire and was responsible for, or heavily influenced, architecture in Watertown well into the 1940s." "He put his stamp on the face of Watertown," she said.

For years, the most dominant downtown landmark of Wheelock's design was the Hotel Woodruff, built in 1851 by Norris Woodruff in partnership with son-in-law Howell Cooper, Henry Keep and Pearson Monday. The massive structure was razed in 1976. Today the Paddock Arcade building and the "Iron Block" are the only two Wheelock-designed Public Square landmarks still standing.

Problem at Iron Block

The Iron Block, built in 1850, exhibits structural stress from a short-sighted architectural change done decades after construction. The trouble, which became glaringly apparent in late March after a plate-glass window cracked in the former Mother Goose and Puddle Ducks store in one section of the four-part building, is no fault of architect Wheelock's. Investigation of the cause of a section of drooping facade traced the weakness to the removal of a cast-iron column from the storefront several years ago. "I can't imagine anyone in their right mind doing it (removing the column). But it happened a long time ago," said engineer James T. Bernier after he concluded a study of the building. Purcell Construction Corp. recently replaced the missing column under one end of a horizontal I-beam. The I-beam holds up the storefront's brick facade. When the vertical cast-iron column was removed from under one end of the I-beam, it was allowed to rest on a brick seat, which deteriorated over time.

Widespread Influence

A large 1855 Jefferson County map in the Flower Memorial Library's New York State Room is testimony to the pervasive Wheelock influence in Watertown and Jefferson County. Drawings of county landmarks border the geographical map and the name Wheelock appears beneath the following:

  • The former twin-spire Universalist Church on the now-vacant Public Square parcel once occupied by the Electric Building.
  • The Merchants' Exchange, which stood at the present site of the YMCA.
  • Crowner House hotel, J.D. Crowner proprietor, built in 1853 on Arsenal Street.
  • Temperance Hotel, E.B. Earle proprietor, on Court Street.
  • L. Paddock Building, erected immediately after the 1849 fire. The Paddock Arcade is the sole remaning part of that building.
  • Watertown Alcove residence of John Adams, which stood at Washington and Grove (Pratt) streets.
  • The Gen. Solon Dexter Hungerford House, which once stood at Church and Park streets in Adams, and is now the site of a parking lot for Ron's Red & White Market.
  • The still-standing United Community Church, Rodman, formerly the Rodman Congregational Church.
  • Mr. Wheelock also designed the wooden church that was the predecessor of today's First Baptist Church on Public Square in Watertown.

In 1850 and 1851, he designed the First Presbyterian Church.

Disgusted with Chicago

It is not known where he received his architectural training. According to "Architecture in Old Chicago" by Thomas E. Tallmadge, Mr. Wheelock left New York state for Chicago in 1839. "He worked on the Tremont Hotel then being erected (in 1839), but becoming disgusted with Chicago went back to New York, abandoning a half-acre of land that he had purchased at the corner of Wabash and Adams," Mr. Tallmadge wrote. Returning to Watertown, he took on an apprentice, John Hose of Herkimer, in 1841. In 1844, Mr. Wheelock was a founding member of the Mechanic's Association, a trade association formed in Watertown. The trade association movement, a precursor to the professional associations of today, was very popular at that time, Mrs. Falton said.

On the Cutting Edge

"He was on the cutting edge of things going on," she said. "He seemed to be very concerned with accountability, training and education." The stated purpose of the Mechanic's Association was "the cultivation and improvement of the moral, social and intellectual facilities by diffusing information upon subjects connected with the mechanical arts by exhibiting improvements, discussing the principles of mechanism and collecting statistics." The society remained active until 1861.

Residential property in Chicago, IL architected by Otis Leonard Wheelock. Photograph by John Graf, author of  "Chicago's Mansions (Images of America)", taken in 2004.

Mr. Wheelock married Minerva M. Mansfield of Pulaski in September 1850. The couple moved from Watertown in 1851. "After working with Minard Lefevre (a well-known New York state author of builders' handbooks), he returned to Chicago in 1856," Mr. Tallmadge wrote. "With (W.W.) Boyington he designed in 1857 the old University of Chicago on Cottage Grove and Rhodes, which continued until 1886. He also designed with Boyington, the Baptist Theological Seminary on Rhodes Avenue. This major work was accomplished after the fire," according to the Tallmadge book.

Partnership with His Son

In later years, O.L. Wheelock worked in partnership with his adopted son, Harry Bergen Wheelock. Harry B. Wheelock, 1861-1934, was the architect for the Moody Bible Institute and was one of the founders of the Chicago Architectural Club. He also was a member of several architectural and public commissions and was largely responsible for a bill licensing architects and the registration act of the Illinois legislature, serving for many years on the First Board of Architectural Examiners. Otis L. Wheelock died in Chicago about 1886, according to information in the "Biographical Dictionary of American Architects (Deceased)," published in 1956. [Editors note: This date appears to be incorrect. According to the records of John Graf, he died 23 Jan 1893, San Jose, CA.]

His Work Carried Forward

It was through his apprentice, John Hose, and Mr. Hose's later partner, David D. Kieff, that the Wheelock influence was carried well into the 20th century. Mr. Hose, Mrs. Falton said, was the builder of the Paddock mansion, the site of the Jefferson County Historical Society Museum, and the Jefferson County Court House, designed by Horatio N. White, both now on the National Register of Historic Places. Mr. Kieff, who served as mayor of Watertown from 1936 to 1940, went into partnership with Mr. Hose in 1887. The partnership continued until 1893, when Mr. Kieff purchased Mr. Hose's interest in the firm. Among Watertown landmarks, present and past, that Mr. Kieff designed are the Brighton Hotel, 122 Court St.; Empire Flats (Premier Apartments), Coffeen Street; the former Watertown City Hall on Court Street; Cooper School, and the Antwerp Town Hall.

Designs Throughout NY

In the 1920s, it was estimated that about 70 percent of all substantial buildings in Watertown were designed in Mr. Kieff's office. Catholic churches planned or designed by the Kieff firm include Holy Family, St. Anthony's and the former Sacred Heart churches in Watertown; St. James, Gouverneur; St. Mary's, Lake Placid; St. Peter's, Lowville, and St. Cyril's, Alexandria Bay. Reviewing the architectural influence O.L. Wheelock and his proteges had on the north country and in Illinois, Mrs. Falton said, "Someone who at first appears rather insignificant is probably very important."

© June 10, 1990 Watertown Daily Times