Historic Moment: Stella Maris
By Jorge Batlle
Skaneateles Village Historian
Skaneateles has had numerous Roosevelts owning and/or occupying residences in the village. The Stella Maris Retreat Center as we know it today, located at 130 E. Genesee St., was the residence of Frederick Roosevelt, a cousin of Theodore Roosevelt. Fred was well-off being involved in a railroad company, oil company, a bank, Automobile Club of America, and the New York Yacht Club. He was a member of the Lotos Club, a still operational literary club based in New York City. He married Mary Loney of Skaneateles in 1873. Fred’s father and mother died in 1875-6 leaving Fred with a large trust fund.
Before construction started on the home, a local carpenter, John Wheeler, built a large boathouse on the shore for Frederick’s steam launch called the Lotos. In May1880 William Cottle built a 72 foot long 3-1/2 wide stone dock out into the lake.
Started in 1879, this so-called ‘summer cottage’ was designed by Architect William R. Mead of the New York City architect firm of McKim & Mead. Sanford White joined the firm in 1879 and was given the task of designing interiors of houses including the interior of Frederick Roosevelt’s house. It was built in pieces in New York and shipped by train for assembly in Skaneateles around 1880. Frederick named the house Roseleigh, perhaps after a spa in Belfast, Ireland. The house contained 10 rooms, 4 baths, a den, billiard parlor, dining and living room. There was a garage and boathouse, 310 feet of lake frontage, 1,120 foot of lot depth, and a frontage of 231 feet on Genesee Street.
After 36 years of “summering” in Skaneateles, Fred died in New York City in 1916. Mary now spent her time with the Loney family in Rhode Island.
In 1917, Burns Lyman Smith rented the ‘Roosevelt place’ for the summer. He liked it so much that he bought the house and the ten acres of land for $25,000. Burns Lyman Smith, said to be the wealthiest man to own a home in the Village, was the son of Lyman C. Smith owner of the L.C. Smith Shotgun Company, and the Smith-Premier Typewriter Company. This became the Smith-Corona Typewriter Company, manufacturer of the country’s most popular typewriter.
Smith became involved in Seattle, Washington real estate after a visit there with his son in 1909. In 1910 he started construction of the 38 story Smith Tower. At that time it was the tallest building west of Chicago. Smith died in October of 1910 and never got to see the completion of his building.
Back in Skaneateles, George Clarkson was the caretaker for the estate from 1903 to 1954. He lived in a house across the street sold to him by Mary Loney Roosevelt. One famous visitor to Roseleigh was Teddy Roosevelt around 1900.
Burns Lyman Smith died of heart problems and the house went to sister Flora Bernice Smith. Already having a home with a 1,000 foot of lake frontage she rented Roseleigh, mostly to members of the Lewis Smith family.
After 12 years of ownership, Flora Smith, growing elderly and being treated at St. Joseph’s Hospital, heard that the Sisters of St. Francis were looking for home to host retreats. She sold the estate in May 1952 to the Sisters of Third Franciscan Order at what was said to be a “reasonable price,” according to Sister Pat Larkin a 2014 spokesperson for the Order. It took 2 years for the renovations and opened in 1954. Bishop Walter A. Forey blessed it as Stella Maris – “Star of the Sea.”
Much of the interior beauty was preserved. No changes were made to the entrance hall, and all the fireplaces were preserved. A two level porch was added to the lakeside. East and west wings of brick were added. Upon completion, there were 40 private and two semi-private rooms, two dormitories, and staff residence for five sisters. A 40 person chapel was in the new west wing.
In 1972 a convent of three levels was added to the west wing, consisting of five single bedrooms two suites, a community room and a small chapel, a meeting room and a garage. In 1980, this chapel was converted into 7 additional bedrooms and a bathroom.
In 1981 a solarium was built over the two car garage. It was called The Wicker Room, as it was furnished with wicker furniture acquired from the Smith Estate. In 1982 an additional dining room was added to the back of the house to accommodate more guests.
In 1985 a plan to construct a $300,000 50 foot by 50 foot conference room attached to the original building was proposed. At a public hearing, numerous residents expressed concern over the proposed expansion. The expansion newer took place.
In 2014 the Sisters realized that the complex could no longer be self-sustaining. They put to property up for sale. In 2015 Peter & Elsa Soderberg purchased the 8.7 acre site. Their original proposal was to demolish the complex and divide the property into two lakeside residential properties and a third where the actual building stood, was offered to the Library as a possible location. The subdivision was called “Project Bookends.” This also sparked many community discussions. So, with the Library Association Board deciding not to pursue project of relocation to the Stella Maris site, the Soderbergs amended their plan December 2017 to having just two residential lots.
The Soderbergs, keeping with their original intentions, the Stella Maris was demolished in May of 2018. Gone, by hopefully not forgotten.