Once the richest man in Syracuse, the legacy of James Belden lives on at 620 West Genesee Street

The year was 1901 – the First Presbyterian Church had been practicing faith since 1824 and was in need of a new parish after a stone was dislodged and fell from the tower of their Brownstone Church located at the corner of Salina and Fayette Street. The stone hit a man named Mr. Barker who received $30 in compensation for his injuries. Upon inspection of the tower, the church was presented with the option of repairing or building new. Local resident and parish trustee, Dr. James Belden, offered his house and accompanying property at 620 West Genesee Street to the congregation to build a new structure. The congregation voted 86 to 74 in favor of accepting Belden’s offer and construction began on a new parish.

Though the First Presbyterian Church would close its doors 106 years later in 2012, the story and generously shown by Belden lives on in the work that continues in his former home today.

The corresponding street sitting behind the parish is named for James Belden

Belden was an intelligent, family oriented, businessman and public servant. To say he lived a successful life is an understatement. He was born in Fabius, New York, in 1825 and attended the village school. When the gold rush of the 1850’s hit, Belden had the foresight to head west. He returned three years later as a wealthy man.

He soon married Anna Gere, the daughter of prominent resident Robert Gere. Both independently and with his father-in-law, Belden embarked on countless successful business pursuits, involving railroads, canals and other public construction projects. Aside from contracting, he was also involved in local banking and published a newspaper.

The main office inside the parish house

By the time he was 50, Belden began to take prominence in political affairs and was elected Mayor of Syracuse in both 1877 and 1878. As his business interests grew, so did his strength as a political factor. He became known as one of the nation’s top republican’s, serving as a United States Congressmen several times in the 1880s and 1890s.

Belden shared his fortunes with the community like none other, providing funding, construction or counsel to countless projects and charities in the area, including helping build a new entrance and office for Oakwood Cemetery: two structures that have deteriorated greatly, but are often photographed today.

When Belden donated his mansion to his parish, the house sat in the front of the lot at 620 West Genesee Street. The congregation spent $6,000 to have the residence moved without damage to the rear of the property by a Mr. Sheerer of Chicago. Belden would pass away soon after in 1904, before the first service in the new church was held in April of 1906. When Belden passed away, he was regarded as the richest man in Syracuse, with an estimated wealth of $10,000,000.

When the First Presbyterian Church closed its doors and left the property in 2012, they sold off everything they could, such as pictures, wall to wall mirrors and original furniture. What was left behind was the memory of the Belden family that can still be seen in countless ornate features in the former home.

I recently visited the building and met with Michele, Ministry Coordinator for the Missio Church that now calls the church and parish house, home. Michele allowed me to take pictures of the historic home to showcase the beautiful wood work, elegant door knobs, twisting basement and 4th floor tower.

While touring the facility, Michele mentioned a famous stained glass window that was hung in the adjacent church, but was sold before they moved in. The window piece had been installed in 1906, a gift from Anna Belden, presented in memory of her husband and their daughter, Hattie, who died while still an infant. The design of more than 100 figures was made by artist Fredrick Wilson and the window was executed by the Tiffany Studios of New York City. The piece was known as the largest Tiffany stained glass window located in the Northeast.

Michele said losing the window was a “blessing in disguise”. Valued at over one million dollars, the Missio wouldn’t have been unable to afford the church and parish home if the window was left intact. This would have prevented them from owning the space and being able to share it with several other congregations, something the parish is proud to offer the community.

The window was sold to Dr. Lawrence Gelman of Texas. Gelman, a collector, hopes to open a museum where the piece will be featured.

Soon after visiting the Misssio Church, I learned that less than a quarter mile away, a possible sister home to 620 West Genesee Street existed at 404 Park Avenue. Currently owned by Ray Bohne, the layout is curiously similar to Belden’s house.

404 Park Avenue

Bohne purchased the pre-civil war brick building 8 or 9 years ago and immediately began renovating the structure in hopes of returning it to its original glory. Bohne said that the previous owner had left the home in such distress that another year and it would have been unsalvageable. The house was once home to wealthy businessman, George Larned, and had been placed on the historical registry. The previous owner was in a legal battle after replacing the porch without going through the proper protocol. Upset with the city, Bohne said the owner told him he simply gave up, and used the house for one purpose, Halloween themed parties. Parties so elaborate that Bohne found caskets in the home upon purchasing the property. The house was also featured on Ghost Walks organized by the Onondaga Historical Association.

Front staircases at 620 West Genesee Street and 404 Park Avenue

Bohne said he’s unsure how the house survived in such good condition over the years of neglect, stating that for many years it must have “taken care of itself’. With 12-inch thick walls, you can’t hear a squeak in the home. You get a sense that it was constructed with Belden’s design in mind. Bohne believes it was built for a family member of Belden’s, adding that he has been in the parish’s house before, and immediately noticed that the staircase mirrored his. Bohne engraved one of his fireplaces with the letter B, to represent the family’s name that he had seen above a door in the parish house.

The house on Park Avenue also features the wooden pocket doors, servants quarters and 4th floor tower. One can imagine Belden and the owner looking out to one another as they watched the boats on the Erie Canal going slowly by.

Bohne says he won’t remain in the home forever though, adding that he plans on moving in the next year and hopes the next owner values the house as much as he has. The work to preserve the home deserves acknowledgement, along with that of the Missio Church, work that resembles the love that Dr. James Belden had for his community.

Ray Bohne stands outside his home on Park Avenue