The brick, gabled Akron mansion where Thomas Edison married Mina Miller — long ago converted into 18 apartments — has a new owner.
But relax. Area investor and developer Michael Sapp says the iconic manor, as well as nearby rental property on the west bluff overlooking downtown, is in good hands.
“This is an amazing little inner-city community,” Sapp said last week. “I’m not trying to fix what’s not broken. It’s an investment for us.”
Summit County property records show Sapp, 59, and partners paid $1.1 million for the painted red brick mansion and 10 tidy apartment properties nearby that make up the Excelsior Apartments.
In all, Sapp’s group bought 61 low-to-moderate rent units in the secluded area across from Glendale Cemetery, where, legend has it, Edison courted Miller during carriage rides.
Former owner Bill Thomas died in 2010, prompting his widow, Loretta Thomas, to put all the properties on the market this year, said Jennifer Fernandez, an agent with NAI Cummins real estate, who represented the seller.
City officials are thrilled that Sapp is preserving the mansion, built in 1870.
Akron Planning Director John Moore said he had even talked with Loretta Thomas about the city buying the apartments, including the mansion, for $750,000. Moore said Sapp entered the picture before the city put together a formal offer.
Moore said his idea was to preserve the mansion and eventually cull out some of “the properties that aren’t as nice as the others,” such as the wood-frame houses converted into apartments, and attract a developer interested in building newer housing.
“You’re right downtown, but you could be out in the middle of nowhere,” Moore said. “It’s like a little island up there.”
Deputy Mayor Dave Lieberth, an avid local historian, said the mansion is significant for more than the Edison connection.
Home of Lewis Miller
Dubbed Oak Place, the mansion was home to Mina Miller’s father, Lewis Miller. The inventor and industrialist made a fortune through the manufacture of farm equipment, particularly reapers, plows and threshers.
“The mansion is a landmark that connects Akron to the 19th-century industrial era, when we were the leading manufacturer of farm machinery,” Lieberth said.
Lieberth said that Lewis Miller was a big deal in post-Civil War Akron for other reasons. He helped found the Chautauqua Institution, the nonprofit cultural/educational retreat in western New York. He designed “The Akron Plan,” a Sunday-school building design that was incorporated into many Protestant churches. He also helped organize Mount Union College in Alliance and was its board president for three decades.
Edison and Mina Miller were married on Feb. 24, 1886, in Oak Place’s parlor — now one of the apartments.
More than 80 guests attended the ceremony, which the Akron Daily Beacon called “the most notable nuptials” in local history.
Today, the mansion on Dawes Avenue is the centerpiece of the Excelsior Apartments, where units — most of them with one bedroom — rent for roughly $500 to $600 a month, including utilities.
A peek inside
Last week, Sapp showed off the mansion’s interior. While split up and a bit worn inside, it boasts such original features as 12-foot high ceilings, a wood spiral staircase and a marble fireplace in one of the rooms that is now an individual apartment.
“We’re planning on improving it,” Sapp said of the neighborhood, “but not changing it.”
Excelsior tenant Ken Capps, 55, who lives in one of the homes converted into apartments, said, “It’s just different here. … It’s an oasis.”
The disabled veteran said he liked that his unit, like many of the others, was furnished — “move-in ready.”
“The people here are happy here,” Sapp said. “It’s a testament to [former owner Bill] Thomas,” who started amassing the apartment properties on Dawes, King Drive and Oak Park Drive decades ago.
Thomas dubbed the mix of brick and wood-frame buildings Excelsior, a Latin word meaning “ever higher.” Longtime property manager Rick Smith, who is remaining, said Thomas liked the word because it denoted excellence.
Thomas didn’t manage to buy up all the property on the hill, including some privately and city-owned vacant lots. Dr. Leon Neiman owns 38 vacant lots, and said after years of hanging onto the property, he’s ready to sell. His initial plan was to build an outpatient clinic; later he envisioned a housing development.
There also are several apartment houses that are not part of the Excelsior properties, including the mansion’s former carriage house.
Sapp said Thomas was an old-school landlord who regularly checked up on his apartments, even though he had an on-site property manager, and let tenants pay by the week. Sapp said he will continue that practice.
“It allows people to budget on a weekly basis,” Sapp said.
Sapp noted the well-maintained lawns and small flower beds and noted that the properties have won repeated Akron Beautification Watch certificates — all of which Thomas had hung inside the mansion.
Sapp motioned to a flag flying from a pole on the well-groomed front lawn of the mansion.
“He bought the flags by the case,” Sapp said, noting he plans to continue Thomas’ practice of flying flags outside all the Excelsior properties.
Katie Byard can be reached at 330-996-3781 or firstname.lastname@example.org.