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SUMMER IN THE CITY with The Style Line’s summer intern, Laine Kisiel
The time seems to be escaping me readily this summer. As the end of June approaches, I am left in awe by how quickly the time is passing. Part of my stay in New York is not only discovering the wonders and magical happenings of the city, but those outside it as well. I recently took a trip upstate just outside of Buffalo to visit my extended family. The fresh air, frequent naps on the porch, and homemade pies were just the medication I needed when I was starting to get sick on the pollution and constant bustle of the city (getting stuck in the closing doors of the subway anyone? same here). We are exploring themes of history and innovation this month, how the two intertwined, and the lifestyle created around historical concepts. I thought, what a better time to sit down with my Aunt Diana Kisiel Kasten and discuss her outlooks on these ideas. She is currently in the process of renovating and refurbishing her home, a historical staple and one of a kind mansion lost in the corn fields of northern New York. As this home approaches it’s centennial birthday, I wanted to capture its old world beauty and haunting glow that has so long been forgotten or misinterpreted.
Please introduce yourself!
Diana Kisiel Kasten, I am a mom first, a wife to Hiram Kasten: actor/ comedian, and a small business owner. I would say people who follow their heart are my biggest inspiration. People who follow their passions, no matter what they are.
How did you come across this house and what have you discovered about yourself in the restoration process?
I always grew up seeing this house when Mrs. Rowell lived here. It was not the type of house I ever wanted to buy, I wanted a farm house next to my mothers on Creek Rd. I unfortunately was not able to get that home at the time. This house was on the market for a while, I like historical restoration and I knew it had passed hands several times after Mrs Rowell passed. I did not know if the new owners were going to change it or even take care of it. Once the opportunity arose, I was living in California. We went back and forth with a deal, and I ended up walking away. After 36 hours passed we were contacted and we finally were able to make a deal at the price I hoped for. We purchased the home in 2004 but we did not fully live here until 2012. I would work on it over the summertime when we would stay in Batavia. I started on the second floor and worked on one wing of the home. The first bedroom I worked on was Mrs. Rowell’s room joined by the bathroom to her husbands. The house was built in 1914, which makes this year its centennial and very historically significant.
I learned restoration takes extreme patience; it is a long process if you want to do it correctly. You must accept the fact that it may never be completed in your lifetime, and that is a difficult one for me.
What has been the most challenging part of the process? What has been the most rewarding part of the process?
Challenging is having the money when you do not have the time, and having the time but not the money.
The other most challenging is finding skilled workers to work on this type of house. There are certain aspects to the house like the floors and walls that require special attention. Cherry wood trim, encaustic tile floors, and plaster walls.
Seeing a room come close to completion is very rewarding. Seeing it complete and in the style that I had envisioned can be very eclectic. This whole style is very eclectic. The best part is the tile floors is they came from Spain, Italy and Portugal. The tiles are very thick, and are coming back in to style now. The previous owners covered up the tiles with rugs, but I believe the tiles are the most beautiful part of the house. Each room has its own style of tile. They each have their own personality with the turn of the century. The lights on the outside are very arts and crafts, the stained glass is as well. I have crates of brand-new tile that were brought here on the ship for replacements if any tiles break. I think the beauty and wealth in the house is in the tiling. The house is fireproof with outside brick and a brick layer beyond it with wood lathing and plaster walls. The floors are concrete with tile on them and the only wood in the house is trim work. It is a state of the art home and one of kind in this part of New York.
How has the historical background affected the restoration and your approach to it? What is the role this house plays in your life?
The historical background drives everything I do. It is important for me to restore the home so that it will be around for the next hundred years. It needs maintenance. The special skills required are major expenses to maintain a historical home like this one. I want to restore it, but I do not want it to be a museum piece. I want to make it livable, breathable home, not with exact replicas of antiques. It must feel like a home after all, there will be things that I change, but the integrity will remain.
This house is the ongoing project in my life; it is constant and everyday. It is the last private residence “mansion” in Batavia, so I would like it to be a place where people feel welcomed into the community. I am active in the area, so I would like to be able to entertain and use this home as a showplace.
You used to live in New York City and Los Angeles, how has the shift from city life-to-life upstate affected your view on New York?
I was born and raised here and left after high school, I went to school in Washington DC. I graduated with a BA in theatre from The Catholic University of America. After college, I moved to New York City to pursue acting and I lived there for 15 years where I met my husband and were then married at Park Avenue Synagogue in Manhattan with a reception at Tavern on the Green. A year after we were married my husband and I moved to California to pursue his career in Los Angeles. We lived there for 25 years where we raised out daughter. In 2012 we decided to come home to Batavia and live here full time while our daughter attends Cornell university. I wanted to be closer to my father and my husband wanted to be back on the East Coast so he could travel to the city. This area is certainly more rural and politically conservative, whereas New York City is liberal as well as LA. Politics aside, both New York and California are very picturesque. California offers a gorgeous coastline and New York offers rich history. We live now in an agricultural area where there is farm land constantly surrounding you which is very lovely as well as the great Lakes (Erie and Ontario). Physically the two are very different.
What is one thing people may not know when they see this home?
Many people do not know this is a Beaux Arts home, that style came out of the school École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Stanford White designed the original Madison Square Garden and the Villard Houses and many other notable New York buildings after studying there. This style came out of that group of architects that came from that training; you will see most of this architecture in commercial buildings. This is one of the only residences in Genesee County that is of the Beaux Arts style. It is a fine example of their residences in Western New York.
What is one question you wish people asked you more often?
I wish people asked me more about the true history of the home. The history is very interesting. Ian Rowell built this house for his second wife. He killed the lover of his first wife in their home also in this area. Once he was acquitted in Buffalo, he got custody of his two daughters, which was a big scandal at the time. He divorced his wife and she moved away. He then married his second wife and they resided in this home together.
The murder was in 1883. In addition, this house was built in 1914 after Rowell took his second wife. After his death in He was buried in Batavia on a grave site that he built to match the porch of the house with pillars and all. He was an industrialist and owned a box factory with a partner Palmer from Utica. Jenny was the Belle of the Ball in Utica and she wound up marrying Rowell, who was quite a catch for him at the time. To get her out of Utica where she was much a flirt he moved her here to Batavia. He would often go on sales trips for days at a time. Jenny was carrying on with a man named Lynch. She was having an affair with him, and Lynch would come to Batavia to continue their acts. Palmer found out and told his partner Rowell. Rowell decided to catch his wife in the act. He boarded a train for a “business trip” and got off at the other end. Rowell then waited for Lynch to arrive and followed him back to his own house on Bank street. Rowell saw Lynch having dinner with his wife, once his children left and Lynch and Jenny were in the act he followed them upstairs and fired three shots. The third killed him as he was going downstairs where he tumbled down. Rowell got off on self-defense and got custody of the children because Jenny was an adulteress. The scandal made the New York Times as scandalous as it was. There is a fictional book published by a former resident of Batavia. Box Shaped Heart by Thomas Gahr is historical fiction based on what he thinks happened. Mr. Rowell got re-married and built the Rowell mansion (where we now live) for his second wife. After he passed away, Mrs. Rowell became the small business owner of his small box company and worked hard to keep it afloat.
What is your favorite part of this home and community?
My favorite part of this home is the Portico front porch. People pass in the street and say hello, and come up to the porch to talk. I would like it to be a little more private but that is all in time. I love the style of the porch; you can see what is going on in your neighborhood. I also like the solarium upstairs, the sleeping porch, I’m going to make it into a writing room eventually.
I like that you can get involved in the community with ease. There are many activities going on, you have an instant group of friends if you put yourself out there. There are only 15,000 people in town, so it is easy for people to get to know you.