901 West Fourth Street- Backhouse Cafe
The house at 901 West Fourth Street is part of an area of Williamsport known as Millionaire's Row. The street is full of mansions that were built during the logging industry boom that began in the 1860's. The house was designed and built by Amos Wagner in 1890 for Henry Johnson and his family. Through the years the house has served as a residential home, doctor's offices, and apartments. The house was restored by the Thomas Taber Museum in the hopes that it could house a collection about local women's history. Due to maintenance costs, however, it was never opened as a museum. Today it is the Backhouse Cafe Coffee & Tea.
Backstory and Context
The house at 901 West Fourth Street was originally built for Henry Johnson and his family. Henry Johnson was born on June 12, 1819 in Newton, Sussex County, New Jersey. He was well educated and graduated from Princeton College in 1837. Johnson went on to study law and was admitted to the New Jersey bar in 1841. Soon after being admitted to the bar, Johnson's mother moved the family to Muncy, Pennsylvania to settle lands that she had inherited from her grandfather, General Daniel Brodhead. Henry Johnson soon opened a law office in Muncy on June 19, 1841, which he operated for the next fifty years. In 1856, he married Margaret Green.
During the Civil War Johnson briefly served as a private in Co. K, 14th Pa. Militia, but he also helped reelect Lincoln through his actions in the state senate. While Lincoln was running for reelection, he feared that soldiers’ inability to vote would affect his chances to win the presidency. In 1862, Henry Johnson and the Judiciary Chair John Penney proposed an amendment to the Pennsylvania state constitution to grant suffrage to men in active military service, as well as lowering the voting age to 18. Lincoln was able to win the state of Pennsylvania, and ultimately the presidency, due to a majority of soldiers voting for him.
In anticipation of his retirement, Henry Johnson hired Amos Wagner to design and build a house in Williamsport for him and his family. The house was built in the classic colonial revival style with mosaic tile flooring, stained and leaded glass, ornate hardware, and detailed moldings and wainscoting. Unfortunately, Henry Johnson was only able to enjoy his new home for a couple years as he died August 11, 1895. In his Will, Johnson asked that “all my real estate…be divided between them,” referring to his wife and children. After his death, his wife, Margaret owned and lived in the home. In her Will, Margaret Johnson stipulated “I give to my four daughters Mary G., Ida J., Laura L., and Helen G. Johnson the right to buy…the house in which we now live, 901 West Fourth Street Williamsport Pa.”
As Margaret Johnson grew older, responsibilities for the house fell to her oldest daughter, Mary Johnson, from 1913-1917. The house was then sold to Henry Hipple, a local lawyer, who lived in the house from 1918-1923. Henry Hipple sold the home to Albert C. Lamade and his wife, Rosina M. Lamade. Albert Lamade was a physician and he made alterations to the house during the 1920’s for cosmetic reasons, but also to run a physician’s office in the house. Lamade added French doors with palladian windows above them, a garage, and an enclosed room above the garage which acted as a waiting room. The Lamade family owned the house from 1924-1969. In 1971, George A. Durrwachter purchased the house. Durrwachter was an orthodontist and he used 901 West Fourth Street as his residence and office from 1970-2002.
In 2002, the house was purchased by the Thomas Taber Museum and Lycoming County Historical Society. The Taber Museum hoped to restore the home to what it would have looked like in the Victorian era and turn it into a local women’s history museum. For the exterior of the house, the roofing needed to be fixed and some of the stonework needed to be cleaned. With the interior of the home, there was plans to install gas lighting fixtures, paint and repair wood and moldings, add period wallpaper, and remove the x-ray room. The Taber Museum was able to renovate the home, however due to the potential costs of having to maintain the house it was decided that it was best to sell it. Currently, the Backhouse Café operates out of the building.
Andrews, J. Cutler. “The Gilded Age in Pennsylvania.” Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies 34, no. 1 (January 1967): 1-24.
Collins, Emerson and John W. Jordan. Genealogical and Personal History of Lycoming County, Pennsylvania. New York: Lewis, 1906.
Ertel, Barbara Griffith, ed. West Fourth Street Story. Williamsport, PA: Junior League of Williamsport, 1975.
Johnson, Henry. Will. Thomas Taber Museum, Williamsport, PA, September 1, 1861.
Johnson, Margaret. Will. Thomas Taber Museum, Williamsport, PA, July 3, 1897.
Pennsylvania State Senate. “Henry Johnson Biography.” Accessed December 1, 2019. https://www.legis.state.pa.us/cfdocs/legis/BiosHistory/MemBio.cfm?ID=4824&body=S.
Visco Jr., Anthony H. Architectural Existing Condition Report. Thomas Taber Museum, Williamsport, PA, 2007.
Exterior of 901 West Fourth Street. Photograph, Lycoming County Visitors Bureau. Accessed December 1, 2019. https://vacationpa.com/listing/backhouse-cafe-coffee-tea/.
Henry Johnson. Photograph, Thomas Taber Museum, Williamsport, PA.
901 West Fourth Street. c. 1900, Photograph, Williamsport Board of Trade, Thomas Taber Museum, Williamsport, PA.
Residence of 901 West Fourth Street. April 1968. Photograph, Thomas Taber Museum, Williamsport, PA.
901 W 4th St, exterior from 4th St. January 2002, Photograph, Thomas Taber Museum, Williamsport, PA.
901 W 4th St, exterior from Maynard St. January 2002, Photograph, Thomas Taber Museum, Williamsport, PA.
901 W 4th St, Dining Room-Examination Room. January 2002, Photograph, Thomas Taber Museum, Williamsport, PA.
901 W 4th St, foyer. January 2002, Photograph, Thomas Taber Museum, Williamsport, PA.
901 W 4th St, foyer staircase. January 2002, Photograph, Thomas Taber Museum, Williamsport, PA.
901 W 4th St, foyer staircase. August 2004, Photograph, Thomas Taber Museum, Williamsport, PA.
901 W 4th St, foyer staircase. 2005, Photograph, Thomas Taber Museum, Williamsport, PA.