To many passing by, the house at 702 N. 16th Street may seem vacant. Because it has only been occupied for about two years, upperclassmen on campus may believe it still is empty.
“I’d say that on a daily basis, the funniest or most frightening thing is when a student or pedestrian walks up to the house and looks in the windows because they do not know anyone lives there,” said senior biochemistry major Jeremy Payne, one of five residents of the Lewis-Syford House.
The Lewis-Syford House is the oldest building on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s campus and the third oldest building in Lincoln. According to the National Register of Historic Places, the house was built in 1878 by the Reverend Elisha M. Lewis. Rev. Lewis lived in the house until his death in 1891. Three years later, Mr. T. Hodgeman, a professor at UNL, moved into the home. Professor Hodgeman lived there until 1904, when the house was purchased by DeWitt Syford. A member of the Syford family lived in the house until 1965, when it was given to the Nebraska State Historical Society.
The house was later used as offices for UNL, and the university’s occupation of the home has left some physical reminders behind. The floor in the dining room and hallway is painted a dark green-blue, and finish has been stripped off of some of the doors. Random electrical outlets have been put in odd places in some rooms, such as one in the middle of the floor in a bedroom off the living room.
After being used for university offices, the house sat vacant. A family attempted to purchase the house and convert it into a school for children with autism. The modifications the family hoped to make, including adding extra parking and a new building behind the house, caused the Lincoln City Council to reject the plan. The house again sat vacant, before being purchased in 2013 for restoration by National Geographic contributing photographer Joel Sartore and his family.
Sartore’s son, Cole Sartore, still lives in the house, along with four other UNL students. For the five residents, living in the Lewis-Syford House can really be the best of both worlds, due to the access to UNL’s city campus.
“The best thing about living in the LS house is the proximity to all of my classes and meetings on campus,” Payne said. “I have the ability to leave the house and, within five minutes, get to nearly any building on campus by foot.”
And though the house is located on campus, it’s privately owned, so alcohol is allowed inside.
“We’ve had beers on the porch sometimes, and we get funny looks from people,” Henning said. “UNLPD will walk by, and they just kind of look at us.”
The residents of the house joked that they should convert a small room in the basement into a speakeasy, but plans for that never came to fruition.
“This was gonna be the place; we were gonna be open Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and people going to the bars or coming back from the bars could just stop here for a casual drink,” Henning said, laughing. “But since then, it’s kind of just become a work room.”
Though the house is 137 years old, the interior feels the same as any other house occupied by college students. Cups and cans litter the living room coffee table, and a pile of shoes greets visitors coming in the side entrance. The decor is eclectic, to say the least. A pinball machine resides in the same entryway off the side entrance, and a stuffed moose head sits above the living room couch.
A house this old doesn’t come without its quirks. Senior Brendon Henning described the basement of the house as “creepy” and “terrifying,” and it includes a well. The door to the basement sometimes locks itself from the inside. The front doors are roped shut, as they won’t stay locked otherwise.
“The house warps over the seasons,” Henning said. “So the front doors would just fly open and bang around in the wind.”
Even though the house is closing in on its 140th birthday, those living there say it’s easy to forget the history behind their home.
“Over time, you forget that it’s the third oldest house in Lincoln,” Henning said. “It’s just a really nice house with the charm that comes with being right on campus.”