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Fenton Mansion

The Fenton Historical Society

Society Formed

20th Anniversary

Drawing Room Restoration

Thompson, B. Delores. “Historical Society Formed to Save Fenton Mansion,” Jamestown (NY) Post-Journal, 2 June 1979.
The Post-Journal website: http://post-journal.com/

Historical Society Formed To Save Fenton Mansion
By B. Delores Thompson
Executive Director, Fenton Historical Society Historian, City of Jamestown

Fenton Historical Society was founded as a consequence of the efforts to save Fenton Mansion from demolition. The demolition was planned in conjunction with the reconstruction of Route 60 through Jamestown in the early 1960s. However, a group of historically-minded citizens, conducting a feasibility study for the adaptive re-use of the structure, saw its potential as a museum to house and exhibit Jamestown’s rich cultural heritage.

Until the 1960s, no effort had been made, except by private citizens, to collect and preserve the artifacts, memorabilia, manuscripts, etc., which tell us from where we have come and help us define and determine where we are going. Equally important was the preservation and restoration of the 1863 Italian villa home of New York state’s post-Civil War governor, Rueben E. Fenton.

Fenton served five terms as congressman from this area prior to his governorship (1864-1869) and then served a six-year term as senator. He began his political career as a Democrat and later became involved with the “Free Soldiers.”

Early in his career in Washington, he was instrumental in the founding of the Republican Party and it was as a Republican that he was elected governor.

During his administration many reforms were accomplished: the creation of an agency to supervise all state hospitals, asylums and homes and raise the standards for those institutions; the raising of minimum standards for teachers; the establishment of six new state teachers colleges. Perhaps most important was the abolition of all tuition and other charges in the public schools, which increased school attendance by one-third. He also signed the charter for Cornell University. At the time of his death in 1885 he was President of the First National Bank in Jamestown.

In the Fenton Mansion the society has established a museum and library. The library houses Jamestown’s archives and an extensive and nationally-renowned genealogical library. It attracts persons from all over the country who are seeking information on the history of the area or on their ancestors. The museum focuses on the mid and late Victorian eras which coincide with the period of Jamestown’s greatest growth.

Several rooms- the parlor, the kitchen and nanny’s room- are Victorian period rooms. Other rooms house exhibits depicting various aspects of the area’s history. Of particular note are the two rooms recognizing the two major ethnic groups in Jamestown and their contributions to Jamestown’s cultural heritage.

Also of special interest is the military room set up in the room which served for 11 years (1945-1956) as the national headquarters of the Grand Army of the Republic, the army of the north during the Civil War. A large collection of Civil War books is part of the exhibit of Civil War memorabilia. The personal records of the GAR soldiers were sent to the National Archives in 1956 when the last union soldier died.

Thus, in saving the old Fenton Mansion from demolition, a dual purpose was accomplished: the preservation of the home of a national political figure, which has since been placed on the National Register of Historic Places, and the establishment of a local history museum and library which is rapidly becoming one of the area’s prime tourist attractions.

Citizens of the area have responded to the society’s efforts to the point that the purchase of additional property for museum and library expansion became imperative, and last year the society purchased the 1870 Victorian Gothic William C. J. Hall home on Forest Avenue. Work has begun on this historic home in preparation for its conversion to museum exhibits.

At this point it must be stressed that conversion to a museum and/or library is not the only possible use of a historic or architecturally significant structure. The private homes in particular have been adapted to different uses, ie., the William Broadhead home to a furniture store, the William Maddox home to the Boys Club, the William Hall home to a senior citizens’ residence, the Marvin home to a community building for women’s organizations and individuals, the Prendergast home to doctors’ offices. These are only a few examples of the possible adaptive re-uses of historic structures.

In saving and adapting a structure we are in a sense recycling it and recycling the natural resources which were used in its construction. With the supply of natural resources constantly dwindling it makes sense to make use of our existing buildings, modernizing and renovating where necessary for modern use but retaining the original structure. Thus, historic preservation also becomes conservation.

Genovese, Mark. “The Fenton Has Come A Long Way In Its 20 Years,” Jamestown (NY) Post-Journal, 9 June 1984.
The Post-Journal website: http://post-journal.com/

The Fenton Has Come A Long Way In Its 20 Years
By Mark Genovese

In 1963, Mary W. Torrance expressed the vision of the members of the newly formed Fenton Historical Society at one of the group’s first meetings: “The establishment of a museum to preserve and display the history of our community.” She added, “It is our intention to have the Fenton Mansion a place you will want to bring your guests, where school children can learn of the past, where records of all sorts may be kept and examined.”

Back then, the Fenton Historical Center was nothing but the resolve of a few dedicated citizens and a proud, but seldom-used mansion.

Today, 20 years after receiving its charter from the state, the Fenton is an undeniable success.

It is home of hundreds upon hundreds of artifacts chronicling Chautauqua County’s past. The work of its active members and administrators has been returned time and time again in annual memberships and in the participation and admiration of the community.

The former home of Gov. Reuben Eaton Fenton has taken on a new life, harboring colorful, detailed historical displays on all its four floors.

But perhaps a look back at the history of the mansion and the society itself may prove just as fascinating.

Fenton was born near Frewsburg on July 4, 1819, and was educated in schools in Fredonia and Ohio. He spent his early years running his family’s store in the town of Carroll and working a lumber business.

Fenton began his political career at age 27, when he was elected to the county board of supervisors. He became a U.S. representative in 1852 and was one of the founding members of the Republican Party.

He was elected governor in 1864 and served until 1869, when he was chosen to be a U.S. senator. After leaving the Senate in 1875, Fenton became a director and then president of the First National Bank.

It was during his term in office as governor that Fenton built the Italian-villa-style mansion that now overlooks Brooklyn Square.

For decades, the building was used as a meeting place for area military veterans, the headquarters of the local draft board and offices for the Jamestown Health Department.

The city bought the mansion as a war memorial for $35,000 in 1919.

About 43 years later, Mayor William D. Whitehead named Stanley A. Weeks to head a three-man committee to study the possible uses for the mansion. Weeks later became the society’s first life member and is honorary chairman of this year’s membership drive along with Maryon Ingham.

About a year later, on May 22, 1963, a group of local citizens interested in turning the mansion into a museum formed the Fenton Historical Society. Mrs. Torrance was elected president, Harry E. Rose first vice president, William Riggs Reynolds second vice president, Sybill McFadden secretary and Bert Hough treasurer.

Mrs. John W. Minturn – the grand-daughter of Fenton – was chosen honorary president and Rollin F. Cass became honorary vice president.

The first trustees were: Weeks, Miss Ingham, John D. Crissey, Helen Endress Field, Sheldon Myregaard, Jeanette Reynolds Sr., Helen G. McMahon, Patricia W. Naetzker, DeForest W. Peterson, Amanda Josephson, Ernest D. Leet and Harry A. Stone.

Curators were Helena M. Stonehouse, Arthur A. Wellman, C. Malcolm Nichols and Ernest J. Muzzy.

Soon after the society began to collect memorabilia, such as a 100-year-old piano; a diary of James E. Glenzen, a first lieutenant for the 137th New York Volunteers during the Civil War; an April 15, 1865 copy of the New York Herald Tribune announcing the death of Abraham Lincoln; and an 1800 copy of the Ulster County Gazette featuring an article on the death of George Washington.

The first piece of furniture from the mansion acquired by the society was a carved wooden chest with the governor’s initials. A 45-star American flag was later donated by Mayor Whitehead’s office.

Mrs. Torrance said in late July 1963 that the group had 150 members, and the organization’s goal was for 1,000 or more. Anyone who signed up before Aug. 21 would be considered a charter member. About 200 people attended to hear Charles H. Boyer, curator of the Niagara County Historical Museum in Lockport.

In the museum’s early days, members pleaded for more space because only one room was used to store museum articles. The city Health Department had offices on much of the first floor, while veterans groups were located on the second level.

Miss Ingham noted that community support was never a problem for the society. In its first, crucial year, the group gained 400 members.

The Board of Regents of the State University of New York capped the society’s success that year by granting it a charter as a local Educational Institution and Historical Center on May 22, 1964. Regents member Helen B. Power of Rochester presented the charter at ceremonies held Aug. 19, in the mansion.

Mrs. Power noted that Gov. Fenton granted the charter for Cornell University on that date almost a century before.

Fenton was a close friend of Ezra Cornell, a state assemblyman and senator, for whom the college was named. The society commemorated the 100th anniversary of the charter signing in 1965.

The museum’s collection grew to almost 500 items during the next year as the society accepted the unpublished letters of Horace Greeley, early pressed glass, china, photographs and primitives.

The U. S. Navy also presented the society with a set of books on the Civil War.

The archives and research library were also taking shape.

Other types of contributions were received from community organizations; for example, a $2,020 check from the Rotary Club to buy bookshelves.

Society members continued to hold informative programs and sponsor speakers throughout the years.

By 1966 talk about establishing a Jamestown Hall of Fame was becoming more than just talk. A committee was appointed to look into the matter. In addition, the society was also looking into placing the Fenton Mansion on the National Registry of Historic Places.

A Chautauqua Lake Committee was formed in December 1966 to preserve and display historical items on the lake and its hotels, steamers and other activities.

Mayor Fred H. Dunn helped open the Fenton’s historical and genealogical library on July 26, 1967. Arthur Wellman, society president, welcomed the 30 city and county officials to the ceremonies, thanking Miss Ingham and Daniel F. Lincoln for cataloguing the material.

In 1970, A. A. Hagberg, historical society president and Arthur R. Smith, president of the board of trustees, asked the county Board of Supervisors to help preserve the Bemus Point-Stow ferry for the benefit of county residents and area visitors. That year membership climbed to 1,150.

An exhibit to honor local firefighters was opened in 1971. The basement room featured “Old Active” the city’s first piece of firefighting equipment.

Talks given by speakers in the early 1970s outlined the history of Jamestown Community College, the Erie Canal, the State and the Iroquois Indians.

Jennie Vimmerstedt was honored by society members on June 9, 1973, when it was announced that a Swedish heritage room would be named after her. A trust fund was begun to finance the construction.

By the mid-1970’s, the library had grown to house 3,000 books, and many of the present exhibits had been opened, such as the Military Room including the antique tool display and the Victorian kitchen.

Property on Forest Avenue was bought in 1978 to accommodate the flood of historical items being donated to the society.

As the 1980’s began, the celebration of the Governor’s Birthday Party became a regular event for area residents to enjoy, as did the mansion’s special Christmas exhibits.

And just this spring the Fenton proudly opened its newest exhibit honoring the golden age of Chautauqua Lake.

We’ve come a long way, and have much history to record.” Mrs. Torrance said 21 years ago. Indeed, the Fenton Historical Society has made her words true today.

Nichols, Jennifer. “Meticulous Care Is Going Into The Restoration of Governor Reuben Fenton’s Drawing Room,” Jamestown (NY) Post-Journal, 18 June 1988
The Post-Journal website: http://post-journal.com/

Meticulous Care Is Going Into The Restoration of Governor Reuben Fenton’s Drawing Room
By Jennifer Nichols

People’s mouths may drop open when they see the color combinations in the restored Fenton Museum parlor, Candy Larson, director of the museum, says.

They will be astonished because they will be looking at the room with what she calls a “1980 eye” instead of one that was trained in the Victorian period. Tastes in colors have changed in the past 100 years, Mrs. Larson explained.

The ceiling is painted in 16 colors: various shades of pink, dusty rose, burgundy, brick-red, blue-green, lavender and olive-green. These aren’t combinations you see in modern interiors.

The room is being re-created to look as nearly as possible the way it did when Gov. Reuben E. Fenton and his family lived in the house, with emphasis on the period from 1863 to 1885, when it was used most.

The room’s name is also being restored: the historical society is referring to it as the drawing room instead of the parlor. The room was used for all formal occasions. The governor’s daughters were married in it and it was here that Mrs. Fenton entertained Susan B. Anthony and other distinguished guests.

Before beginning to restore the room, it was necessary to determine what colors had originally embellished the ceiling and walls. Studying chips from the old paint on the walls was just one of the steps.

The greenish-brown color that now covers the greater part of the ceiling was hard to visualize on that scale when it initially was looked at as a small paint chip, Mrs. Larson said.

Maintenance workers discovered the patterns on the walls and ceiling underlying layers of paint and pointed them out to Wendy Chadwick-Case, director of museum collections.

Then she went to work, carefully removing the old paint layer by layer, to get down to the original patterns.

A stripper was used to take off the top layers of paint, and the remainder were rubbed with fine sandpaper.

Once the top paint had been sanded away, the original patterns could be seen. Mrs. Chadwick-Case trace them onto mylar, and then, with careful measurements, onto graph paper.

We didn’t anticipate the task taking so long. The more patterns we discovered the more complex it got,” Mrs. Larson said.

She explained that at the beginning a lot of detective work was required. The workers had to look at all the clues presented by paint chips, and then consult other people about what conclusions to draw from them.

In addition, the discovery of metal hardware sticking out of the walls suggested that matching pier mirrors were hung on opposite sides of the room and that valances were positioned above the windows to hold the draperies.

Water had damaged part of the ceiling and deleted the patterns, so educated guesses had to be made.

While no contemporary references to what the drawing originally looked like could be found, information was gathered on Victorian life in general and the style of residences in Jamestown at the time.

Several consultants helped in the re-creation process. One helped work out the elaborate ceiling and wall designs, and another figured out how the furniture was probably arranged.

Paints were mixed to make colors that are thought to be close to the originals: pink, dusty rose, burgundy, brick-red, blue-green, lavender and olive-green. Sixteen colors are being stenciled onto the ceiling in intricate designs and stripes.

Four distinct patterns decorate the ceiling: a circular design above the north and south walls; a criss-cross shape above the fireplace; a diamond-shaped pattern above the archway and the west wall; and a large box shape with tulips inside positioned on the four corners of the ceiling.

There are also rows of ornate plaster eggs, leaves and rope around the border of the ceiling.

In addition to the ceiling patterns, a simpler design was found along the edges of walls, ceilings, floor molding and windows. These patterns are being stenciled in, then painted a lavender color.

The plaster medallion where a natural gas chandelier formerly hung, located in the center of the ceiling, will be repainted with Dutch metal.

The metal, which resembles gold, was donated by an area resident who happened to find the exact amount needed in his attic. The imitation gold leaf will also be painted around the plaster border of the ceiling.

Five people are employed on the project and work throughout the week at the delicate painting.

The crew is made up of two professionals, Bob Spearkman and Glenn Hinchy from Golgotha Restoration Services of Syracuse, who specialize in 19th century designs; two area workers, Ron Mattson and Kristin Uschold; and the coordinator, Mrs. Chadwick-Case. Volunteers Beth Stevens and David Metzler are also working on the project.

Hinchey said keeping track of all 16 colors of paint is probably the most difficult task of his job.

He also finds the painting of stripes along the ceiling tedious work, since there is about a half mile of them.

This room is a bit different. We’ve never done one quite like this,” Hinchey said. He explained that he’s worked on several Victorian-style rooms- in banks, theaters and private homes- and estimated that there are approximately 12 rooms similar to the museum’s in the country.

The painting of the walls and ceiling was expected to be completed by mid-June. The painting of the wooden moldings in tan color and the graining of the wooden window shutters will follow. The room is expected to be ready for tours in the fall.

It will be furnished with various Victorian artifacts that have been donated, including an ornate Victorian vase.

Other furniture to be included in the room are the Fenton family’s two settees with matching chairs; the governor’s secretary, a Roux chest and an Ahlstrom grand piano.

Portraits of the Fenton family will decorate the walls. Sheer lace draperies will be added to the windows.

The museum is looking for a geometrical floral oriental rug to put on the floor until they can discover what the original floor covering was.

Any additional help and donations are welcome.