Photos by MARK GILLESPIE/Livingston County News
The front entrance of the Wadsworth Homestead in Geneseo features a restored "porte-cochère," or carriage porch.
A tour inside the Wadsworth Homestead
The historic Wadsworth Mansion on South Street in Geneseo has embarked upon a new phase of its existence this summer, having been converted from a private residence to a center hosting public events.
Last week, The County News was invited by William Wadsworth for a grand tour of the grounds and first floor of the Homestead.
The Homestead was built by James Wadsworth in 1800. With brother William, James had settled Geneseo in 1790. The brothers were the nephews and agents for landowner and Revolutionary War Commissionary General Jeremiah Wadsworth. They purchased their own holdings with commissions earned selling their uncle’s acreage.
The Homestead was the third Wadsworth dwelling in Geneseo, preceded by a log cabin and a cobblestone house.
The initial Homestead location was about 100 yards closer to South Street than the structure is today. James and his wife Naomi Wolcott were occupying the Homestead by 1804.
James had five children including sons William and James and daughters Cornelia, Elizabeth and Harriot. James’ son James was the builder of the Hartford House, on the north end of the village.
In the 1870s Emmeline, the widow of James’ son William Wolcott Wadsworth, arranged for the house to be moved back from South Street.
Each main room in the house contains a functional fireplace. There are a total of 14 fireplaces, (six on the first floor, five on the second floor and three, the most casual in design, on the third floor). Each fireplace is of its own design and character. They share the three massive chimneys which emerge prominently from the roof lines. Each fireplace has its own liner within the chimneys.
Inside, ceilings throughout the house are about ten foot high.
Restoration of the house began early this spring. Five generations of Wadsworths had collected the items residing in the Homestead. The oldest known document, found in a trunk, is a letter dated 1725 which a Wadsworth wrote from England to a family member in the New World.
“There were lots of places to sit, but not a lot of room to move around,” Wadsworth relates. “Everything was taken out and put in storage upstairs, then things were brought back selectively and sparsely, to create a space where people can socialize. The rooms are much more open then they were before.”
Furniture and fixtures throughout the Homestead are preserved in use, maintaining a tradition which in earlier times saw the conversion of oil lamps to electric lamps. Nothing on display has been brought in from the outside. Every item is resident to the Homestead and has a history linked to the Homestead.
In a ten week study, an RIT class in Real Estate and Hospitality shared its thoughts on how the Homestead should undergo the transition from private residence to public place, while keeping its history intact.
“We wanted to make sure we didn’t cross a line, or go too far too fast, and mistakenly take away something that lent the feeling to the house,” Wadsworth explained. “We looked at the economics, the theory, the pieces of furniture and then built a picture of what a business could look like here.”
For example, the students were immediately offended by the hunting trophies, including large elks at the vestibule.
However, after a month of study, most had completely reversed their opinion, seeing the trophies as essential for defining a point of time in the prosperous history of the Homestead — an era highlighted by a personal visit from Teddy Roosevelt.
The Porte-cochère, or “carriage porch,” is the covered structure at the Homestead’s east side entrance, where persons were brought and picked up by carriages. The restoration did not neglect the carved and now re-set stone bumpers sunk into the ground, meant to keep the carriage wheel hubs from striking the woodwork.
Elaborate moldings on the outside supporting wall had deteriorated from years of exposure to weather. The seventeen individual profiles forming a complex pattern have all been replaced. The work was done by Crossett Road carpenters Walter Slater and Ken Richardson.
The original Medina Shale which paves the entry has been left intact, with the pair of depressions which testify to decades of traffic.
The porch is reached by steps of bluestone and features a terra-cotta triangular pattern floor. Mason John White replaced missing edge pieces, cutting brick by hand to replicate the original appearance of the tiles. He also repainted the floor and mended some cracks.
The Vestibule and rear porches
The vestibule is an interesting crossroads, with the entrance to ‘The Hall’ to the west, the porte-cochère to the east, enclosed sun porch to the south and open porch to the north.
On circa 1890 antler racks are a collection of hats representing a span of historic eras, including an assortment of helmets: pith, horseback riding and motorcycle.
Will’s grandfather W.P. Wadsworth, who was a justice of the peace, married a number of couples on this spot.
The original house had four rooms on the first floor, separated by The Hall, which extends the full with of the house, from the vestibule to the western entry and main porch. Four original rooms, each with its own name, character and uniquely styled fireplace, extend off the Hall.
Circa 1940 wallpaper extends all the way up to the third floor, identical to paper seen in the mansion in the Clint Eastwood movie, ‘The Bridges of Madison County.’
When a section of the wall behind the front door needed re-papering, good rolls were fortunately discovered in the attic.
The Stairway occupies the southeast room, turning 180 degrees in its ascent to the second floor. The ornate railings and posts are a mixture of architectural elements from various eras, very elaborate and all hand-carved.
The stairway is of cantilever construction, appearing to hang without visible support below its left edge. The actual support is the attachment to the outside wall, and perhaps an internal truss.
Sometime in the 1870s this stairway replaced an original stair which once occupied The Hall, when the present Dining Room and South Drawing Room were added. The repositioning was necessary for access to the new rooms on both the lower and upper floors.
Two closets, now converted to men and women’s restrooms, are off the west wall, bracketing a finely carved fireplace.
The Smoking Room
The atmospheric Smoking Room in the northeast section of the original house is paneled with a darkly stained maple, conveying a tavern-type atmosphere. It not hard to imagine Teddy Roosevelt lounging here after dinner with the male heads of the family and perhaps other members of the Boone & Crockett Club, enjoying their pipes and quality cigars and discussing a hunting adventure or the world events of the day.
While the personalities of the wives show in all the other rooms, this is the Homestead’s singular room of absolutely masculine essence.
The Smoking Room is the least disturbed and most private of any room in the Homestead. It sports a small bar, a ceiling-to-floor book case and bay window with octagonal desk. Open arch doorways lead to small shelved spaces on either side of the fireplace on the west wall.
“This room is very significant to us as a family. If there is one room which won’t change much, it’s this one,” Wadsworth said.
The Library occupies the original southwest section of the Homestead.
The fireplace is marble, with woodwork above forming a circular frame, currently — and perhaps always — empty, meant to serve as a focal point below the family crest.
Prominent in this room are the molding and bookshelves. The latter divide the ceiling into 14 chambers where the beams are exposed and covered in trim, all promoting a quite, peaceful essence. A large bay window overlooks the valley to the west.
The Library displays a remarkable collection of cabinets of Eastern and other exotic designs.
The Rose Drawing Room
The bright and sunlit Rose Drawing Room is across the Hall from the Library. It has a very French feel.
At one time a painted rose pattern border went around the windows and doors. The rose pattern persists today in the carved fireplace mantle.
This was the original piano room, whose curved walls may have been designed to enhance sound reflection. A narrow “stage,” bracketed by square columns with sliding doors behind, occupies the south wall.
This room has been recently much restored, repainted, and reorganized, Wadsworth reports.
The South Drawing Room
The South Drawing Room, one of the “newer” rooms built onto the original Homestead, is the current home for the family’s grand piano. The fireplace here features a carved oak leaf and acorn embellishment.
Above the mantle is a John Frederick Kensett painting of The Big Tree, circa 1859. The room also sports William Morris Hunt pieces. Hunt was a well known artist who married into the Wadsworth family.
The Dining Room
The Dining Room, like the South Drawing Room, was added in the early 1880s as the family grew. It was built onto the southeast corner of the old house. It initially served as the kitchen, replacing the kitchen in the original portion which had been co-opted by the Stairway Room.
Old photos show a paneled ceiling here. A glass and brass candle chandelier once hung in the center — and may be recovered from storage and reassembled.
The oak fireplace is embellished with saw cuts. Above the mantle are embedded mirrors. A portrait of Elizabeth Perkins Wadsworth hangs overhead. She is the wife of Will’s great grandfather, William Austin Wadsworth, a third generation Geneseo Wadsworth, whose painting hangs on the opposite wall. William Austin was a veteran of the Philippine War, friend of Teddy Roosevelt, and a founder of the Boone and Crockett Club.
Chinaware displayed on wall cabinets has been used in this room for more than a century.
The West Porch
The West Porch measures 14 by 70 feet and overlooks a spectacular view of the Genesee Valley and virgin oak trees on the Homestead grounds and sheep pasture — a view largely unchanged over 200 years. The porch roof is supported by 13 columns.
The cedarshake roofs over the bays in the Library and South Drawing Room suggest a pre-1870 time when the porch was not so extensive.
On a warm summer day with a cool breeze coming off the valley, the porch cries out for you to take a relaxing nap, or settle down with a good book.
All shutters on the exterior of the Homestead are original and operable. Curiously, there are two “windows” under the porch which aren’t windows at all. They are solid spaces sealed by shutters, apparently installed to maintain an outside sense of a smooth symmetry and density of windows.
The grounds and pool
The east side of the Homestead overlooks a 30 acre horse pasture. Like its counterpart on the west side, it is a scene of serene woods and meadows with little visible presence of civilization.
Wadsworth, his daughter Piper and a large group of volunteers were busy this spring planting gardens of perennial flowers which line the walkways.
The 26 by 45 foot oval swimming pool, with deep diving depth, has been nicely restored. New handicapped accessible bathrooms now occupy the bathhouse, which was originally part of a greenhouse complex.
The initial Homestead reconstruction project commenced in March of 2011 with installation of a modern commercial kitchen in a brick building adjacent to the bath house. In 2011 this kitchen supplied all the events taking place at Sweet Briar. This year it is being operated by the caterer supplying Sweet Briar and the Homestead.
The kitchen is high capacity, theoretically able to make 600-to-1000 meals a days, thus capable of supplying simultaneous events at both establishments.
Wadsworth envisions the kitchen as one day being a cottage industry, busy every day of the week, perhaps turning out a local jam or cheesecake product.
The isolated nature of the kitchen building saved significant cost in meeting fire codes, since expensive firewalls would have been necessary for a kitchen using a room in the Homestead.
‘A long time coming’
“A message that we wanted to state from the family is that the renovation of the Homestead is a long time coming,” Wadsworth said. “My sister Martha and my dad who lived here did a tremendous amount of work just maintaining the house and keeping it secure. When my father decided to move to a smaller place, we started looking at the Homestead more as an asset.”
“We didn’t want to lose the charm and history, but how do you own something like this, respect it and preserve it?” Wadsworth wondered.
“Like Biltmore, the mission here is to preserve the Homestead — that is the driving force. It’s not to profit. It’s to be able to keep doing the repair work and keep maintaining the property.”
Wadsworth feels the outpouring from the community — from the carpenters, masons and lay persons who have volunteered their work on various projects, including the perimeter stone wall — is a testimony that the family made the correct decision in retaining the Homestead.
With the Homestead taking on the aspect of a commercial business, the public has a degree of access to the historic home and grounds which did not exist in the earlier time when the site was purely private property.
“People can have a wedding, baby shower, or party here,” Wadsworth indicated. “And if your event is small enough, you don’t need a tent. The inside of the house has plenty of space.”
The ‘it’ of the Homestead
Converting the Homestead an an event center has been a lot of work, and a struggle to make ends meet, Wadsworth admitted — when certainly an alternative course existed: breaking up the Homestead for sale to condo developers or as a retirement community. After all, he advised, taxes are high and the land isn’t producing a lot of income — and there has been no shortage of offers.
Indeed, Wadsworth revealed, the family has refused serious offers, always concluding that keeping family ownership and the Homestead legacy intact was the goal.
“What is ‘it’ that we are doing this for; the thing we are trying to preserve?,” Wadsworth asks. “What is the ‘it’ of the Homestead?”
Answering his own question, Wadsworth said, “We’ve ultimately defined ‘it’ as what we all get from being here. The door is open for us, since we’ve been here since 1790. And the community has this embellishment that’s part of where we all live.”
“The family thinks it would be a tragedy to lose the Homestead, so we are doing this.”
Wadsworth stated there are ten family members who are co-owners, who have all been thinking along the lines of how the family can keep the Homestead —“and how do we share it so that it’s not some big mystery.”
“It’s a great honor to be able to have this opportunity,” Wadsworth concludes.
The Homestead, in its new role as an events center, is now hosting events and is in full swing scheduling for 2013. A recent logo contest had entries coming from all over the United States.
Later plans call for renovation of upstairs rooms for lodging. The Homestead has qualified for a Main Street Grant to assist that project.