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Homestead


The Homestead (William Wadsworth Estate) was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974. Portions of the text below were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [] Adaptation copyright © 2009, The Gombach Group.

Description

The William Wadsworth estate known as "The Homestead" is squarely set at the south end of Geneseo's Main Street. The front driveway is marked with simple stone gate posts, and the late nineteenth century cobblestone gatehouse is hidden from the Main Street by trees and bushes.

The main house, moved in 1874 from a site closer to the road, is now located about one quarter of a mile down the winding driveway past the small brick estate office on the east and the site of the stables burned in September 1973 where new barns are currently under construction. The main house is on the west side of the driveway set to take advantage of the spectacular view to the west over the valley of the Genesee River.

The core of the original (c.1804) house has been engulfed in exuberant late nineteenth century additions and embellishments. A wood frame house with clapboarding painted white, it is three stories. A parapet runs along the top of the mansard roof, and there are many irregularly shaped dormers. There are four chimneys. A simple bracketed cornice is interrupted in places but recurs throughout the house.

Old photographs show that the front entrance on the east side has undergone many changes throughout the nineteenth century. By 1908 the present porte-cochere was built, and it originally had a balustrade on the second story. The consistently handsome late nineteenth century interiors have been faithfully maintained with virtually no alterations.

The north facade is three bays wide. The windows on the first two floors have simple trim compared to those in the central portion of the east facade which have elaborate garlanded or arched lintels. There are two second story balconies overlooking what was once a formal garden to the north. The garden is now seeded over, and in the northwest corner a small platform is shrouded by bushes.

A long porch, probably put on at the time the house was moved, extends the length of the west side supported by simple columns. Eight shuttered french windows lead from rooms out onto the porch which overlooks the "meadow park" greatly admired by Andrew Jackson Downing in the 1850's. Here sheep graze beside the house separated from the west porch by a "ha-ha" or trench. Ancient oak trees are scattered on the grounds contributing to the unmanicured, natural splendor of the property.

The other buildings to the south of the main house are: the car shed (formerly the ice house), the laundry, the greenhouse, the maintenance shed (formerly a garage), cow barns, sheep sheds, a herdsman's cottage and another tenant house (formerly the gardener's cottage). Beside the new stables to the northeast of the house, a prefabricated caretaker's house has been built in February 1974.

The most significant single outbuilding on the property is the L-shaped estate office where maps, an old iron stove and 19th century estate records filed in early cabinets are intermingled with the modern office items as the office is still [1974] in daily use by William P. Wadsworth.

Significance

The 175-year old family seat of the Wadsworths, "The Homestead" in Geneseo, ranks among a handful of major landed estates in the U.S. which has never changed hands nor lost its position of prominence in the community and the county.

Set at the foot of Geneseo's Main Street, "The Homestead" has a paternal relationship with the village, matched only by another later Wadsworth house, "Hartford House," at the north end.

The title to "The Homestead" goes back to the Phelps and Gorham Purchase. Col. Jeremiah Wadsworth (1745-1804) of Hartford, Connecticut is believed to have been among the backers of the two land speculators, and he invested in a portion of the Western New York lands, included in the Phelps and Gorham Purchase.[1] As he was advancing in years, Jeremiah Wadsworth never visited his new property but instead made an arrangement with two young cousins James Wadsworth and William Wadsworth of Durham, Connecticut to act as his agent in return for the opportunity of purchasing 2,000 acres of his land outright at the original price of 8 cents an acre.

Bringing along the favorite family slave, Jenny, the two Wadsworths made their way out to the Genesee Valley during the summer of 1790, and they built a log cabin half a mile west of the present site of "The Homestead." The contrasting and complementary characters of the two Wadsworth brothers is described in contemporary sources. James Wadsworth (1768-1844) was a Yale graduate and a theorist, planner, colonist and lover of books while William Wadsworth (1772-1833) was more down-to-earth, a working farmer, militia officer and a "man with the common touch." A highly successful team, James and William Wadsworth had an immediate impact on the small settlement at Geneseo, were soon elected to the top local positions (William Wadsworth was town supervisor for 21 years) and built around them an agricultural community based on enlightened principles of soil conservation, selective stock breeding, scientific agricultural methods, aesthetic preservation and public education.

"The Homestead" was built at the south end of Main Street around the time of James's marriage to Naomi Wolcott in 1804. An early traveller described the new house in his journal.

"The house (a double house of five windows in front, with good sized rooms) is placed on an eminence at the farther end of the village of Cheneseo, which contains about a dozen other houses."[2]

He continued after discussing the enlightened agricultural practices of the Wadsworths to mention:

"Mr. James Wadsworth has arranged a very well chosen library of about six hundred volumes of the best modern books; doubtless the best room in this neat and well-furnished house. — the establishment in all its parts seems to give a full and a favorable picture of that truly respectable character, an active, intelligent industrious gentleman farmer."[3]

Throughout the 1790's and early 1800's the Wadsworth brothers steadily reinvested their profits until they owned and cultivated thousands of acres directly and leased even more. The brick land office, built beside the house, served as the center of management for their far-flung holdings. James Wadsworth was respected throughout the region for his theories of land economy. He disapproved of the "hot-house settlement" attempted further east by Lincklaen and Pultney who made extensive improvements with roads, bridges, mills and even constructed model villages to attract settlers. Wadsworth argued that this was an unprofitable approach to frontier development, and his opinions guided Joseph Ellicott's policy for the Holland Land Office properties. In 1796-8 James Wadsworth went abroad representing other large New York State landholders to attract European investments.

The second generation of Wadsworths carried on the family commitment to the lands in Livingston County. James Wadsworth's elder son and namesake built Hartford House at the north end of the village at the time of his marriage to Marcy Craig Wharton of Philadelphia. "The Homestead" which at that time was still referred to informally as the "Home farm" or the "homestead of the Wadsworth estate" was inherited by James's second son William Wolcott Wadsworth in 1844. Two years later he married a Bostonian, Emmeline Austin, "a lady of means and determination" who was left alone with three young sons after her husband's untimely death in July 1852. He died "with clouded intellect as a result of a fall on an icy stone doorstep at one of his tenant houses earlier in the year.

Emmeline Wadsworth continued to live mainly at "The Homestead" but made frequent visits to her brother in Boston. It was probably during her tenure that the two-story kitchen wing (now the dining room) was added to the house, and also Emmeline is said to have been responsible for the relocation of Geneseo's South Street 150 feet to the north on account of the noise created by traffic.

The foremost landscape architect of mid-nineteenth century America, Andrew Jackson Downing, was struck by the natural splendor of "The Homestead" during this period:

"The seat of the Wadsworth family in Geneseo is the finest in the interior of the state of New York. Nothing, indeed, can well be more magnificent than the meadow park at Geneseo. It is more than 1,000 acres in extent, lying on each side of the Genesee River, and is filled with thousands of the noblest oaks and elms..."[4]

Between the 1870's and the 1890's dramatic steps were made in "The Homestead's" evolution. In these years it became a palatial residence typical of this extravagant "Gilded Age" of late nineteenth century America. The indefatigable Emmeline, by now a grandmother, once again played an important part. Emmeline had sold "The Homestead" in 1870 to a cousin in order to avoid the high tax assessment, and two years later after the cousin's death her two sons bought "The Homestead" back, and the three moved in once again. Emmeline was still disturbed by the nearby street, and in 1874 while visiting in Boston she sent her elder son the following telegram, "Move house. I will return as soon as possible." The move was accomplished despite the contractor's disappearance midstream leaving William A. Wadsworth to supervise the operation himself.

Once on its new site the house was enlarged and embellished in the next twenty years. The third story and mansard roof were added allowing for more guest rooms, and an equally large addition was made to the kitchen wing for more servants. Georgian Revival touches were put on the house — pilasters at the corners, ornate dormers and a porte cochere. During this period two formal gardens were maintained as well as a considerable vegetable garden.

In the 1870's the Genesee Valley Hunt was organized and the pack of foxhounds requiring a staff of four were also maintained by William A. Wadsworth and kept at "The Homestead." Except for a short interlude when serving in the Spanish-American War, William Wadsworth was master of the Genesee Valley Hunt until 1917 when faced with wartime realities he decided to give up the hunt giving away most of his hounds. He died the following spring. His widow and later his son, William Perkins Wadsworth, inherited "The Homestead." The hunt was revived, but "The Homestead" was never again re-established on its extravagant pre- World War I scale. The gardens have been reduced, the lower one was seeded over and the upper one was transformed into a tennis court, lawn and swimming pool. Only one-fourth of the greenhouses is maintained today [1974]. The c.1880 kitchen addition was removed recently, and the present kitchen was moved into the room that was formerly the servants' sitting room.

In the fall of 1973 a local medium predicted that green barns associated with the Genesee Valley Hunt would burn down shortly, and one late September night the rambling stables at "The Homestead" were burned to the ground. New stables are presently [1974] under construction on the original foundations to the northeast of the house.

The Wadsworth family still remains a dominating force in local and county affairs, and "The Homestead" represents a rare continuation of traditional land management practices. Local historian, Edward Doty, noted in 1876 that by that time most, if not all, of the great land proprietors of the post-Revolutionary War period had reinvested their fortunes "from tillable soil to city lots or moneyed securities." The Wadsworths, on the other hand, never withdrew their capital from the region in which it was accumulated and even today [1974] continue to farm actively and lease thousands of acres of prime Livingston County land. Their "Homestead" which has grown and been adapted to the needs of each generation has a rare historic integrity of purpose and community role dating directly back to the late eighteenth century settlement of Western New York.

Endnotes

  1. According to James H. Smith's History of Livingston County Jeremiah Wadsworth's lands embraced township 6, range 9; a part of township 11, range 7; and one-twelfth of Big Tree (Geneseo). p.383.

  2. Anonymous (T.C.), A Ride to Niagara in 1809 reprinted October 1915 from the Portfolio for July, August, September and October, 1810,, for George P. Humphrey, Rochester, N.Y. p.33.

  3. Anonymous, (T.C.), A Ride to Niagara in 1809 p.35-6.

  4. A.J. Downing. A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening Adapted to North America. A.O. Moore & Co.: 1859. p.36.

Nomination document, 1974, prepared by C. E. Brooke, N. Y. State Division for Historic Preservation, The Homestead, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.

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