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NSG Visit October 11, 1998

Geneva's Proud Prouty-Chew House


Donovan A. Shilling

The sunshine of a brilliant autumn morning, Saturday, October 11th, shown on the red brick walls, the newly painted trim, and sparkling glass fan and side lights of the entrance way to the Prouty-Chew House when fifteen members of the New Society of the Genesee gathered to explore the Geneva Historical Society's headquarters building, located at 543 South Main Street.

A smiling and affable Merrill Roenke, Director of Rose Hill, another of the Geneva Historical Society's architectural gems, met us at the door. If we entered the old home expecting perhaps, to see an array of the dusty treasures, so often associated with vintage houses turned into museums, we soon saw that was not so here. As Merrill welcomed other members of our group, our eyes swept along the richly wall-papered foyer with its elaborate staircase. Next our eyes were drawn to a built-in showcase inserted where the original entrance to the basement stairway had been. The case displayed a collection of imported 19th century Staffordshire ironstone, pink and copper lustreware, and rose-medallion dishes.

Proceeding farther along the central hallway, we reached the rear parlor. Here a variety of Victorian furnishings attractively decorated the room. The parlor's six over six windows, deeply set into the foot-thick walls, had been cleverly turned into display cases. Glass shelves, installed between the window frames held rows of colorful antique glassware. These fragile treasures were protected by precisely fitting, clear plastic "doors" over the windows, thus eliminating dust and inhibiting any exploring fingers.

Following introductions, Merrill led us downstairs to an exhibition gallery named for Dr. George Hucker, a scientist at Geneva's State Experimental Station and a past president of the historical society. Here we viewed an exhibit of splendidly crafted 18th- and 19th-century quilts. Fanciers could recognize such pieced patterns as "starburst," "log cabin," "LeMoyne Star," "diamond," and "crazy quilt. " There were also appliqued quilts in the exhibit. Quite as interesting was a "friendship" quilt composed of red and white triangles. I counted 441 names of "friends" that had been neatly written along the long edge of each white triangle. I was still counting when Mr. Roenke began orienting our group to the museum's history and its treasures.

The Prouty-Chew House's original owner was Charles Butler, once a clerk for Martin Van Buren in Albany. After admission to the bar he made his way to Geneva in 1825. Here he married a niece of his uncle and purchased "Water lot 21" and on it had this residence constructed. By 1835 Butler had become a wealthy attorney and moved to Fox Meadows, a country estate in Westchester County, to pursue business interests in insurance, real estate and in a number of mid-western railroads.

In 1842, the house's next owner, Phineas Prouty Sr. , moved here. He had come to Geneva after 1812, established a thriving hardware business, and in 1835 had built an estate called Maple Hill that later became LaFayette Inn Restaurant.

Years later, in 1902, Prouty's great grandson sold the house on Main Street to Charles John Rose, a grandson of Robert Selden Rose of Rose Hill.

Merrill continued his biographical sketches: explaining that Sarah, the daughter of Phineas Prouty Sr. had married Alexander LaFayette Chew. Their great grandson Beverly Chew II bought the house in 1921, and nearly 40 years later deeded the mansion to the Geneva Historical Society in 1960.

Someone in our group asked about the collections of the society and Mr. Roenke told us that there was another level below the basement floor level of the Hucker Gallery and took us all down a long stairway to a high-ceilinged storage area. Here were long rows of metal shelves carrying all sorts of items. "One heck of an antique shop," one of the group remarked. There were antique toys, doll houses and dolls in one section; in others, furniture and cooking utensils, primitive lighting fixtures, and firearms. One area of the room was used to store framed lithographs and paintings on closely spaced skeleton walls that can be moved apart easily on their roller trackways to allow viewing or retrieving any picture. We were about to leave when Doug Fisher directed our attention to a huge, five-foot-in-diameter, clock face. Merrill explained that it had once adorned a tower at Hobart College and had been donated to the society by a Dr. Durphy who'd used it for the top of a cocktail table.

We climbed the stairs to the original basement level where the kitchen of the residence had been. The fireplace and hearth are still there. Here are rooms and tables for persons researching records. Merrill opened the climate-controlled vault and we saw the shelves of books and files lining the walls and a bank of shelves on rolling trackways that allow both condensed storage and ready accessibility. In a lighted recess in the wall near the stairway to the main floor, old maps are mounted on by-passing panels for interchangeable viewing.

On the main floor again, we moved from the back parlor to the dining room. Three tall triple-sash windows gave a view above treetops of the lake and let light onto the dining table and a galleried sideboard against one wall. The fireplace opposite had a twin in the front parlor. The rooms were connected by a large opening. Portraits of people associated with the house hung in both rooms.

From this room through a doorway into the front hall we took the main staircase to the second floor rooms. In one we viewed an exhibit of vintage hats and shoes. Another bedroom displayed a high-canopied bed, a tiger-maple Sheraton chest and a birds-eye-maple desk. A tall case clock stood against a wall of the stair landing. On this floor, too, is the office of Charles C. W. Bauder, Executive Director of the Geneva Historical Society. We noticed that his office was in a location that provided a great view of Seneca Lake.

The Geneva Historical Society began in 1883. It has acquired extensive archives for historical and genealogical research, and many objects related to the history of Geneva. The Society manages a fund that for years has assisted the conservation and restoration of buildings in Geneva primarily through low interest loans to property owners.

In addition to the Prouty-Chew House the Society administers Rose Hill Mansion and its adjoining John Johnston farmhouse which contains the Mike Weaver Drain Tile Museum. Mrs. William Walker left this year her house, Balmanno Cottage, at 583 South Main Street with its Federal period furnishings. These additional properties are all supported by specific endowments which provide funds for their care. Waldo Hutchins, Jr. purchased the Rose Hill property and underwrote its restoration, even obtaining some furniture for the house, and then established an endowment for Rose Hill's future care. Mr. Hutchins also bought the Johnston farm. He was the grandson of Robert Swan and Margaret Johnston for whom the Greek mansion at Rose Hill was built. Many Genevans have contributed money, artifacts, intelligent effort and support to their historical society.

© 1998, Donovan A. Shilling
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