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Parrott Hall: Bridging the gap between Geneva past and present

  • / Updated:
  • Hayley Jones 

The first phase of construction on Parrott Hall in Geneva is nearing its completion.

There’s still a long way to go until the historic structure is open for use, said Friends of Parrott Hall Chair Bruce Reisch, but the progress so far has been significant.

Not to mention all the work it took to get the project off the ground.

Various groups have tried to save Parrott Hall in the decades since the building went out of use.

None had been successful until Friends of Parrott Hall, a non-profit organization, was formed in 2017.

View of Parrott Hall from West North Street in Geneva, NY. Credit: Hayley Jones

Parrott Hall built in 1852 as family residence

Parrott Hall sits nestled between Hendrick Hall and a small patch of land on the Cornell AgriTech campus, also known as the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station.

Reisch, in addition to being the Friends of Parrott Hall chair, is also a professor of grapevine breeding and genetics at Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

His office in the adjacent building has a direct view of Parrott Hall.

“I’ve had a long-standing interest in seeing the building, renovated, repurposed, reopened and brought back to a useful life,” he said in a recent interview with

Parrott Hall began as Denton House, the home built in 1852 for prominent New York City area agriculturists Nehemiah and Louisa Denton, both of whom were deaf-mutes.  

“Going back even further, this was a Native American site, the Seneca castle,” said Reisch.

The 1779 Sullivan Expedition saw the destruction of Kanadaseaga, the Seneca nation village that existed where AgriTech now stands.

Denton House, circa 1856. Credit: Historic Geneva

In 1882, Nehemiah sold the 125-acre property, including the mansion, to the state.

Officials converted the property into a headquarters for the NYS Agricultural Experiment Station (AES).

Grape breeding began in Parrott Hall just two or three years after the AES was established.

“My predecessor, the first grape breeder, worked in Parrott Hall,” Reisch pointed out.

Related: The Willard Question: What’s to be done with this historic property?

Vanishing act: New technology ushers Parrott Hall into period of disuse

In 1900, entomologist Percival John “P.J.” Parrott set up his research lab and office in the building then called Entomology Hall.

A young P.J. Parrott in his Entomology Hall office. Credit: Marjorie Parrott Adams (Granddaughter of P.J. Parrott)

Parrott became known for his efforts to combat San Jose scale, an agricultural insect that targets fruit crops.

He was appointed station director from 1938 until his retirement in 1942. The building was then renamed Parrott Hall in his honor.

The structure was used by the AES until the modern Barton Laboratory opened in 1969. Parrott Hall’s occupants moved into new lab space and vacated the building.

P.J. Parrott in his later years. Credit: Cornell AgriTech

Ownership transferred from the experiment station to the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation (NYS Parks).

Parrott Hall was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1970.

Around that time, NYS agreed to turn the property into a state historic site, though that plan never came to fruition, explained Reisch.

Instead, the state maintained the building only so much as to prevent further deterioration.

Reisch was part of another committee to save Parrott Hall in the early 2000s, again to no avail.

DiSanto Propane (Billboard)

Present day success: Groups unite to save historic Geneva building

The property sat idle for years until Friends of Parrott Hall came along.

Reisch said his group started talking to the Geneva Historical Society, which met with NYS Parks.

That’s when a new coalition formed, whose members include the City of Geneva, the Landmark Society of Western NY and the Preservation League of NYS.

The first major grants to start the renovation came through the city.

Front view of Parrott Hall as seen from W. North Street. Credit: Hayley Jones

“That was our first success, to land this first grant for $400,000,” said Reisch. “That required 133,000 of matching dollars. It’s basically a 1:3 match.”

Reisch said his group is at the tail end of spending that money.

“We’ve done the fundraising and we’ve been able to pay our bills, and also pay our bills for insurance and maintenance of the fence and your ongoing carrying costs,” he added.

Related: Friends of Parrott Hall works diligently at bringing the building back to its former glory

Current work is a “full-time effort,” says Friends of Parrott Hall chair

Geneva-based Massa Construction won the bid for Phase I of the project along with architectural firm Crawford & Stearns.

Much of Phase I construction focused on stabilization efforts, like replacing the rear portion of the main building’s roof and stripping the crumbling masonry work down then rebuilding.

In-progress roof work on Parrott Hall’s main building. Credit: Massa Construction

Also refashioned were the brackets on the rear addition’s roof.

“One of the craftspeople with Massa said that each one of those is slightly different. They must have been handmade in the 1850s when the building was originally built,” said Reisch.

He anticipates Phase II of the project, which focuses on restoring the veranda, will take place next summer.

Hand-fashioned wooden brackets on rear add-on. Credit: Hayley Jones

For now, said Reisch, current work on the property is a “full-time effort.”

“There’s a lot more to do, but that was really significant to turn the corner and keep the building from deteriorating further while stabilizing it,” he said.

New use for an old building

The group working to save Parrott Hall conducted a feasibility study on the property.

They determined the building’s end use should 1) celebrate the site’s history and 2) provide enough financial support for ongoing site maintenance, utilities and repairs.

Of all the ideas, said Reisch, one stood out to NYS Parks, Cornell and the coalition:

Transforming Parrott Hall into an on-site restaurant that would interact with the Food Science Department at Cornell.

Crowds gathered outside Parrott Hall, sometime in the early 1900s. Credit: Cornell AgriTech

“To showcase foods and food products in a restaurant setting and have a way to connect to the local food scene, the local wine, local craft beverage scene,” Reisch explained.

The upper floors, he said, could serve as office space or temporary housing for visitors at AgriTech.

Parrott Hall veranda, as seen facing southward. Credit: Hayley Jones

“This is like a showcase for the interactions and benefits of Cornell,” he said. “A lot still has to be done, step by step. We’ll get there.”

Plans would also include a sign featuring information about Parrott Hall so that the public at large may appreciate its rich history.

This article is part of an ongoing series on historic structures in the Finger Lakes. Know of a site I should visit? Email your suggestions to [email protected].

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