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Willard State Hospital, John Wenrich Cabin among Landmark Society’s Five to Revive

Elliot Hall. Built in 1931, this structure remained in use by DOCCS up until early 2022.

The Landmark Society of Western New York has unveiled its 2023 ‘Five to Revive’ and a pair of local spots are on the list.

The goal of the program is to highlight buildings and properties across the region that are worthy of investment. There have been a number of properties targeted in the Finger Lakes in recent years, including the Huntington Building in Seneca Falls, which is now being converted into apartments.

Three of the targeted properties are in Monroe County. However, two of them are located in Ontario and Seneca counties.

The former Willard State Hospital, which is located in Romulus, was established in the 1860s on the eastern shore of Seneca Lake. This bucolic, rural site was chosen with the hope that the beautiful surroundings would be a source of comfort and healing for the residents. Willard State Hospital defined the physical landscape, cultural environment and economic livelihood of this corner of the Finger Lakes region for nearly 175 years. The complex was the largest of its kind in the 1870s, comprising over 1,000 acres, with dozens of buildings, open space, and working farms.

After the New York State Office of Mental Health closed the hospital in 1995, campus ownership shifted to the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS), who adapted some buildings for their program purposes while allowing others to fall into a state of disrepair. In November 2021, DOCCS announced that it would be closing its Willard State facility and vacating all buildings by March of 2022, with ownership transferring to the Empire State Development Corporation. The sudden announcement did not include plans to secure the buildings for future use.

Today, the Willard property encompasses approximately 400 acres, including a mile of valuable Seneca Lake shoreline. Despite the loss of several architecturally important buildings, about 70 buildings still stand. The Willard complex was included in the Preservation League of New York State’s 2022-2023 Seven to Save and last year the NY State Historic Preservation Office determined that the campus is eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places, due to both the historic structures and their cultural context. Local advocates and residents point to the central role that the campus has played in the area, not just as an economic driver but also fostering a sense of community.

Willard Cemetary.

Despite recent increased attention, the buildings and grounds at Willard remain at risk. The scale of the redevelopment activities and investment necessary to bring large complexes like this one back to life is challenging. But the potential, long-lasting, beneficial impact of these efforts is also great. Careful thought and consideration of the campus, its buildings, and the needs and desires of Seneca County residents must inform any redevelopment plan. With a clear community-supported vision established, the resources to execute the plan can then be pursued and secured.

Hadley Hall. Completed in 1892, this building was built to be the center of social activity at Willard.

Another site targeted in this year’s Five to Revive is the John Wenrich Cabin at Wesley Hill Nature Preserve located between Richmond and South Bristol in Ontario County.

The John Wenrich Cabin is a small, one-story wood frame cabin accessible via foot trails through the Wesley Hill Nature Preserve, a 390-acre preserve located in the Bristol Hills and owned by the non-profit Finger Lakes Land Trust (FLLT). The cabin was built in 1926 when three artists—John C. Wenrich, James Havens, and Colburn Dugan—bought a 90-acre piece of paradise as a place for peace, quiet, and contemplation. Wenrich (1894-1970) was nationally renowned for his architectural renderings and he and his family were longtime supporters of The Landmark Society.

Credit: WXXI

Focused on its mission-based work of conserving forests, farmlands, gorges, and shorelines throughout the Finger Lakes region, the FLLT has largely left the cabin alone. Without action, the cabin will deteriorate until it is beyond repair. The Landmark Society is eager to partner with the FLLT to better understand the full extent of the cabin’s structural condition and explore potential future uses and funding opportunities so that visitors to the preserve can continue to enjoy it as a place of quiet contemplation. The Wenrich Cabin highlights a challenge that many land conservation organizations face—how to approach and treat historic structures that may come along with their land acquisitions, when these assets are often outside an organization’s primary focus and expertise of preserving natural resources.