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'A lot of needs': Inside the Seward House projects up for Auburn's $10M grant
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'A lot of needs': Inside the Seward House projects up for Auburn's $10M grant


Those with projects up for pieces of Auburn's $10 million Downtown Revitalization Initiative grant are waiting to see how the money is spent with nothing short of anticipation.

In the case of the Seward House Museum, though, it's more like urgency. 

The Auburn museum has four projects on the table of the grant's Local Planning Committee, which will ultimately submit a spending plan to the state in March. But one of those projects has been given priority above the others: the rehabilitation of the museum's barn and carriage house, which sit behind the 1816 home, opposite the YMCA across William Street.

Museum Facilities Manager Mitch Maniccia said Friday that the project was prioritized after conversations with the committee and consultant Bergmann Associates. That's partly because rehabilitating the structures would serve the DRI mission of transforming that area of downtown. The project would also support the "This Place Matters" theme of Auburn's spending plan, Maniccia added.

But the major reason rehabilitating the two buildings has been prioritized is because they simply can't wait much longer, Maniccia said. The museum commissioned a building condition report on them in 2018, and the diagnosis was bleak, he continued. Without immediately addressing its foundation issues, among others, "we'd lose two very important historic resources," Maniccia said.

"They'd be unsalvageable," he said. "It would be too costly for significant repairs and we'd have to start from scratch."

The barn and carriage house replaced a barn that was burned down by an arsonist protesting William H. Seward's 1860 presidential campaign, Maniccia said. Frederick, the middle son of the former New York governor and secretary of state, then designed the two buildings. Though Frederick would follow his father to a career in politics, serving as assistant secretary of state and later in the New York State Assembly, he was also an aspiring architect. Maniccia said the museum's archives include his original hand-drawn blueprints and a letter to his mother, Frances, explaining them.

Though one can see work done to the barn and carriage house in the 1870s, 1890s and, most recently, the early 20th century, the structures haven't been touched since, Maniccia said. Today, he keeps the lawnmower inside. But with assistance from the DRI grant, the museum hopes to make use of the new 3,000 square feet of space. The first floor of the barn could have many uses, and the carriage house would become the new home of the carriage Seward was thrown from in April 1865, a week before the attempt on his life. (The jaw brace he wore as a result of the accident is credited with saving him from assailant Lewis Powell.) The carriage currently sits in the museum's woodshed, but it would be more accessible and featured in the carriage house, Maniccia said.

If work on the structures begins in 2020, he said, the project will cost a total of $1,232,000. The museum is seeking $860,000 from the DRI grant and will explore state funding to cover the rest.

Maniccia said public support for rehabilitating the barn and carriage house has risen since the museum has communicated the urgency of the project. He believes that's because it's part of the museum's vision for a new historic campus there, complemented by new neighbor the Equal Rights Heritage Center. And tying into that campus is another project the museum submitted for the Local Planning Committee's consideration: a landscaping effort that would see the South Street property's gardens restored to the "urban oasis" they once were, Maniccia said.

"Through future restoration we could bring those outside spaces back to the 19th-century glory that the Sewards would have recognized," he said. 

The specifics of the landscaping project are subject to a treatment plan that will be complete toward the end of summer, Maniccia said. It will take several years to implement, he added.

The two other projects submitted to the committee include a new heating, ventilation and air conditioning system for the museum. Like its barn and carriage house, the Seward House's temperature system hasn't been touched in several decades. The space is still heated by 1877 radiators, Maniccia said, and it lacks air conditioning. So not only is the museum chilly in the winter and sweltering in the summer, he continued, but its collection of artwork, documents and other archival materials would benefit from temperature and humidity controls.

Last, the Seward House seeks funding for Seward's Trolley, a vehicle that can circulate to the Cayuga Museum of History & Art, Willard Memorial Chapel and other historic and cultural sites in the area. The brainchild of museum Executive Director Billye Chabot, the trolley — a play on Alaska nickname "Seward's Folly" — likely won't happen in the near future, Maniccia said.

"It was always a dream, something we've always wanted to accomplish," he said. "But we have a lot of needs right now."

Lake Life Editor David Wilcox can be reached at (315) 282-2245 or Follow him on Twitter @drwilcox.


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I edit The Citizen's features section, Lake Life, and weekly entertainment guide, Go. I've also been writing for The Citizen and since 2006, covering arts and culture, business, food and drink, and more.

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