hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News & Issues November 2016


Historic house for lease; bring own tools

Live-in curator sought for childhood home of Susan B. Anthony


Susan B. Anthony house, Geoge Bouret photoBy EVAN LAWRENCE
Contributing writer



New York state acquired the former Susan B. Anthony home in Battenville in 2006 for preservation as a historic site, but the property has stood empty and deteriorating for the past decade. Now, under a recent legal change, the state plans to seek a “resident curator” to live in and restore the home. George Bouret photo

The local house where women’s rights advocate Susan B. Anthony spent the most important years of her childhood has stood empty and decaying for more than a decade, but preservationists say better times may lie ahead for the historic structure.

Under a recent amendment to New York law, the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation has embarked on a process to lease the vacant house to someone who would live in it and restore it. The exact terms of the arrangement, including how much if any public access would be provided to the property, remain to be worked out.

“A resident curator is a good potential solution,” said Alane Ball Chinian, director of the parks agency’s Saratoga-Capital District Region. “It’s a chance for someone to show their skills at restoration. We’re excited that this legislation passed, and we’re in a place to try this idea.”
The state acquired Anthony’s former home in the hamlet of Battenville in 2006 but has struggled to come up with a viable plan for using it.

Anthony was one of the great social reformers of the 19th century. She’s best known for her advocacy of women’s suffrage, but she also was active in the movements for temperance, abolition of slavery, workers’ rights, and women’s legal and civil rights.


Lessons that shaped a life
Anthony was born in 1820 in Adams, Mass., where her father, Daniel Anthony, ran a textile mill. When Susan was 6, her father accepted an invitation to move to Battenville, along the Batten Kill in the southeast corner of Greenwich, to manage a local mill. The mill prospered, and in 1832-33, Daniel Anthony had a spacious brick home built for his family just across the road from the mill.
“Susan’s formative ideas about women were acquired there,” explained Debi Craig, a local historian and longtime officer of the Washington County Historical Society.

At the one-room schoolhouse across the Batten Kill, Anthony and the other girls were told they didn’t need to learn long division and were set to sewing while the boys had an arithmetic lesson. Anthony told her father, and he pulled his children out of the school and set up a schoolroom at home where girls studied math along with boys.

Anthony sometimes filled in when a female mill worker was absent, Craig said. Through conversations with her co-workers, she learned that women could not keep their pay but had to turn it over to their fathers or husbands. Later, when she taught school in the area, she learned that women teachers were paid significantly less than men for the same work.

The hardest lesson came when the financial crisis known as the Panic of 1837 wiped out the textile industry in the area. The Anthonys’ bills mounted, and in 1839 their house and all its contents were auctioned off to pay their debts. Anthony discovered that legally everything belonged to her father and had to be used to settle his debts. She, her sisters and their mother owned nothing, not even their clothing.

The family moved a few miles downstream to Hardscrabble, now known as Center Falls, and tried to regroup. But in 1848, they left the area and moved to Rochester. Anthony considered Rochester her home for the rest of her life, and she died there in 1906.
But “she was here, off and on, for 25 years,” local historian Sally Brillon said.


Many changes, long vacancy
There are no known photographs of the Anthony house in its original condition, Craig said.
In 1885, a later owner remodeled the interior and added exterior trim in the then-popular Italianate style. The house subsequently went through many hands, slowly deteriorating. The schoolroom attached to the house was razed in the 1990s and replaced with an apartment.
The last private owner defaulted on the mortgage in 2005, and the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corp. foreclosed on the house in early 2006. When two auctions brought no bids, the state bought the property for $1. The house was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2007.

No one has lived in the house since at least 2005.
“When old houses are vacant, it’s a difficult situation,” Chinian said.
The state has maintained the exterior of the house, and it’s structurally sound, but the interior is contaminated by mold, she said.

“The fundamental issue is that the site is compromised,” Chinian said.
The house stands very close to a steep slope behind, so water drains into the house, and air circulation around it is poor.

“The building is so wet, people needed to keep tearing out the interior,” Chinian said. “That’s why so little is left from Susan’s time.”

The mold problem is hardly new. Craig recalled that the house was vacant for a time in the 1970s for just that reason.

Chinian said the house’s plumbing, wiring, heating, and other systems probably also are due for replacement.

But there’s no estimate of what needs to be done and how much it will cost to make the house habitable. Dan Keefe, a spokesman for the parks office, said those studies will be done before the office issues a request for proposals from prospective resident curators – something that’s expected in early 2017.


Public-private preservation
The concept of recruiting resident curators to live in, restore and maintain historic homes was pioneered by Massachusetts beginning in the 1990s. New York established a program in 2014, initially for three houses in state parks on Long Island. That program now has been expanded to include the Battenville house.

A resident curator “would be empowered to take on renovation and repairs in return for occupancy,” Chinian said. The curator would pay rent and be financially responsible for rehabilitating and maintaining the house. But the rent could be adjusted based on costs.
“Funding is part of the discussion,” Chinian said. “How we can make it an attractive enough proposition to bring in someone to make the house safe for occupancy?”

Assemblywoman Carrie Woerner, D-Round Lake, sponsored the legislative amendment that added the Anthony house to the list of sites allowed to use the resident-curator arrangement.
“This is a pragmatic way to steward this house,” Chinian said. “This is a new deal for the state. We want to do it right.”

She said the state has been working closely on the Anthony house with Woerner, whose experience before winning her Assembly seat in 2014 included six years as executive director of the Saratoga Springs Preservation Foundation.

“She has tremendous contacts and credibility in the historic preservation world,” Chinian said.
Given its history, the house could serve a purpose beyond a private residence, but it’s not clear what that might be.

“We’ve had a lot of discussions over the years over what to do with the house,” Chinian said. “It’s a challenge.”

A museum isn’t practical for several reasons. First, other than the structure itself, the building contains no artifacts from Anthony’s era. The bankruptcy auction in 1839 dispersed all of her family’s possessions.

“The state has no materials that were part of that house,” Chinian said. “The house has been altered over the years. Very little inside is the same.”

In addition, the small, steep lot lacks parking and is on a blind curve on a busy state highway. Entering and leaving the property by car is treacherous. Parking could be developed across the road, but a pedestrian crosswalk would be risky.

Local support
A local, informal Friends of Susan B. Anthony group formed over the summer and has met twice to discuss restoring and promoting the house and its history. Interest is especially strong because 2017 is the centennial of women’s suffrage in New York. (Various states passed their own laws giving women the right to vote before the 19th Amendment took effect nationwide in 1920.)

Greenwich Supervisor Sara Idleman, a member of the local Friends group, suggested the house could be the focus of a network that would support women.

“I’d love to see programs for women of all ages in conjunction with women legislators for leadership programs,” Idleman said.

Craig said she envisions a women’s resource library at the Anthony house.
Members hope to make the Friends of Susan B. Anthony a formal nonprofit organization, possibly under the auspices of the Greenwich Historical Society, Idleman said. The group could partner with the state and other local groups to encourage the home’s preservation and promote the area’s ties to Anthony’s history.

The Friends group already has a tentative calendar of local events for 2017, including showing a film on the women’s suffrage movement, a program on the Anthony family’s involvement in the abolitionist movement, and a bus trip with an actress portraying Susan B. Anthony.

The state plans to create a historical display on Anthony for its Peebles Island administrative office in Waterford.

“Susan B. Anthony’s legacy in Washington County is amazing,” Chinian said. “It should be celebrated and known.”