The Center for Great Women

The Seneca Knitting Mill on the Cayuga-Seneca canal will become the new Center for Great Women. Rendering courtesy National Women’s Hall of Fame.

Driving from Ithaca, the road to Seneca Falls is a desolate stretch of state highway buttressed on both sides by expansive fields of corn. There are few landmarks to pass between the towns of Ovid and Romulus, save for Swedish Hill Winery. A more likely encounter is the  occasional horse-drawn carriage.

In the middle of this barren landscape, the village of Seneca Falls appears like a mirage, rising from the banks of the Cayuga-Seneca Canal. Linking the Erie Canal with Cayuga Lake, this waterway was crucial to the area’s economic growth in the early 1800s. Flour, pork, whiskey, lumber and wool all found passage here through a series of manmade locks.

In 1848, 68 women and 32 men signed the Declaration of Sentiments in Seneca Falls, the document that argued for equal civil, social and political rights for women. Here, the National Women’s Hall of Fame now stands.

The Hall was created as a nonprofit organization in 1969 to showcase the achievements of great American women. Since it first opened its doors, the organization has honored more than 250 inductees. A few years ago, with so many plaques, artifacts and documents to display, the building started to feel cramped. The board of directors decided it was time to move. 

February 24, 2016

As I cross the bridge overlooking the Cayuga-Seneca Canal, I take a left onto Fall Street and enter the city’s historic district. A driving rain and dense fog make it difficult to see the Hall’s unassuming façade, and I drive past it by mistake. I park in front of the Visitors’ Center to get my bearings and that’s when I see it. Across the street, flanked by stone columns, is the building’s main entrance. 

I expected it to be bigger.

I walk across the street and shuffle inside. The door chimes and a woman with glasses and a kind face greets me with a smile.

“I’m Irene,” she says, extending her hand.

“Jon,” I say with a nod.

After paying the $4 entrance fee, Irene gives me a tour of the museum. She explains that the Hall will be moving next winter into the newly renovated Seneca Knitting Mill. “We need more space,” she explains. “What you see here is only a fraction of the artifacts we have in storage. We simply don’t have enough room to display everything.”

The historic building, on the opposite side of the canal, will be called The Center for Great Women.  

Built in 1844, the knitting mill is the logical choice for the Hall’s relocation efforts. In addition to being a stone’s throw from its current address, the building has strong ties to the women’s suffrage movement. Its original proprietors, Charles Hoskins and Jacob Chamberlain, were among the men who signed the Declaration of Sentiments. (Hoskins and Chamberlain were also abolitionists who refused to process cotton in their facility.) The new site will enable the hall to expand from its current single-floor space to four stories, housing everything from a Welcome Center to interactive exhibits to a gift shop. It’s an ambitious project.

I thank Irene and begin a self-guided walk through the museum.

Each inductee is commemorated with a framed photograph and a description of her achievements. The National Women’s Hall of Fame includes American women from every facet of society – athletes, musicians, philanthropists, scientists, authors and politicians have all found a place on these walls.

When I first walk in, I see a pair of Amelia Earhart’s high heels. Later, I come across the bench on which Susan B. Anthony sat when she was tried and convicted for illegally casting a ballot in the November 5, 1872, general election. And toward the back is the typewriter used by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Gwendolyn Brooks. 

This hodgepodge of artifacts seems to confirm what Irene said earlier: the hall needs more space.

April 20, 2016

I’m standing in front of the Seneca Knitting Mill when a black Lexus pulls into the parking lot. Out steps Jeanne Giovannini, president of the hall’s Board of Directors. She’s dressed in a smart brown jacket and dark clogs. 

“You must be Jon,” she says. 

Giovannini, a Seneca Falls native, has been involved with the Hall for the last decade. She alternately fields a call on her smart phone and fills me in on recent events as we walk toward the building’s handsome limestone portico.

“Chelsea Clinton was here on Monday,” she says. The former first daughter was touring Upstate New York in anticipation of the state primary, which her mother, a 2005 Hall of Fame inductee, won with 58 percent of the vote. 

“Katherine Switzer will be here for the race next month,” Giovannini adds. She’s referring to the hall’s inaugural “Right to Run 19k,” named so because of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. Switzer, the first woman to compete in the Boston Marathon as a numbered entry in 1967, was inducted into the hall in 2011.

I walk beneath a sign that reads “Danger: Hard Hat Area” and step into the mill. The interior is skeletal, but remarkable. The original hardwood floors, though buckling in spots, have been beautifully preserved. Each replacement window is being sized to fit its unique frame. Water pipes, which were stolen by vandals from the building’s upper floors after the mill closed in 1999, have been replaced.

“We’ve completed the abatement of the property,” she says. “Now we’re waiting on a Certificate of Occupancy.” The organization’s projected move-in date is December.

“Will you be ready by then?” I ask.

“We’ll see,” Giovannini says. “We’ll see.”

October 26, 2016 

It’s a brisk fall afternoon. The sky is overcast. Most of the trees have been stripped of their finery. 

It’s been six months since I last visited the Seneca Knitting Mill, and its transformation is still underway. As Giovannini dons a pink hard hat, Project Supervisor Chris Keir shows me the exterior’s detail work.

“We’ve replaced the lintels,” he says, indicating the horizontal blocks above each window. Keir and his crew also re-pointed the building’s outer walls, painstakingly restoring each mortar joint by hand.

We step inside the Mill. Starting next week, Keir and his team will begin installing new windows. Across the canal I can see Wesleyan Chapel, home of the Seneca Falls Convention and the place where the Declaration of Sentiments was penned.

Giovannini is awaiting approval from the State Historic Preservation Office to continue the building’s interior rehabilitation. She and her constituents are planning to open the new Center for Great Women in phases, beginning with the ground floor. 

We step back outside and the clouds begin to part. The building, though incomplete, is striking. Giovannini shows me an artist’s rendering of the space, and it isn’t difficult to make the mental leap from the Spartan structure standing before us to its newer, stylish edifice.

Giovannini eyes the building with pride, as if it were a child she’s raised from infancy. Though it’s a bit behind schedule for the proposed December opening, she knows the project is nearing completion.

“We’re aiming for early 2017,” she says with a determined smile. “It’ll happen.”

Support for the Seneca Knitting Mill rehabilitation project has been provided by local, regional, and national businesses; National Women’s Hall of Fame board members; private citizens and foundations; and the Town of Seneca Falls. Matching grants have been provided by the National Park Service’s “Save America’s Treasures” program; the New York State Environmental Protection Fund; the New York State Canal Corporation; the Erie Canal Way National Heritage Corridor; and the Rochester Area Community Foundation. To learn more about the Center for Great Women or to make a donation, please visit womenofthehall.org.

 


by Jon Ulrich