Historical marker recalls Cary Mansion's grandeur
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Historical marker recalls Cary Mansion's grandeur

Nov 26, 2012

BATAVIA — Although his latest achievement is now wrapped in black plastic and duct tape, Larry Barnes is in especially good spirits.

The city historian’s grant application to memorialize Cary Mansion has been approved.

And the city will be celebrating at 1 p.m. Nov. 29 at GO-ART!, 201 East Main St.

“It’s important that we remember our history, that we understand why we are the community we are today,” he said Friday while showing off the cloaked historical marker in front of Cary Hall. “The Cary family has helped shape the community that we have. It’s sad to have lost a jewel that would have brought tourists to our community and provide a tangible reminder of what life was like in the upper crust of Batavia.”

As with many prominent early city families, Barnes is working on a “monograph,” a collection of tales from Trumbull Cary’s life. He was a founder of the Bank of Genesee who also became a very public figure as a postmaster, adjutant in the War of 1812 and one of the founders and deep pockets for St. James Episcopal Church.

Cary was one of three people appointed to speak to the state Legislature about incorporating Batavia as a village. It was incorporated in 1823, which is one indication of how highly revered he was, Barnes said.

Of course, Cary Mansion may not have come into existence had Cary not wooed a woman who asked for such a property. Margaret Brisbane agreed to marry him if he built “one of the finest mansions” around. He built the two-story, pillar accented site in 1817 and married Brisbane the same year.

He was one of the wealthiest Batavians at the time and even began a bank in his home. He built a more formal place on the corner of Bank and Main streets in 1829. He was elected as the first village treasurer and to the state assembly and then state senate.

Cary also helped to bring Tonawanda Railroad, the first of its kind, into town, and established a lyceum, a high-scale community art center with rooms for reading and lectures. He raised money for Civil War soldiers and bought lots of property in Batavia and in Michigan.

“He was aware that the frontier was moving west and he put his money where he could make a buck,” Barnes said.

The mansion was “really, really nice,” based on his research and in talking to descendants of the Cary family. The property remained in the Cary estate until the early part of the 20th Century when it was sold to Harry Turner, who converted it into a mortuary.

George Cary wanted to see the site preserved as an example of early Batavia and persuaded the common council to allow him to purchase the property and transform it back to its original grandeur for public tours. Turner eventually sold it and moved to its current location as H.E. Turner on East Main Street.

After Cary restored the mansion he got the council to take it over as a self-sustaining tourist attraction. Council members renegged on the deal and gave it back to him. Except Cary didn’t want it and it eventually went to one of his daughters who in turn leased it to a string of businesses including Pontillo’s Restaurant and Valle Jewelers.

His daughter ended up selling it to St. Jerome Hospital to be used for its nursing program. Fve years later, as a nursing school was being constructed behind the building, hospital adminstration suddenly announced that the mansion was in a “dangerous” state of disrepair and had to be torn down. In a month it was gone.

Reports in The Daily News stated that a plaque and photo of the former mansion were to be erected in that spot, but that never happened.

It was one of many instances when important architecture was being razed before and during urban renewal, Barnes said. The disappearance of majestic buildings got the attention of historians and those who wanted to preserve authentic Batavia.

“It was part of the impetus to create the Landmark Society,” he said.

His own passion for history prompted Barnes to apply for a grant from the William G. Pomeroy Foundation. It was offering grants specifically for historical markers of sites built between 1790 to 1850. The marker is to commemmorate historic people, places or things.

“It was a competitive process,” he said. “This fits perfectly. The mansion was constructed in 1817.”

The dedication ceremony is to include city officials Jason Molino and Sally Kuzon, Dan Ireland of United Memorial Medical Center, Nicole Walter from the Pomeroy Foundation, Batavia Histoirc Preservation Commission Chairwoman Joan Barton, Genesee County Landmark Society President Laruie Oltramari, Genesee County Historian Susan Conklin and Jeffrey Donahue of Holland Land Office Museum.

Walter will say a few words about the grant and related marker, Barnes will share Cary’s history and Cary’s great-great-great granddaughter Sallie Fogarty will unveil the marker. 

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