Talks, and work, resume at ECV

Extensive rehab of buildings, inventory and salvaging of artifacts needed at city historic site

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Rome Historical Society is currently working with city officials and owner Richard Rios in recovering artifacts still being stored at the Erie Canal Village. Rios said meetings with city officials and RHS have been positive as plans move forward to re-open ECV as a historic site — not a church — to help preserve Rome’s contribution to the nation’s history.

During a Common Council meeting in April, councilors weighed in on rumors that the city was trying to prevent the Erie Canal Village from opening.

Third Ward Councilor Kimberly Rogers said at the time that several local residents had posted on social media, particularly Facebook, about the Erie Canal Village “and there’s a lot of misinformation out there.”

She said, “The main gist of most of the posts is that the city is preventing the Erie Canal Village from opening because of a zoning change. First and foremost, even when the city owned and ran the Erie Canal Village, it wasn’t zoned” as a tourist/recreation site.

The Village was sold by the city to a private company in 2002. Wheelhorse Development, the entity that owned the site, was controlled by Ronald Trottier, whose company Railstar bought it from the city. The 210-acre historic site is located at 5789 Rome-New London Road.

In April 2015, Empire State Heritage Park announced it would take over as property manager of the historic recreation site. The owner signed a five-year lease-purchase deal.

Then in April 2019, the property was bought from Wheelhorse by Rios, of Brea, Calif., who stated at the time, he had plans to deem the property “Cross Roads Redemption Church,” a non-denominational Christian parish.

But Rios clarified Tuesday that his intentions were never to turn the property into a worshiping center. The owner said the old orientation room where educational videos were once played for visitors, was a chapel, and with his background, he hoped to restore the building as a chapel and dedicate it to the work done by ministers on the Erie Canal.

About a year and a half ago, Rios said he began talks with Councilor Rogers and Sixth Ward Councilor Riccardo D. Dursi Jr. in moving things forward for the property, with delays due to the coronavirus pandemic. Rios said he’s working with a company in Rome that restores historic structures and has received estimates for work in building new foundations and footings for each building on the property.

According to city zoning requirements, Rios said he was not authorized to operate the property as a “museum and tourist destination,” and is working with city officials in creating a special historic district, rather than applying for an area variance on the property.

Getting an area variance “was only a temporary solution” and if the property were to ever be sold again and change hands, the new owner would again need to apply for a variance, Rios explained. The Village was in a “Natural Resource Areas” district, according to city zoning maps.

As part of his plans, Rios said he hopes to move the museum building to the front of the property so that visitors may gain access during the winter months.

“We continue to move forward. Opening a church” there “was never a plan,” he assured. “I love the place and what it stands for.”

As for moving forward with the city in creating a special historic district, “there has been positive interaction this time,” said Rios.

Rios said he grew up in a small town outside Fort Bowie, Ariz., which itself had significant historical value as a 19th century U.S. Army outpost, and understands that ECV represents Rome’s contribution to the nation’s history.

As for future plans for the site, Rios said he has been posting details on his website, www.eriecanalvillageny.org.

“My intent is to preserve the Village as an historic property,” he said.

Much of the money it will take to renovate and refurbish the buildings on the property is coming out-of-pocket, Rios said, as most have been deemed by the city as unsafe to enter.

“It’s not a cheap endeavor,” but with efforts moving forward with the city, especially over the last couple of weeks, “we can bring in more people and donors and get that place opened up,” Rios said.

According to Rome Historical Society, from 1973 to 2001, the city through the Historic Rome Development Authority (HRDA), built and operated the Erie Canal Village (ECV). During this time, ECV was operated as a living history museum and tourist destination, with a collection of objects located on-site to assist in interpreting the 19th century replica canal village, explained Rome Historical Society Executive Director Arthur L. Simmons III.

The collection, which was amassed between 1974 and 1999, was obtained through individual donations and purchase. When the property was sold into private hands in 2002, after state and local legislative approval, the sale did not include this collection. Therefore, the city leased its collection to then new owner, Railstar Corporation to support the deeded requirement that ECV continue to operate as a “Museum and Tourist Facility.”

Prior to the sale of ECV in late 2001, the city contracted with a consultant Jane McCone to conduct an inventory of the city’s collection. From that inventory it was determined that while the original inventory list, which was provided by the city, had approximately 2,700 items listed, it was likely that this list was not complete.

The last known inventory of the city’s ECV collection occurred in 2014 and was conducted by ECV representatives working for the then property owner Railstar Corporation. This inventory was of all the objects located on the ECV property and included items that were not solely part of the collection. Inventoried by building, this list totaled approximately 6,200 items.

In 2015 the city requested that RHS conduct an inventory of its collection and assist in the relocation of items at ECV. To facilitate this effort, RHS drafted a series of memoranda of understanding (MOU) to conduct the inventory. However, these MOUs were never finalized, approved, or signed by the city, Simmons said in a report.

In 2017 through the efforts of the city, RHS and others, arrangements were made to secure all collection documentation from the former curator’s office located in the ECV giftshop building. Simmons explained that these are comprised of index cards and certificates of gifts (deeds transferring ownership) from the donors to HRDA/City of Rome. These records currently reside at RHS.

Also, in 2017 at the request of the of Empire State Heritage Park (then tenant under Railstar Corporation’s successor company Wheelhorse Development, LLC), the city began relocating collection items from some of the village buildings. Over a short period of time during the month of August and not utilizing any inventory, items were relocated by the city to a storage barn on the western part of the former ECV property. Of note, at that time, care was not taken to organize these items, and as previous collection inventories were done building by building, and much of the collection is now jumbled together, Simmons reported.

Fast forward to this year, RHS began to go back and recover items from ECV that they had previously compiled. Simmons said also in early 2017, RHS found that the roof on ECV’s Shull (Victorian) House was severely damaged and partially blown off, which resulted in the city and RHS conducting an emergency rescue of portions of the collection stored there.

These items presently reside at RHS.

“It should be noted that because the Shull House roof has been compromised for the last four years, the structure is filled with mold, its floors are giving way, and the foundation is crumbling, rendering the building unsafe to enter,” said Simmons. “Today it could be considered that all objects remaining in Shull House, mostly textiles, are unrecoverable.”

Ownership of property and assets of the former HRDA was transferred to the city through state legislation stating, “any existing records, property, rights, titles and interest and all obligations and liabilities of the historic Rome Development Authority shall vest in and be possessed by the City of Rome and its successors or assigns.”

In 2020-21 after completing a comprehensive comparison of items from the 2014 inventory versus the collection paperwork obtained in 2017, RHS determined that of the approximately 6,200 items inventoried, only 3,700 had clear title. In other words, Simmons said certificates of gift with signatures were only available for those 3,700 items. The comparison also eliminated any items that had been purchased with no receipt or had no signed certificate of gift or collection number assigned to them.

In consideration of these collection items, in addition to those that could be considered unrecoverable due to unsafe structural and environmental conditions of Shull House, the number of objects the city has clear title/interest to and therefore should be removed in this endeavor is approximately 1,470.

As part of recovery efforts, Simmons said RHS will work with various interested parties for possible transfer of items that may not become part of the historical society’s permanent collection. Entities would include reputable institutions and organizations such as the New York State Museum in Albany, Canal Society of New York, Oneida County History Center and others.

Simmons said RHS and the city will relocate items remaining at ECV to a city-owned storage facility from now through Oct. 31. RHS will then conduct an inventory and determine the final place for the items.

“I knew the former curator” of ECV “and had many conversations with her about the collection,” said Simmons. “I remember her telling me they would put numbers on the items and then as years went by, they became more selective in what they put numbers on… In 2014 my first conversation about the collection as interim director resulted in a memorandum of understanding. Fast forward to this spring, I had a conversation with the mayor and got the ball rolling.”

Simmons said, “We reached out to (current owner) Mr. Rios and shared our plan with him, and he said, ‘I really want to be there for the beginning of the process.’ And he came out here to the East Coast to do stuff at the village (the weekend of July 17 and 18)…and he let us right into the collection.”

Over the last week or so, “there’s been so much progress,” he added.

Simmons also further explained that of what is salvageable for the collection, the city cannot take possession of items that do not have a clear title or certificate.

“Anyone who donated to the village signed this certificate of gift so within the collection records, if we didn’t have that signature, the city doesn’t have clear title to it and therefore, we can’t claim ownership,” the RHS executive director explained. “That was a big step in the process. There will be a significant part of that collection that stays there. In conversations I’ve had with him (owner Rios) — obviously he wants to have the village up and running at some point, and he will need things to do that.”

“For us and the collection, there’s been a lot of things going on behind the scenes,” said Simmons. “…The situation out there has been going on for years. And some of us inherited this, and it’s tough when you have property changing owners. All conversations” between city officials and Rios “have been about how we do have differences, but that doesn’t mean we can’t get to solutions.”

The city “made easements to access our property across his property line, and we have an interest in the cultural resources out there when it comes to archeology, and we want to see him (Rios) succeed and get the area back to where it’s celebrating the canal,” Simmons said. “It’s such an important part of our nation’s history.”

Simmons said the are is related to history before Native Americans came into contact with Europeans, the French and Indian War (Fort Bull), the American Revolution, the War of 1812, and the original Clinton Ditch is right there.

“It’s this huge story despite our differences, and we need to keep that in mind and see how we can come together to celebrate and commemorate what has happened there,” he said. “We’ve recovered some cheese molds from the old cheese factory, an 18th century hatchet head, old bottles and farm tools.”

Simmons added that several of the books and textiles still stored at ECV are not salvageable due to mold and animal excrement.

“In addition to the mold, animals have gotten into pretty much all of those buildings,” said Simmons. “Once we get things from the village into storage here, we will probably wait a month” to see if some items can be saved and restored or not.

As for the recovery of items from the Shull House in 2017, Simmons said RHS has some old photos, maps, cannon balls, top hats, etc. that have been kept separate from RHS’ main collection because of the concern for contamination. By October or November, Simmons said RHS hopes to have compiled a final list of items inventoried from ECV.

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