Hunt House, suffrage shrine, sold

Building was site of planning for women's rights convention

January 06, 2000|By Glenn Collins | Glenn Collins,New York Times News Service

WATERLOO, N.Y. -- Ending months of uncertainty over the fate of a historic property that was central to the movement for women's rights in the United States, a nonprofit organization acquired the Hunt House in Waterloo, N.Y., at auction recently, pledging to restore it and donate it to the National Park Service.

In a spirited 40-minute telephone battle among five bidders, the 1829 house was sold for $231,000 -- $91,100 above the asking price. The winner was the Trust for Public Land, a nonprofit conservation organization.

Site of 1848 tea party

Historians say the three-story Federal-style house was the site of a tea party on July 9, 1848, at which a group of women organized a women's rights convention in nearby Seneca Falls. That convention sparked the national mass movement that ultimately led to the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote.

The seven-room house, which had not been made available for sale for 55 years, had been avidly sought by private buyers as well as by public-spirited groups. The house was pictured recently in a Ken Burns public-television documentary, "Not for Ourselves Alone," about the women's rights movement.

"We were right up against our maximum bid," said Erik Kulleseid, the New York state director of the Trust for Public Land, "and my concern was that someone would outbid us." He said that 50 percent of the bid money came from the nonprofit National Trust for Historic Preservation, which will work with the Park Service in the restoration.

'It's a trophy house'

"It's a trophy house," said Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the New York Democrat, "and I was fearful that someone might buy it just to have it. The house deserves this happy news, the Park Service deserves it, and New Yorkers deserve it." Last August the senator introduced legislation, which is still pending, authorizing the Park Service to purchase the Hunt House.

Josie Fernandez, Park Service superintendent of the Women's Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls, which will manage the Hunt property, said: "This is a wonderful gift for the nation. As soon as someone hands us a key, we'd like to welcome America to its house."

The 5.7-acre park, which includes the site of the Seneca Falls convention, the Elizabeth Cady Santon House and other landmarks, was created in 1980 to celebrate women's history.

The auction, which began at $205,000, was conducted by Greg Peet of Patchen Real Estate in Waterloo, representing the retired owners of the Hunt House and its 2.5-acre property, Thomas H. and Joan K. Olmstead, who put the house on the market in May.

"I think the house is in good hands with the Trust for Public Land," Mrs. Olmstead said after the auction.

The auction was set when a purchase contract for the Hunt House could not be fulfilled by Mary Church, a technical writer and editor for an environmental consulting firm in Rochester, who had wanted to buy the house with her husband, Stephen. The purchase was contingent on the sale of the Churches' own home in Bloomfield, N.Y., and they were unable to complete the deal. The Olmsteads were then free to accept competing offers.

Since the creation of the Women's Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls, in 1980, the Park Service has coveted the Hunt House.

The owners of the Hunt House, wanted to sell now because Mr. Olmstead is ill, said Mrs. Olmstead, 67. Her father purchased the Hunt House in 1944. She grew up there, left the house to marry, then moved back with her husband in 1976.

Seeking appreciative buyer

"We want to sell the house to someone who appreciates it," she said. That said, the seven-room house, built in the Federal style in 1829, has been on the market since May, and fewer than a dozen serious offers have been made for it. Part of the reason may be that if its exterior seems appropriately historic, the interior has been given a fully carpeted, suburban look.

The Olmsteads had accepted an offer from Mrs. Church, a technical writer and editor for an environmental consulting firm in Rochester. Mrs. Church and her husband, Stephen, made their offer at a figure "close to the asking price," said Gregory W. Peet, the Olmsteads' real estate agent in Waterloo.

But throngs of visitors led by park rangers could not traipse through the house. Mrs. Church wants to live in it with her husband and their eight children, ages 5 to 21. "I would love to grow old there," she said. But Mrs. Church could not complete the deal until she sold her own house in Bloomfield, N.Y.

"I would be honored to live in a house that has such historic value," said Mrs. Church, 47, who once owned a landmark 1852 Victorian in Lima, N.Y., and was on the board of Lima's historical society. Mrs. Church added that she and her husband would do what they could to restore the Hunt House.

"We hope to secure the Hunt House so that the Park Service can purchase it in the next appropriation cycle," said Dene Lee, a project manager for the Trust for Public Lands, a national organization that has bought dozens of properties for the Park Service.

Olmstead, 69, insisted that any idea of making the house into a museum "is up to whoever buys it," adding, "The Park Service never expressed an interest."

Fernandez, superintendent of the Women's Rights National Historical Park, said she was not authorized to talk to the Olmsteads. The terms of the original act that created the park forbid it, she said.

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