July 1993

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The Crooked Lake Review Visits

Rose Hill Mansion


Bill Treichler

Rose Hill, the restored Greek Revival mansion across Seneca Lake from Geneva, gets its name from the 900 acre tract where Robert Selden Rose farmed and settled his family. From the early 1800s the Rose family's name has been associated with the property on the ridge east of the lake. Since 1839 when William K. Strong completed his monumental temple-style residence on the site of the Rose homestead, the name Rose Hill has been associated with the mansion as well as the farm. The name Rose Hill Farm gained further prominence between the 1850 and 1880 from the renowned agricultural practices of owner Robert Swan.

All three of these owners were young men. Robert Rose was 29 when he brought his family to New York from Virginia; William Strong was 34 when his grand Greek mansion was finished; and Robert Swan was only 24 when he commenced his husbandry of 330 acres there. All these men were active in affairs beyond their life at Rose Hill. Rose was a founder of the New York State Agricultural Society, and a member of Congress from 1823 to 1827. Strong, a farm boy who became rich in the wool trade, was active in politics and banking. Swan, received for Rose Hill Farm the NYSAS premium award in 1858, became president of the Society in 1881, and director of the State Fair that year. He was also one of the organizers of the experiment station at Geneva. Rose Hill Mansion today reflects the ambitions and the lifestyles of these men and their families.

The original Rose house built in 1809 remains. The kitchen was incorporated into a wing of the 1839 house when the front part was moved north and made into a carriage house. The Greek Revival mansion that Strong built has been restored to its original elegance and filled with furniture, paintings, books, clocks, lamps, china, silver, and glass of the era of 1840. Many of the pieces now in the house are from the Swan family and their relatives.

Two men have been responsible for the recreation of Rose Hill to its present splendor. They are H. Merrill Roenke, Jr., who had the vision, the taste, and the dedication, and Waldo Hutchins, Jr., who had the means, the generosity, and the loyalty to carry through the project of restoration.

Waldo Hutchins was the son of Agnes Swan, the third daughter of Margaret Johnston and Robert Swan. Agnes was born at Rose Hill and she spent her childhood there. Mr. Hutchins considered his support of Rose Hill to be a tribute to his mother. He bought the property and gave it to the Geneva Historical Society in 1965. He paid for the reconstruction of the building, he made many contributions to its furnishings, and he provided an endowment for its future preservation.

Merrill Roenke, who has been a life-long Genevan and an architecture enthusiast, encouraged Waldo Hutchins to restore Rose Hill, and guided the entire project. Mr. Roenke goes everyday to Rose Hill, personally winds all the clocks, notes a loose hinge for repair or an overburdened fruit tree that needs propping. To visitors he enthusiastically points out the features of Rose Hill, such as Rembrandt Peale's oil painting The Falls of Tivoli that Peale presented to the Swan family- Benjamin Swan had paid for Peale's excursion to Europe. Mr. Roenke found this and Peale's watercolor study for the oil in an attic of the Hutchins family. He also found a list Robert Swan had made in 1843 of the books he owned, and then located thirty five of fifty books Swan had listed. Merrill Roenke obviously enjoys Rose Hill.

Twenty-five years ago, on May 1, Rose Hill Mansion was opened for public viewing. On May 2, this year, the Geneva Historical Society honored Mr. Roenke for his work at Rose Hill and his forty-five years of services to the Society with a reception at Rose Hill, and further recognized him by naming the carriage house the "H. Merrill Roenke, Jr., Reception Center." Page 15

The Crooked Lake Review Visits

Rose Hill Mansion

Visit Rose Hill Mansion, admire the Ionic columns, the moldings and carvings around its doors, windows, and ceilings, savor the rooms and their furnishings. Look in the dining room at the Sheraton banquet table and the Severin Roesen still life of fruits that hangs where it did when the Swan's ate there. See on the sideboard below the painting, the five-piece 1816 I. W. Forbes silver coffee and tea service that was a wedding present to Mary Saidler and Benjamin Swan, later inherited by Robert Swan, and now returned to Rose Hill by his great grandson Waldo Hutchins III. Look also along the opposite wall in the banquet room for two Chippendale side chairs that the Roses brought with them from Virginia in 1803. View the Canton China in the pantry hall, and the Tucker ware by America's first china maker. Step into the kitchen where meals were prepared for the Rose family.

An 1829 insurance policy of Robert Rose found by Mr. Roenke in a Hutchins attic described the Rose's house and helped in authenticating the renovation. Another find was a 1690 tall-case clock brought from Scotland by John Johnston, the grandfather of Agnes Swan.

In the main hall are portraits of Margaret Johnston and Robert Swan, and of her parents, John Johnston and Margaret Alexander, and of his father, Benjamin Swan. Go to the front parlor to see a portrait of Agnes Swan. There also view the Rococco Revival furniture made by Alexander Roux. The eight pieces once belonged to Mr. and Mrs. Benjamin Swan. The set came to Rose Hill when their great grandson Waldo Hutchins purchased it. When Mr. Hutchins bought the property and underwrote the restoration of the building he did not plan to supply furnishings for the house. However, when Mr. Hutchins learned this solid-rosewood set was available, he bought it. Genevans and others did contribute many heirlooms to furnish Rose Hill.

Off the back parlor is the parlor bedroom with a Chippendale chair that belonged to John Johnston. From the bedroom through a short hallway past a dressing room is the library which served as a farm office. In one corner is the Empire desk used by Robert Swan.

Upstairs are four main bedrooms, small dressing rooms, sewing and sitting rooms, maids' rooms and a play room.

The house is ideally sited with the front, the formal side, facing west toward the lake and the road. Its portico protects the west-facing windows from the high sun. Sharp shadows from the columns and in the trim moldings and carvings accent the architectural details.

Two galleries, one above the other, on the east end connect the wings and shade the windows. The large high-ceilinged parlors and bedrooms are pleasant for summer living, but nearly impossible to heat in a New York winter. Each major room has a fireplace; there is no evidence that stoves were used. Nor are there any plumbing conveniences. The Swans spent January and February in New York City every year. Probably the kitchen was the only room that could be kept comfortable during the winter.

The designer and builder of Rose Hill is unknown. Other fine Greek Revival houses had been built in Geneva, so there must have been capable craftsmen nearby. Plan books were widely available, and Coding-ton's mill in Geneva advertised hand-carved building ornaments. Some people have speculated that A. J. Davis may have been the architect for Rose Hill. He favored the temple style with wings, and had designed similar houses. Davis came from central New York. At the time Rose Hill was built he practiced in New York City.

Go to Rose Hill. Soak up the history, the architecture, and the feel of gracious living. From such magnificent houses we can learn how to make our own homes, however modest, more personal, more pleasant, more hospitable, and more beautiful.

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