In 1821, Asa Farnsworth built a modest home at 82 North Portage Street in the heart of the village of Westfield. Today, that unpretentious building is the core of a stately country inn situated on a grassy knoll overlooking Lake Erie.
How Farnsworth’s simple cottage was transformed, transported, and reborn is a tribute to determination and ingenuity. In 1837, fifteen years after Farnsworth completed his small dwelling, the house was bought by a man destined to take a place in the pages of history. The man was William H. Seward.
William H. Seward
When he became owner of the North Portage Street property, Seward served as agent for the powerful Holland Land Co. In later years, Seward would become Governor of New York and finally, Secretary of State under President Lincoln. But during his Westfield years, Seward’s interests had not yet turned to national and international matters. Instead, he concentrated on his work for the Holland Land Co.
In addition to his business duties, Seward took on the challenge of expanding the small Farnsworth house. By 1840, the Seward had become a handsome Greek revival mansion. Soon, however, turning his attention to state, national, and international areas of concern, Seward left Westfield and his elegant home behind.
George W. Patterson
In 1841, the mansion was purchased by the next Holland Land Co. agent, George W. Patterson, another man of leadership and vision. Like Seward, Patterson moved into the political arena. Before long he accepted the post of Lt. Governor of the state.
Thanks to the Patterson family’s involvements, the residence at 82 North Portage became the scene of glittering gatherings attended by the social and political leaders of the day. Its rooms were filled with the warmth of Victorian-era hospitality and stimulating conversation.
When George Patterson died in 1879, the house was passed on to his daughter, Miss Hannah Patterson, and eventually inherited by her niece, Catherine Louise Crandall. As Westfield grew, the mansion on North Portage Street served as home for generations of the Patterson/Crandall family.
However, in 1953 the Welch Food Co. owners of the adjoining property purchased the stately building and its grounds. From the late 1950’s to the mid 60’s, the food manufacturer rented the lovely old home to Lucille Owens, an interior decorator.
In 1966, the future of the historic Seward home was put in serious jeopardy by Welch Food’s plans for expansion. The only area available for the work was the corner of the property which included the impressive Seward mansion. To save the building from demolition, the Welch Co. offered to donate the historic structure to the Chautauqua County Historical Society, if the organization would move it to another site.
Priscilla Nixon and her husband, Rod, were members of the historical society at the time. Mrs. Nixon said when Welch offered the building that the society was enthusiastic about the possibility of moving it and converting it to a museum. Plans fell through, however, when the group learned the frame structure couldn’t be fire-proofed. In their determination to save the local treasure the historical society tried desperately to find an individual or group willing to move and restore the lovely home.
The specter of demolition loomed over the mansion as the deadline for the Welch expansion drew near. With time running out, Lucille Owens responded to the urging of the historical society and decided to take on the project herself. Her plan was to have the impressive building relocated to the parcel of land some three miles south of Portage Road. Cost of the move was estimated at around $50,000. Welch Foods offered to subsidize the project by the amount it had earmarked for demolition.
Relocating and Rebuilding
In the summer of 1966, the historic William Seward mansion was carefully dismantled and prepared for the trip to its new home. Since the structure was 35 feet high, it could only be moved through the streets and under electrical lines by actually cutting the floors apart and transporting them separately. To make the complex transition as smooth as possible, the workmen disassembling the building numbered each part as it was removed. The pieces were then carefully piled room-by-room.
Priscilla Nixon recalls that the painstaking process captured the attention of the entire community. Each day the curious stopped by to check on the progress. On the long-awaited moving day, the entire town was caught up in the excitement. As parts of the building rolled south along Portage Street on a massive flatbed, the sides of the road were lined with curious villagers, eager to be a part of this once-in-a-lifetime scene.
But at the building’s new site, instead of the pieces of the historic home being methodically stacked in preparation for the rebuilding process, confusion took over. The rafters, floor joists, bricks, and other key elements arrived in disorganized loads and were piled haphazardly. In addition, as the weeks of reconstruction turned into months, rain and snow blurred or erased the identifying markings showing where each part fit into the house. The carpenters charged with the monumental task of reassembling the building were faced with a giant puzzle. They knew all the pieces were at the site but had no idea where. Stair posts, rafters, baseboards and fireplaces all had to be found in the jumble and put back into their original places. There could be no exchange of parts, since each had been carefully cut to fit in an exact location.
The moving and rebuilding of the mansion took more than a year of meticulous labor and cost many thousands of dollars. But at last the massive puzzle was completed and the building was once again a home.
Unfortunately, the project had taken an overwhelming financial toll on Lucille Owens. In the mid 70’s, she was forced to sell the house.
Over the next few years, ownership of the structure changed often. Eventually the building entered a time of misuse and neglect. Among the residents during the period were squatters who ripped out fixtures and burned woodwork for heat. One of the last groups to abandon the disintegrating mansion left all the windows open to the elements.
Bruce and Barbara Johnson
By 1981, the once-elegant home had fallen into serious despair. It was then that Bruce and Barbara Johnson stepped in to buy the building and save it from certain ruin. The couple was determined to renovate and restore the old mansion to its earlier grandeur. The Johnsons' dream of turning the rambling structure into a bed and breakfast facility came true when, in the mid 80’s, the William Seward Inn was at last opened to guests.
Priscilla Nixon had, through the years, maintained her interest in the historic house. Now serving as president of the Chautauqua County Historical Society, Mrs. Nixon considered the beautifully restored Seward mansion a testimonial to determination. She points out, “Such projects take more than foresight. They take tenacity. There are wins and losses in saving our historical treasures. This was definitely a win.”
Jim and Debbie Dahlberg
Later the historic mansion’s owners and dedicated caretakers were innkeepers Jim and Debbie Dahlberg. Since taking over the elegant facility in 1990, they have devoted themselves to maintaining the integrity of the unique structure while enhancing its use as a country inn.
For example, when the Dahlberg’s converted the home’s former garage into a four-guest-unit carriage house, they took great care to make the structure both architecturally and aesthetically compatible with the elegant mansion developed by William Seward so long ago.
Today the rooms that had welcomed statesmen and social leaders are once again filled with the buzz of lively conversation. But today’s visitors to this magnificent pillared home are travelers seeking rest and relaxation.
This year, as the handsome William Seward mansion celebrates almost five decades on its grassy knoll overlooking Lake Erie, it has come full circle.
From a simple cottage built almost 200 years ago, it grew into a stately residence of leaders of the day. Yet without the determination and ingenuity of many individuals through the years, this magnificent home would have been reduced to rubble with only a few fading photographs to tell of its grace and beauty.