This month we’re exploring the museum building and how it was changed by the various people who lived in and used it. The mansion housing the museum was built in 1836 by John Seymour. Unfortunately, Seymour lost his fortune in the financial panic of 1837 and had to turn the unfinished house over to the bank by 1839. It was then purchased by Dr. Sylvester Willard and his father-in-law Erastus Case in 1843. 

Engraving of Mansion, c.1870s (Cayuga Museum Collection)

Portrait of Dr. Willard (Cayuga Museum Collection)

Sylvester Willard was born in Saybrook Connecticut in 1799. His parents died of typhoid fever when he was a teenager leaving Sylvester’s older brother David to take care of him. David, a doctor, inspired Sylvester to study medicine. In 1823 Sylvester came to Sennett NY and was accepted into the Cayuga County Medical Society. He left the county for Connecticut in the 1830s but returned in 1843. He and his father in law helped establish the Oswego Starch Factory, and smart reinvestments of their dividends helped the family build a large fortune. Willard continued working as a physician but his growing fortune soon allowed him the luxury of seeing patients in his own home, rather than him traveling to them. 

Originally a four parlor Greek Revival design, the house had double parlors to the left of the entrance hall and a library and dining room to the right. Greek Revival was the dominant style of architecture in the United States from 1820-1850 but was popularized before this by Thomas Jefferson in the late 1700s. Jefferson shunned the early American architecture that had been modeled on British styles, and instead found inspiration in the ancient Greek buildings that were being uncovered at the time. Jefferson believed that architecture was a form of visual education to be used “in support of democratic ideals.’’ He turned to ancient Greece as a symbol of democracy, and designed his home as well as the Virginia State Capital with Greek influences. Greek Revivalism spread across New York with the Erie Canal. The canal brought great wealth to the areas on its path and many canal towns boast impressive architecture, as the newly wealthy built their homes in the latest styles. The Greek Revival style became so popular, pattern books were developed that contained plans and patterns for elements such as columns, cornices, porches, and windows. Architects were scarce and only the wealthiest families could afford to hire one, but pattern books allowed craftsmen to copy the style without hiring a professional.

Double Parlor Arch
Willard Family in Double Parlor
View from Double Parlor to Library
1836 Floor Plan

Dr. Willard undertook several renovations during his time in the house. In 1850, he renovated the entrance hall and added a wing onto the east side of the house which contained his examining rooms and dispensary and in 1876, the two story north addition at the back of the house was completed, which held a new dining room spanning the width of the addition. By the 1850s, the formalism of the Greek Revival style was fading out of fashion and Dr. Willard’s 1850 and 1876 renovations were in the Italianate and Renaissance Revival styles. The Willard and Case families were extremely wealthy from their business ventures, allowing them to make these large scale improvements as well as being able to afford many modern conveniences in their home. Dr. Willard’s diary notes such purchases as a refrigerator, a washing machine, and a Bundy burglar alarm. 

1850’s Floorplan

1876 Floorplan

Jane and Sylvester had two daughters, Caroline and Georgiana, neither of whom married. When Caroline passed away in 1916, the house went to their cousin, Willard Case, who already owned a house down the street. Willard gave the mansion to his son Theodore. Although Ted didn’t spend much time in the house, he made several changes of his own, simplifying trim work and removing many of the ornate Italianate features from Dr. Willard’s time. While some of the original Greek Revival details remain, much of what is now here is from Dr. Willard and Theodore Case’s time in the house, as well as the years spent as a museum. 

Starting next week, we will move our Museum at Home programming exclusively to social media. Follow us on our Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter to learn more about the mansion during September! Next week we’ll look closer at Dr. Willard’s renovations and later in the month we’ll explore the grounds and Ted Case’s time on the property.