MADISON COUNTY: Spirit House – Brown’s Hall

916 NY 26, Georgetown hamlet, Town of Georgetown

Threats: Deterioration, Lack of Protections

The Spirit House, also known as Brown’s Hall, is a highly unique work of craft architecture that is a legacy of central and western New York’s mid-19th-century period of religious fervor. PACNY has selected the Spirit House for listing as a threatened property because of the significance and fragile condition of the wooden building and uncertainty related to future plans for restoration.

The Spirit House, showing front (west) façade and unkempt grounds, 2018. (Bruce Harvey)

The Spirit House was built in ca. 1864-1868 by Timothy Brown, a follower of Spiritualism who based his design on a vision he received in a dream. Spiritualism was a liberal religion that emphasized communication with spirits. Its origin traces back to 1848, when two daughters of John Fox of Wayne County claimed they had communicated with spirits who answered their questions. Amid the deep religious fervor of so-called Burned Over District of central and western New York, Spiritualism quickly took hold and by 1855 claimed over 1 million converts.

Engraving of the Spirit House from the Spiritualist magazine “The Banner of Light,” January 18, 1879. The rear wing addition was a relocated Presbyterian church.

Brown was convinced that the house “must be built and consecrated to Spiritualism and to free speech in the service of humanity.” The plan included a large meeting hall and living quarters for the Brown family. Constructed of painted wood, the two-story house features elaborate scrollwork along most surfaces, notably along the eaves with their downward-pointing keys. Even to the passerby of today, the effusive woodwork suggests an ethereal connection to spirits.

The Spirit House in better days, photographed for the Historic American Building Survey, 1964, (Library of Congress)

Although well maintained for more than a century, in the past decade the house has deteriorated noticeably. The house has no modern fire protection, and failing paint may soon lead to deterioration of the intricate exterior woodwork. The house is not protected by a local landmark ordinance, and to date has undergone no planning to ensure its long-term preservation. As a rare, unique building, the Spirit House warrants stewardship by individuals or institutions that seek to interpret its significant history to the public. Already famous, the Spirit House could become an important part of Madison County tourism. PACNY hopes that listing the Spirit House as one of the region’s most endangered historic properties will convince the owner to work with public and private entities to ensure the building’s preservation for future generations.

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