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Johnson Hall Historic site master plan considered

Johnson Hall Historic site master plan considered

Venue set to hold Saturday event
Johnson Hall Historic site master plan considered
The Johnson Hall State Historic Site in Johnstown is pictured last July.
Photographer: Marc Schultz

JOHNSTOWN -- As the Johnson Hall State Historic Site hosts its free "Hands-On History Day" Saturday, members of the public who attend will be encouraged to provide the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation with comments about what the state should include in its master plan for the location. 

Alane Chinian, regional director for the agency in the Saratoga-Capital District region, said they recently began what is expected to be a two-year process for establishing a master plan for Johnson Hall. She said her region has 20 parks and historic sites, several of which have recently crafted new master plans. 

"Periodically we re-do them. It's very helpful to have a master plan for a park because then we can methodically move forward with capital improvements, maintenance projects. We can more easily work with partner organizations that might want to help, if we've put together a plan of what's been approved to do," she said. 

The state held its first public information meeting for the master plan on Monday at Johnstown High School. Fulton County Administrator Jon Stead provided the state with a list of detailed proposals for how to enhance the tourism potential for the 20-acre site, which currently includes the 1763 estate of Sir William Johnson and his Mohawk Indian wife Molly Brant.

The estate was the home to Johnson and his wife and their eight children. Johnson is famous for having been the largest landowner and a very influential leader during the Colonial period of the Mohawk Valley. Johnson was granted the title of Baronet and Superintendent of Indian Affairs by the British Crown and is considered to have played a pivotal role in dealing with the Six Nations of the Iroquois, which enabled the British to attain supremacy over the French in North America.

Stead told Chinian and other state officials that Johnson Hall has the potential to rival Mount Vernon, the historical home of George Washington, which has more than 1 million annual visitors.

"The site is a historic gem with immense potential for development and marketing that could benefit the state and the regional economy. However, at present, it is very much under-appreciated, under-supported and under-promoted by the Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation," he said.

Stead said when Johnson Hall was the center of frontier activity in the 1700s, it was a bustling hub of social, military and commercial activity that included not only the Georgian-style manor house, which is currently preserved as a walking-tour museum, but also an Indian store, a blacksmith shop, a couch house, gardens and tenant houses, among other buildings, now long gone.

"I encourage the state to reconstruct replicas of the Colonial-era structures that existed on site when it was the key stronghold of the British Empire. Imagine the draw of a Sir William Johnson Estate with operating replica blacksmith shop, Indian Store, gardens and military encampment areas," Stead said.

"The estate would be complemented by other existing historic sites in the area such as the Historic Colonial Court House, still operating in downtown Johnstown on William Street, Fort Johnstown just up the hill and the Colonial cemetery, among others. Picture a "Colonial Williamsburg of the Northeast" or "Mount Vernon" attraction right in the middle of New York state."

Chinian said that all of Stead's suggestions will be taken into account as her agency crafts the master plan, which will include a list of approved priority projects for Johnson Hall. She said one of the unique challenges for Johnson Hall is that it is both a historic site and a state park, which complicates any new construction at the location. 

"The agency has to follow rules and laws designed to protect historic sites, and also to protect archaeological resources and environmental resources, so we're looking at the whole property from a recreational and historic interpretive perspective," she said. "These are very important, nationally significant resources that we need to be respective of, but at the same time we are interested in telling the stories of these really fascinating places and engaging the public, so we're looking at how can Johnson Hall tell its story, and also, potentially, attract more people and help the local economy at the same time." 

Last year Johnson Hall attracted 57,800 visitors during its tourism season, which runs from May 16 through Oct. 7.

On Saturday, the free "Hands-on History Day" will run from noon to 4 p.m., and will include the opportunity to try out "stilts, whirlygigs, draughts, skittles and other Colonial toys and games." Other events will include: 
• At 1:30 p.m. there be a presentation by Site Manager Wade Wells on what kinds of things would be included in an 18th century trade bale. 
• At 3 p.m. Curator of Education Darlene Rogers will assist visitors in learning about writing with quill pens and ink in the Colonial era.  

Chinian said her agency recognizes that Johnson Hall is already effective in drawing in a large number of tourists from outside of the region, and would like to craft a master plan that enhances its potential. She said the master plan process will also include a State Environmental Quality Review of any potential impact of new construction proposed in the master plan, one of the reasons why it will likely take about two years to complete.

She said she encourages any member of the public who has ideas for the site or comments about development of the master plan to send them by email to [email protected] 

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