Women's Hall of Fame raising money to expand

05:00 AM, Oct 06, 2013

The National Women's Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls has plans to expand. (CARLOS ORTIZ/ / staff photographer)/


Written By Anne Schuhle

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For information on the National Women’s Hall of Fame, call (315) 568-8060 or go to greatwomen.org. Admission is $3; $1.50 for seniors and students; $7 per family.

On a quiet Saturday morning in September, storm clouds play cat-and-mouse with sidewalk-sale merchants as a festive air builds along Fall Street in Seneca Falls. But inside the National Women’s Hall of Fame, the soft, rich strains of Ella Fitzgerald infuse the entryway. The front door opens just as a docent finishes guiding her lone visitor through the gallery.

I’ve got a gang of about eight out here, can we come in?”

It’s the voice of Lizbeth Ryan, whose Women of Wisdom group has driven from Vergennes, Vt., to see the Hall, where plaques honoring House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and the late former first lady Betty Ford will soon hang, following their induction Saturday with seven others.

As the women hustle in, clustering before the first wall of plaques — there are 247 in all — Ryan explains that the trip was more than a whim.

At our very first meeting seven years ago, one member said, ‘We have to go to the Hall of Fame!’ But it took us a while to get here,” Ryan says with a laugh. That’s partly because the women have been busy with their nonprofit’s retail resale shop, Sweet Charity, which benefits women, children, families and hospice efforts.

Overall, the idea for coming here is one of respect for women. We wanted to come to honor these women for what they’ve done for us and continue to do for us,” Ryan says.

The Women of Wisdom are just a handful of the 10,000 or so people who visit the Hall each year, drawn to town by one or both of its primary claims to fame: being the birthplace of the women’s rights movement, and the possible inspiration for Bedford Falls, the backdrop to Frank Capra’s holiday classic, It’s a Wonderful Life.

Both women and Wonderful permeate much of downtown, but nowhere are these themes more plentifully represented than at the WomanMade Products. Stocked with various movie souvenirs and woman-made or -inspired items, it sells everything from soaps and jewelry to cheeky dish towels and the Facebook-themed T-shirt: “WOMEN 821,564,239 people like this.”

Other retail storefronts range from the trendy Crimson Imp Games to the iconic Rose Francis Dress Shop, where small-town values spill from the hand-scrawled note on the glass door, telling folks Rose’s room number at the nursing home and urging them to stop by for a visit.

But there’s far more to this community. Its rich industrial past and its ties to the suffrage and abolitionist movements have Hall of Fame leaders eagerly eyeing 2015 and 2016, when they hope to move into the former Seneca Knitting Mill across the Cayuga-Seneca Canal.

An intensive fundraising campaign, begun last spring, has so far brought in 86 percent of the $1.3 million needed to stabilize and clean the limestone mill building and replace its roof, says Beverly Ryder, co-president of the Hall’s board of directors. Work on the roof could start next spring, simultaneous with the launch of a full-blown national campaign to outfit the interior of the building. When it’s finished, it’ll have 16,000 square feet of program space, a tenfold increase over the gallery at 76 Fall St.

The world will change completely,” Ryder says.

Both she and the Hall’s deputy director, Amanda Bishop, are eager to make the move.

Every time we induct a new class of women, I think we’re going to hit our limit and have to hang the plaques Sistine-chapel fashion,” Bishop says with a laugh.

Just how the space will be used and how many millions the continued transformation will cost depend on historic preservation officials’ approval. In addition to the permanent exhibit, Ryder says current planning includes a library, a reading and reflection area, a visiting scholars program and more space for the Books of Lives & Legacies — to which scores have already contributed $100 each to honor an influential woman in their lives. They’re also talking about a tribute to the mill, built in 1844 by two abolitionists who signed the 1848 Declaration of Sentiments, calling for women’s right to vote.

We want the new Hall to eventually be a center for great women, a gathering place where people can take inspiration from the stories of the inductees and debate the issues of yesterday and today,” Ryder said.

While fundraising takes time, which can be frustrating, Ryder sees a silver lining: Technological advancements since the Hall opened in 1969 mean the new site will have interactive exhibits and other features that couldn’t have been imagined years ago. Grant money already secured will pay for digitization, the recording and display of inductees’ oral histories in a manner accessible to visitors, she said.

Central to the arts room at the current Hall is a modestly interactive diorama of a community with buildings and items related to various honorees. An accompanying notebook challenges visitors to match the numbered sites in the display to a woman in the Hall. This is where school children, in particular, can enjoy seeing thimble-height models of Amelia Earhart on the wing of an airplane, Rosa Parks sitting atop a bus and swimmer Gertrude Ederle suspended in a polymer pool.

Items exhibited elsewhere in the gallery include astronaut Eileen Collins’ spacesuit, an Amelia Earhart scarf that astronaut Sally Ride carried into space, and the Ontario County Courthouse bench where Susan B. Anthony sat when she was prosecuted for voting in the 1872 presidential election.

The increased exhibit space will mean more room for artifacts that are now in storage.

It will also give us the opportunity to be more aggressive in getting more memorabilia,” Ryder says. “We’d love to have more of the nice things we have on display.”

The completed project is expected to become a major tourist destination and an anchor for economic development in the Finger Lakes and Rochester region.

I think the new building will be more than an important historical place,” Ryder says. “We want the Hall to be recognized across the nation as a treasure and help people to understand the significance of Seneca Falls and the impact of women locally and globally.”