Backgrounder - The Portageville Chapel Building Restoration Project

The goal of the Portageville Chapel restoration project is to create a private retreat where organists can renew their artistry and explore the splendor of the Genesee Valley in Western New York. The chapel is located one quarter mile from the entrance to Letchworth State Park. The historic building, once a Universalist church, will be fully restored and equipped with a comprehensive two-manual pipe organ and a nine-foot Knabe grand piano. Free concerts will be offered to the community periodically during the summer months.

Is this a not-for-profit organization?
Yes. Contributions are tax-deductible. Donations may be made payable to The Portageville Chapel. Or, interested parties can donate online at

Is the building on the National Register of Historic Places?
Yes. Part of our early research involved searching for documents that proved the importance of the church from the period between 1841 and 1857, when Portageville was a vital part of canal and railroad development. Other documents showed the efforts of local residents to preserve the building through most of its 166-year history.

Is the chapel affiliated with any religious organization?
No. The name "The Portageville Chapel" is derived from the town and the character of the building. It is a retreat for professional organists, not only those who are employed by religious organizations.

What is the scope of the building restoration?
Major projects to the building itself include restoring the nine original windows, repairing and repainting the interior and exterior, putting on a new roof, building up the grading around the basement and repairing two sections of foundation, restoring the steps and front entrances, restoring the mechanics of the original bell, and restoring water and septic to the building.

Who is leading this organization?
The executive director of The Portageville Chapel is Timothy Smith. Smith holds degrees in organ performance from Wheaton College, Northwestern University and The Boston Conservatory, and has 18 years experience in organ building, service work, and consulting. The Portageville Chapel consists of four officers: Helen Smith, President; Barbara Hunt, Secretary; John Novak, Treasurer; and Jeanne Haber, Marketing Director. The Advisory Board includes Randolph and Edla Ann Bloom, MA; Michael Herzog, OH; and Judith Congdon, NY. The advisory board and officers will meet at least once yearly in Portageville, NY, to inspect the property and review the mission of The Portageville Chapel, making recommendations for improvement as needed.

What funding do you need?
As of August, 2012 we have raised start-up funds resulting in the purchase of the building and a half acre of land with it. Bills for the grading, roof, structural repairs, ceiling repairs, interior and exterior painting, window restoration, organ purchase and organ installation have all been paid with the exception of one outstanding loan for $30,000. Additional funding is needed to protect the new windows, restore the front steps, restore the iron fence, repair the mechanics of the tower bell, and restore the tower and spire. Ongoing operating expenses are covered by the fees for renting the space.

What is your strategy for promoting and renting the facility?
The American Guild of Organists (AGO) is a well-established and closely knit community of some 21,000 organists nationwide. We will be able to reach our entire market through AGO channels. Long term, we anticipate repeat business and a steady income from visitor references. We will also maintain connections with organ programs at local universities, holding periodic concerts in the chapel.

Who is your target audience?
We are creating this facility for organists who have been working professionally for a number of years. While there are organizations that offer extended education classes, the Portageville Chapel is an opportunity to grow from within. A stay at The Portageville Chapel will allow an organist to explore new music and rekindle their love of the instrument through uninterrupted practice in a private setting.

Who is leading the restoration?
The restoration is being led by Mathew Beardsley of Fillmore, New York, and David Lewis, of Holden, Massachusetts. Both are expert in 19th century preservation carpentry. Local Amish tradesmen were contracted to replace the roof. We have also employed local contractors for painting, general carpentry and utilities.

Who installed the organ?
The installation was completed as a cooperative between Timothy Smith and Jack Muller of Croton, Ohio. Michael Herzog, of Columbus, Ohio visits Portageville every year to tune the organ.

What is the make of the organ?
We selected a 1982 Schantz organ, for its musical versatility and mechanical reliability. The organ will receive a check-up each spring and periodically throughout the season to ensure that everything is in full working order for each guest.

When will the chapel be available for rent?
The Chapel is available from the first of May until the end of October, a week at a time. The rental period is Wednesday at noon to Tuesday at noon. For more information, please call Helen Smith at 614. 551.7977.

What is your “Green” policy?
The building will be closed each winter and will not be heated. Free of dry central heating, the original plaster has seasoned well. The organ also adjusts well to natural (gradual) changes in temperature.

How large is the property and where is it located?
The property is just under an acre and the church faces north. The church is situated on NY 19-A at the intersection of NY436, about 1/4 mile south of the Portageville entrance to Letchworth State Park.

Can you tell me more about the building itself?
Built in 1841, the architectural style of the building is rural Greek Revival. Nine original clear-glass Gothic windows are among its most notable features. The chapel measures 43' long, 34 wide, and about 20' high. Its seating capacity was about 225 with all the pews installed. The bell tower, with elegant pilasters, is intact with its original bell, which has a rich deep tone. While the original spire was taken down in the summer of 1951, it can be completely restored from photographs that were preserved by the Wyoming County Historical Society. Restoring the spire will require additional funding.

What makes this building worthy of restoration?
This building is a prime example of the one-room meetinghouses that were the center of religious and social interaction during the mid-nineteenth century. Its architecture and construction details are a tribute to the skill and craftsmanship of Western New York pioneers. From the basement, you can look up at the 50' long, rough-hewn timbers that support the building, and know for certain they will look just as sturdy 200 years from now. Standing in the center of the room, surrounded by the light from all nine windows, you can understand how this simple building was able to generate a sense of awe and spiritual excitement.

But perhaps the best reason for restoring the building is captured in these words from John Wilson, former Wyoming County Historian:

“It stands in the most historic spot in the county and only a stones throw from Letchworth Park and its large number of visitors. Its styling is an unusually fine example of early American church structures. The floor is slanted from the back to the front with family box pews, complete with doors. Nowhere outside of New England can one find a spot so eloquently expressing the sense of history as one finds in this wayside church in the little village on the banks of the Genesee."

How will restoration of the building impact the community?
Restoring a building that is the focal point of a small community can lead to community revitalization. Conversely, abandoning a building with high visibility leads to more neglect in the surrounding area.

J. R. Cotton, associate director of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, defines historical preservation in the 21st century as a movement away from the preservation of isolated buildings once owned by the rich and famous and more towards “adaptive reuse of abandoned buildings, an effective "smart-growth" strategy, economic development, heritage tourism, or the protection of cultural landscapes.”

The Portageville Chapel project can be justified by any or all of these criteria.

1. Adaptive Reuse
Creating an organist's retreat from an abandoned church certainly qualifies as adaptive reuse. From the exterior, the building will look much as it did when it was built in 1841, with careful restoration of the original clear glass windows, wood siding, bell tower and spire. Only the inside will be repurposed as a rehearsal hall, and, even there, everything will be done to preserve the experience of the original space. The floors will remain slanted. The original pews will be repainted and reinstalled. The choir loft in the back of the church, which was changed into a “crying room” during the ‘50s, will be restored to its original configuration.

2. Smart Growth Strategy
Because the building is situated at the triangle where three roads enter the town, it is the logical place to begin any revitalization effort. In fact, because we purchased the adjacent property and removed a decaying trailer and lean-to, the restoration of this single site will change the entire character of the entrance to the town.

3. Economic Impact
While we cannot assert that restoring the building will improve the local economy, by the principle “care begets care” and “neglect begets neglect” it cannot help but have a positive impact on the town itself. Nearby, there are several other key buildings on the market, structurally sound and waiting to be returned to their former state when Portageville was the stuff of postcards — described as one of “the most scenic intersections in the state of New York .”

4. Heritage Tourism
Restoring the chapel is also justified by its proximity to the entrance to Letchworth State Park, a place of exquisite natural beauty. The park attracts over a million visitors a year from around the world. Restoring the entrance to Portageville will improve the experience of everyone who drives the quarter mile between the south exit from the park and the nearest gas station.

5. Protection of Cultural Landscapes
Letchworth State Park exists because, in the late nineteen century, William Pryor Letchworth was able to reforest a thousand acres of land stripped for lumber and prevent waterfalls from becoming power plants. It exists because he understood the restorative value of beautiful surroundings and was intent on sharing them with as many people as possible. Even in his factories in Buffalo, he encouraged and made it possible for his workers to have gardens, because he believed it would make them better men.

Creating the Portageville Chapel, restoring the entrance to the town, knowing that it will be a source of pride for local residents, and hoping that it will be catalyst for more improvements honors these principles.

For more information, please contact Helen Smith at 614.551.7977 or at