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Currents--University of Rochester newspaper

Patrick Barry House: Provost and family bring new life to a Rochester landmark

Photos: Brandon Vick

By Susan Hagen

In 1855, when Patrick Barry chose to build an Italian-style villa at 692 Mt. Hope Avenue, the astute businessman not only selected an architectural design that was all the rage for well-heeled Victorians, but one that was practical as well. From the mansion’s third-story octagonal tower, Barry could look out in every direction over the 650-acre botanical nursery he had founded and that was, at the time, the continent’s largest supplier of trees and shrubs.

Today, as part of the newly restored residence for University Provost Ralph Kuncl and his wife, Nancy Kuncl, that same tower is once again treating the house’s residents and their visitors to delightful views. Within weeks of moving in last November, the Kuncls began a tradition of sharing the historic house with groups from the University and the community, including trips to the tower to watch the downtown fireworks on New Year’s Eve and to enjoy views of the estate’s eight acres of perennial gardens later in the year. But no one is more enchanted with the tiny rooftop room than the Kuncls’ three-year-old granddaughter, who dons special attire before ascending the stairs. Says Nancy Kuncl, “Like most little girls, she likes to be the fairytale princess and that is her castle tower.”

Largely shuttered for the last nine years, the Patrick Barry House is again full of both life and light. While painstakingly protecting the historic integrity of the Rochester landmark, the Kuncls have rejuvenated the interior with a less-is-more approach. They replaced dark floral wallpaper with a yellow color scheme in the main parlors, highlighting the original intricately painted plaster reliefs on the 13-foot ceilings. Heavy drapes came down, allowing light to stream through the grand arched windows, and wall to wall carpet was stripped away to reflect the beauty of hardwood flooring. The new kitchen, equipped for the demands of entertaining, was the touch that finally made the house feel like a home, instead of a house museum, says Nancy Kuncl, who ran a catering business for a decade. Virtually all of the work was completed by University craftspeople.

Designed by Gervase Wheeler, a prominent 19th-century English architect, the rose brick and limestone mansion is considered one of the best examples of the Victorian Italian villa style in the country, according to Cynthia Howk, architectural research coordinator at the Landmark Society of Western New York. It was designated a city landmark in 1970 and is part of the Mt. Hope/Highland Ave. Historic District that is listed at the federal, state, and local levels. The 16-room mansion boasts eight carved marble fireplaces, 11-foot faux grained doors, original gas chandeliers now wired for electricity, and numerous collections of portraits, furniture, silver, dishes, glassware, and linens from the Barry family. On the grounds, scores of rare specimen trees are a living legacy of the Ellwanger and Barry Nursery.

It is the holistic preservation of the home and its contents that makes the Patrick Barry House the historic landmark it is, which was possible because of its long-term residence by Harriet Barry Leisching during her 91 years of life and the active stewardship by the University.

The house was given to the University in 1962 by descendants of Patrick Barry. It initially served as the residence of former University President Robert Sproull, and from 1984 to 1999 was the home of former Provost Brian Thompson and his family. The provost’s wife, Joyce Thompson, designed and planted the extensive perennial gardens on the grounds and the Thompson family endowed the gardens to ensure their maintenance. On June 30, the gardens were officially dedicated to Joyce Thompson in her memory.

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