Houghton House

September 1st, 2023

Every building tells a story. Originally constructed as a residence, over the years Houghton House has been a private school, an inn, and a college dorm among other things. Today it’s home to Hobart and William Smith Colleges’ Art and Architecture Department and two art galleries. Below are some highlights from Houghton House’s history.

Walnut Hill School For Boys

  • The first house onsite was built in 1836 by brewer Andrew Burns.
  • From 1852-1875, the property served as the Walnut Hill School for Boys. Day and boarding students attended three 16-week classes. Even after the school closed Walnut Hill continued as the property’s name into the 1940s.
  • In 1880, William King Jr. of Buffalo purchased the Walnut Hill property. He demolished the original residence and constructed the house that stands onsite today. Other changes King made included installing the current driveway off South Main Street, constructing various service buildings, and creating a deer park. Once completed, Walnut Hill served as the King family’s summer home.
  • During the summer of 1912, William King’s widow Helen opened the house as a resort called the King’s Inn. With 12 guest rooms, the inn boasted of a lakeview and modern conveniences like an automobile garage. The inn operated for just one summer.
  • In 1913, Helen Hall Houghton purchased the property for her and her second husband Professor Charles Vail (Hobart English professor, librarian, and registrar). She made significant changes to the house and grounds, including adding a carriage house and sunken garden, enlarging the property from 13 to 50 acres, and turning the back of the house into the front entrance.
  • In 1943, Helen Hall Houghton’s family gave the house, carriage house, and surrounding land to Hobart and William Smith Colleges. From 1943 to 1970 Houghton House served as the dorm for over forty William Smith students. Over the years various academic departments have also been based in Houghton House, including art and music.
Group photo of the attendees at an event at Walnut Hill (now Houghton House)

King Family clam bake at Walnut Hill.

On September 20, join Historic Geneva for an evening at Houghton House. Explore the first two floors of the building. Listen to a talk by Historic Geneva Curator John Marks on Houghton House’s history. View the 2023 HWS Department of Art and Architecture faculty exhibition. The event will run from 6 to 8 p.m. Appetizers and desserts will be served with a cash bar. Tickets are $30 per person. For tickets call 315-789- 5151 or purchase online. Proceeds from the event benefit Historic Geneva.

5 responses to “Houghton House”

  1. Charlie Bauder says:

    I enjoyed this article and learn a great deal that I didn’t know about Houghton House.

  2. Inga-Mai Larsson-Kovach says:

    I enjoyed reading the history of the Houghton House.Thank you.

  3. Sharon Best says:

    I was interested to learn that Andrew Burns who built the house I currently own at 859 S Main also built a house on the property now known as Houghton House.
    I first visited HWS in the fall of 1957 when I stayed in my boyfriend’s sister’s room in Houghton House as a guest on Fall Weekend. It was the beginning of my long relationship with the Colleges.

  4. Laurie MacCallum Rayner ‘80 says:

    There were many reasons to study art and major in Art History at William Smith and Hobart, but the joy of walking from campus to Houghton House in all seasons to sit in the dark and view art was certainly one,

  5. Kenneth W. Boynton, III says:

    I am looking for pictures and or descriptions of the plantings in Helen Hall Houghton’s sunken garden. Can anyone please help me?

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