The George and Rebecca Barnes Foundation’s purpose is to advance and disseminate knowledge about the historic 1853 Barnes Mansion and its place in the history of Central New York through educational seminars, tours, and other programs highlighting the importance of this historic residence to the Underground Railroad, the Freedom Trail, and the Abolitionist Movement. The Foundation is also responsible for owning, maintaining, and preserving this historic residence located at 930 James Street in the City of Syracuse, New York, and the associated owned lands and grounds.
The Mansion was built by George Barnes, a lawyer, industrialist, and entrepreneur, who had a social conscience. Along with other prominent Syracusans, such as the Sedgwicks, Wilkinsons, Amoses, and Hiscocks, he paved the way for change that can be felt today. He and his wife, Rebecca, lived in their home and raised their family there and were active with the Syracuse Orphan Society, and had many gatherings for the children in the gardens that once surrounded this beautiful home.
Born in Tenterden Kent County England, in 1827, George Barnes came to Syracuse in 1844 and studied law in the firm of Wilkinson and Bagg. John Wilkinson was President of the Syracuse and Utica Railroad and an organizer of what became the New York Central Railroad in 1853. Barnes became a major player in two lucrative professions: The law and railroads. Through these businesses, he became friends with Charles B. Sedgwick. In 1851, he joined the law firm of Sedgwick and Andrews.
Wilkinson’s orphaned niece, Rebecca Heermans, lived with the Wilkinson family and, in 1849, Rebecca married George Barnes. In 1853, they built their new Italianate villa on James Street Hill, once known as Swampy Foot Street Hill, near the homes of their friends, the Wilkinsons, and Sedgwicks. Frank Colvin Sedgwick and Thomas Heermans Barnes, sons of the Sedgwick and Barnes families, became inseparable friends. Both tragically drowned in 1862. (Journal, April 19, 1862)
This trio of families formed a core group of Underground Railroad supporters. All three of the men served as members of the thirteen-person Vigilance Committee appointed for Syracuse on October 4, 1850. (Loguen, 395) George Barnes signed a call for a mass convention to be held in the Syracuse City Hall on October 14, 1851 “to take into consideration the Principles of the American Government and the extent to which they are trampled underfoot by the Fugitive Slave Law.” Barnes and Sedgwick contributed bail money for those indicted as a result of the Jerry Rescue. George Barnes, with others, signed bail for $2000 each for a group of three white men. Barnes also signed bail for $4000 for William Thompson, an African American. Sedgwick served as legal counsel. (Standard, October 16 and 21, 1851)
In succeeding years, George Barnes continued his anti-slavery work. The family held anti-slavery meetings in their library at 930 James St. Judging from Barnes’ participation in anti-slavery meetings, as reported in local newspapers. In March 1854, he signed a call for a meeting to support the rescue of a freedom seeker in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Standard, March 20, 1854) In April 1854, he was one of the Directors of a newly-formed City Anti-Slavery Society. (Religious Records, April 13, 1854) The following July, he was one of several hundred Syracuse men to issue a call for a convention to appoint local delegates to a state-wide convention opposed to the Kansas-Nebraska Act. (Standard, July 31, 1854)
After a brief period in Cincinnati, he returned to Syracuse and became the founder and first president of the Syracuse State Bank and the Trust and Deposit Company of Onondaga.
George and Rebecca Barnes’ James Street house was a gathering place for such notables as Rev. Samuel Joseph May (who actually presided over the marriage of George and Rebecca); Garrett Smith; Elizabeth Cady Stanton and her husband, Henry.
Both George and Rebecca Barnes were also lifelong supporters of the Syracuse Orphan Asylum.
George Barnes died in 1892. Rebecca Barnes died in 1894. The couple had three children, but only Mary Elizabeth, known as Bessie, survived to adulthood: John died at 11 months old, and 11-year-old Thomas drowned playing with a small boat in a pond on Dewitt Street.
Bessie inherited the home and she and her husband, attorney Frank Hiscock – who eventually served as the chief justice of the New York State of Appeals – remodeled the home in the Greek Colonial Revival style in the 1890s and added the back half of the home.
When Frank died LeMoyne College rented The Mansion and its first classes were held here while their existing Salt Springs Road campus was being built. The Mansion again changed hands when the Corinthian Club, a popular private women’s club, moved in in 1949. They lovingly cared for The Mansion for nearly 70 years, before deeding it to the newly-formed George & Rebecca Barnes.
The Mansion is best known as the former home of the Corinthian Club a national organization of which Syracuse was the largest chapter. It was the late 1940s when community-minded women in Syracuse decided the city should have a women’s club. The Manufacturers’ Association was particularly interested in a place for members’ wives to entertain and meet wives of executives moving into the area.
The club was organized in 1949, with its purpose to unite members with mutual interests in civic affairs, art, education, music literature, science, and business. Its members swelled to 1,200 women in its heyday. It directed its attention to the problems of aging and made a community impact with its Wagon Wheel program for senior citizens, debuting in 1951.
The group also ran fundraisers and classes, with much of the money raised going into renovations or decorations for the home, or for community initiatives.
The Corinthians turned The Mansion over to the George and Rebecca Barnes Foundation, established to preserve The Mansion on James and to educate people about its important role in our history.
The Mansion is a stop on the CNY Freedom Trail, is registered as a National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom site, and is on the National Register of Historic Places.