Knox Farm State Park, whose deterioration has long sparked public frustration over its wasted potential, has quietly been getting a makeover.
The state, which bought the Knox family’s summer estate for $5.1 million in 2000, has struggled to take care of the 633-acre park in the face of budget woes.
But now, little by little, the “to do” list seems to be getting tackled. Signs of progress include:
• A major investment in the main house that is being booked for events, including redoing the electrical system to the house and a guest house. “It’s a significant improvement in the park after we had a [power] failure earlier this year,” said Mark Thomas, western district director of New York State Parks.
• A new roof on the Audubon Building that houses park programming. “It’s a sheep barn, getting a new roof probably this fall or spring. The money is there for it,” Thomas said.
• Continuing work to repair the stone wall along Route 16. “There are sections that are still very bad and there are sections that we’ve repaired. It’s ongoing,” Thomas said.
• Masonry work has been done on some of the buildings’ foundations and will continue.
• Horse trails are open and repairs are going on throughout buildings at the park, as well as to barn doors.
“There’s been a significant increase in the amount of attention on Knox Park,” Aurora Town Supervisor Jolene Jeffe said. “We’re just pleased with the attention it has been receiving.”
The state also is putting out a request for proposals for a long-term, year-round concessions agreement to operate the park’s stables. The stables – formerly run by Darren Chiacchia, a former Olympic equestrian from Springville – have not been in operation for about two years.
Thomas is thrilled to see things turning around at the park, which is chock-full of pastures, wetlands, meadows and woodlands. It also boasts several barns, soccer, polo and equestrian fields - and a vacant and non-winterized 14,400-square-foot, 12-bedroom Knox summer house that needs work.
He well remembers two years ago, when the park seemed destined to close as a casualty of the state budget crisis, before local outcries convinced the state to reverse its decision.
“In 2010, it was supposed to close, but [Gov. Andrew M.] Cuomo ordered all the parks open,” Thomas said. “I’d consider it to be a turnaround at Knox. I think it’s moving in the right direction. We’re getting a lot of help from a lot of organizations, which I think is key to Knox’s success. We have a lot of partnerships that are making it work.”
For instance, the nonprofit Friends of Knox Park, led by Seymour Knox IV, spent $980 to buy 21 sugar maple trees this fall in the park, said Peggy Cooke, a board member and treasurer of the group. State crews helped plant the trees.
State parks crews from Allegany, Niagara Falls and other Buffalo Niagara Region parks this past summer took down hazardous dead limbs and trees throughout the park, many of them along the inside of the stone wall along Route 16, and did a significant amount of cleanup.
Last spring, the park secured a spot on the “Seven to Save” Endangered Properties List of the New York State Preservation League. Preservationists heralded that announcement as part of a larger effort to highlight the poor condition of some of the park’s buildings and grounds.
Now, actual improvements seem to be happening, even if in baby steps. The work comes at a time when the Friends of Knox Park group is gearing up to operate the main house and rent it out for weddings, family gatherings, parties and fundraisers. The state said it has finalized an agreement with the group to book events at the house.
“That is in place and is moving forward,” Thomas said. “We’re very excited to have them as a partner and had a successful summer concert with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra there.”
Friends of Knox volunteers are heading up repairs to the mansion’s interior woodwork, which is cracking and peeling, as well as to its plaster and drywall. “Some of the damage is because the house has not had climate control over the years,” Cooke said.
So far, the group has booked five weddings at the mansion for next summer.
“We’re continuing to show the house, so we would expect to book 10 weddings for next summer,” Cooke said, noting that it also is being shown for holiday parties. “We’re thrilled the house is being used.”
Thomas also praised the efforts of the Town of Aurora.
“The town has been a tremendous municipal partner for years. The town has helped with snowplowing in 2010, and when we were in some down times, they stepped up and helped us out and we’re pleased to continue working with them,” he said.