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RESTORATION OF HAMILTON HOUSE NEARS COMPLETION

More than 50 years have passed since the gilt mansion of a former congressman nearly went to the dogs.

This fall, if Joe Affronte and his son, Michael, have their way, it will return to a more genteel life as a bed-and-breakfast lodge with a doorway into an opulent past.

Restoration of the Hamilton House, a mansion near the middle of Ripley that once was bequeathed to the care of animals, is nearing completion in what Affronte hopes will spur even more tourism and lodging development in this town in the westernmost corner of the state.

"This is my retirement," he joked amid the clutter of the remaining repair work.

The huge mansion on Route 20 was built in 1924-25 by Charles Mann Hamilton and his society wife, Bertha Lamberton Hamilton, around the core of a partially razed Victorian house that had been built by his father in 1879.

Hamilton was an assemblyman and state senator before serving in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1913 to 1917.

With a fortune drawn from oil fields in Kansas and Oklahoma, the Hamiltons indulged a taste for travel and a penchant for dogs. A house-sized kennel near the mansion featured balustraded stairways, enclosed bunks with mattresses, open sleeping porches, carpets, heat, lights and running water.

Their house was decorated lavishly in the oriental and Egyptian themes popular in the day, with imported carpets and furniture. An "Egyptian Powder Room," off the Great Hall, even featured a black and gold Tutankhamen-type throne concealing the, er, throne.

A 99-ton roof of tricolored, thick South American slate was supported by a hidden steel framework. The main staircase is a unique design that reverses direction at a mezzanine landing, then soars seemingly unsupported over the main entrance below.

The house also has a hidden staircase. Heavy mirrored panels rise silently from the floor to hide windows and French doors. In the huge library, almost all the book shelves are concealed behind expertly crafted and matched blond mahogany paneling from Brazil.

"It's all sequenced," Affronte said, examining the grain patterns in the mahogany heartwood. "It all came from one tree -- you can follow it all around the room."

Delicate wall and ceiling paintings by artists from France grace the upstairs bedrooms.

But all of the movable furnishings are long gone. A major auction was held after Bertha Hamilton died in 1944, two years after her husband; after a series of owners and years as the town library, the house has suffered most recently from theft and vandalism in the months it stood vacant before Affronte's purchase in 1994.

Time also had taken a toll.

"The basic thing was to get the plumbing, electricity and heating back," Affronte said. "That took about seven months. Then we came in and redid a lot of the ceiling."

Now, with the help of consultant Katie Sullivan of Dolan Design Associates in Hamburg, the house is once again being furnished in Hamilton style.

The decor follows the many styles evident in surviving pictures of the Hamilton interiors.

Nearly every inch of wall space conceals a cabinet, closet or cupboard -- even down to baseboard panels that open to reveal space for bedroom slippers.

"Everywhere you look, there are places to put things," said Edward J. Patton, director of the Western New York Heritage Institute, during a house tour. "It's absolutely fascinating."

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