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Showcasing the Penney collection Discovery Center renovation to feature historical, art holdings of renowned collector

The Niagara County historical and art holdings of renowned collector Charles Rand Penney will soon have a new home.

The renovation of the Erie Canal Discovery Center to house the new Penney Gallery is nearing completion, director Douglas Farley said.

The main result of the work -- a second-floor, 1,000-square-foot exhibition space for Penney's Niagara County collection -- is expected to be ready in the second week of May, Farley said last week.

"We've brought some boxes over [from Penney's storage space in a Lockport office building], and basically we're pulling the first exhibit," Farley said. "Our goal is to have that [material] in the building by mid-May and hopefully have the exhibit open in June."

"It will be a really soft opening," said Melissa L. Dunlap, executive director of the History Center, as the Niagara County Historical Society now prefers to be called.

She said the formal opening of the exhibition space won't occur until Aug. 20.

"We're having a gala with really expensive tickets," Dunlap said.

That dedication event, to be called the "Past, Penney and Future Gala," also will mark the Historical Society's 90th anniversary. Penney, an attorney who had lived in Lockport since 1977, was a life member and past president of the Historical Society.

"He felt we were a good match, that our collecting goals and his were very close, our concern for archival storage was equally as important to us as it was to him, and the fact that we were willing to go to the expense to create what needed to be created was important," Farley said.

So the collection wouldn't be a burden to the History Center, Penney, who never married, left an endowment. Farley said the amount isn't certain, because Penney left bequests of exact sums to other legatees, and the History Center's share is expressed as a percentage of what's left. The total value of the estate has yet to be calculated.

Other revenue will come from selling a catalog and prints of art from the collection, Farley said.

The History Center has operated the Discovery Center since it opened in 2005, but it has been only a seasonal attraction, generally from May to November.

With the addition of the Penney Gallery and the research room, the center, located in the former Hamilton House at Church and Ontario streets, will begin to stay open year-round. It opens for the season next Sunday.

Farley said the Discovery Center is projecting a 33 percent increase in attendance because of the Penney Gallery. About 25,000 people visited the center in 2010. The admission price will likely be raised from $5 to about $7 "once we get everything settled," he said.

The new mezzanine level, accessible by a newly installed staircase, was placed in what used to be the furnace room, Farley said. The furnace was moved to the third floor. The building's original stained-glass windows on the Church Street side serve as a backdrop.

The exhibition space will overlook the main entrance and the large copy of the Raphael Beck mural of the opening of the Erie Canal.

Penney, who died Aug. 1, approached Dunlap in 2008 with a proposal to donate his Niagara County collections to the History Center. Penney went public with the plan in an Oct. 20, 2009, interview with The Buffalo News.

The first boxes of material are in the Discovery Center's basement, where a new research room for the Penney collection has been installed in what was formerly a caretaker's apartment behind the gift shop. Farley said a First Presbyterian Church employee was living there until the renovation began.

The center's lease was renegotiated last fall to allow the apartment to be done away with. Since 2003, the City of Lockport has leased the building from First Presbyterian Church and in turn subleased it to the History Center, which since the renegotiation has been responsible for paying rent of $1,500 a year.

The Penney-related construction project itself has cost $339,000, all grant-funded, Farley said. The Grigg-Lewis Foundation contributed, and the Discovery Center was the first recipient of Niagara River Greenway funds outside the riverfront when a $176,025 grant was approved last year.

Steve Meyer, crew chief for R.S. Lindsay Building and Interior Finishes of Webster, said the work was made easier by the fact that his company handled the interior renovation leading up to the opening of the Discovery Center six years ago.

"Working with an old building, everything is difficult, but we do it for a living. It's what we specialize in," Meyer said. "The best part about it is, some of the stuff that had to come apart, we did it the last time. Taking apart your own stuff is priceless compared to taking apart somebody else's stuff. You know what's behind it."

The crew, working in the center for about five months, had to break through the stone wall to the outside to install a fire escape staircase on the exterior of the north side, similar to one that already existed on another side of the building.

"That added about $50,000 to the project during construction," Farley said.

To support the mezzanine, four new steel columns had to be installed down to the basement floor, and they were then wrapped in wood.

"Actually, the building could fall down and the mezzanine would stay standing," Farley joked.

Penney sent the History Center a lot more stuff than the gallery will be able to exhibit. Farley said the contents of the gallery will be rotated about three times a year.

Museumwise, formerly Upstate History Alliance, gave the History Center a $3,000 grant in March that allowed the center to hire a consultant.

"His name is Chris Clarke. He's from Rochester, he's an independent consultant, and he's going through the 5,000 items and separating them into genres for exhibition purposes, so at any given time we would have a particular genre on display," Farley said. "The first collection we're starting with would just be a kind of a potpourri of the entire collection, so people can see the breadth and depth of the entire collection, not just one aspect of it."

Penney's collection included everything from artworks to 19th century maps of Niagara County to commercial souvenirs and mementos from Lockport businesses past and present. He also had a large collection of in-house publications from the auto parts plant formerly known as Harrison Radiator.

The new exhibition will result in the creation of two part-time jobs, a curator and a librarian.

Penney's enormous collection was being spread around in the years before his death. Penney gave his entire collection of Niagara Falls-related art to the Castellani Art Museum at Niagara University, and much of his other Western New York art went to the Burchfield Art Center, now the Burchfield Penney Art Center, in Buffalo.

"Anything else by local artists that pertained to Niagara County are the ones we're receiving," Farley said. "There's a couple hundred paintings."

The documents and other paper items will be stored in special file cabinets and cases in the research room when they're not on display.

The librarian will supervise the research use of the Penney documents according to a schedule yet to be determined. Farley said researchers will be encouraged to call for appointments to make sure the material they want from the file is available. A fee will be charged for access.

"Mr. Penney did entertain a lot of research requests over the years when he had the collection," Farley said. "We're anticipating that will become even more popular now that there's public access."

Farley said the Penney collection will be of enormous interest to local history researchers.

"He was an amazing record-keeper. He probably has a file on you and me. In fact, I know he has a file on me, because he mentioned it," Farley said. "He said, 'Oh, I've been collecting on you for years.' "

Penney clipped newspapers and kept track of local events. "Anything that pertained to Niagara County, he was recording it and making, not only a mental note, but a physical note in a file," Farley said. "I haven't been able to delve into the files yet, but I know they're voluminous. We're talking thousands and thousands of files."

Farley said Penney had a heavy file on the Seven Sutherland Sisters, local women of the late 19th century who were renowned for having extremely long hair.

"There's a lot of material there from their commercial days, when they were selling hair tonic. We have a lot of their personal records, their commercial advertising and the like. So that will be popular," Farley said.

"There's items from all the local manufacturing companies, like Upson, the products and all the gadgets that they passed out throughout the years. He had fascinations with things like key chains and coat hangers. At first glance you say, 'What part of the story do they tell?' but in their entirety, when you look at all the different companies that are no longer around, and a little piece of those has been saved, it makes for quite an impressive story."

The History Center already had substantial holdings of that sort of thing. "There are a lot of things that we didn't have that are just going to make it all the better for everyone," Farley said.

The History Center has its eye on someday receiving other donations from local collectors. Farley said, "There are some private collectors out there who have some amazing items."

e-mail: tprohaska@buffnews.com

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