Restore It and They Will Come

by Sheldon Ocker

Imagine Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Richfield Village being in the same discussion.  It seems like a stretch, but Richfield could soon have something in common with two of the world’s most visited cities.

In the foreseeable future, and on a much smaller scale Richfield, might be on its way to becoming a destination.

Not in a Ritz-Carlton, Gucci sort of way, but within Richfield Heritage Preserve are several historically relevant, enjoyable attractions perfectly suited to visitors.

Richfield Heritage Preserve contains more than 300 acres of tree-shaded hiking and bridal trails, creeks and lakes, interesting flora and fauna plus several structures of importance in understanding the history of the region and the nation.

Visitors have already been enjoying the park on foot and on horseback.

The former Crowell-Hilaka Girl Scout camp was purchased by the Richfield Joint Recreation District in 2011. Since then, the RJRD board, with a huge assist from the volunteer group, Friends of Richfield Heritage Preserve, has been trying to save and restore the natural and structural assets of the park.

Among the buildings being rehabbed are the Oviatt House, Amity House, Garfield House, Kirby’s Mill, the North House, the Lodge and a stable. The Oviatt House has been designated as a stop on the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Trail, and the park is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Heritage Preserve reportedly was host to 250,000 visitors last year for weddings and other events at the Lodge, park programs and equestrians and hikers. 

With more than 70 scheduled Lodge events in 2023 generating revenue, the RJRD board decided to renovate Amity House so people attending a function at the Lodge had a nearby place to stay overnight. Amity House can also be rented out for small events, such as baby showers and birthday parties.

Architect to the rescue

Corey Ringle was well on her way to becoming an architect. But before she could design the next Severance Hall or Terminal Tower, she had to commit to 80 hours of community service, fortuitously at Crowell-Hilaka Girl Scout camp, which she attended in her youth.

“I was super excited to come back and teach young Girl Scouts why there should be more women in architecture,’’ she said. “I thought this would be a great setting for it [enlightening girls]. It inspired me. Why wouldn’t it inspire the next generation?’’   

What Ringle never imagined is that years later she would be heading up the restoration of the Amity House, using volunteers skilled in the building trades.

The park property was originally settled by the Oviatt family in the early 1800s. In 1919, they sold the southern half of it to James Kirby, who held 160 patents and was the inventor of the Kirby vacuum cleaner.

He constructed many of the buildings now being restored. Eventually, the northern and southern parts of the property were merged to create the Girl Scout camp.

Ringle, president of Friends, said it has taken 8,000 hours of skilled laborers’ time and eight months on the calendar to renovate the Amity House.

“We have a group of 15 volunteers that have consistently come to help,’’ she said. “The only things left to do are the exterior of the house and the second-floor bathrooms.’’

Ringle is right there with the other 14 volunteers, whom she was anxious to name. So here they are: Gary LaGuardia, Bill Leas, Nancy Kanile, Sandy Norris, Doug Wisneiski, Dean and Polly Bowman, Larry Campbell, Bill Ridgeway, Mark Parker, Terry Duncan, Elizabeth Reboudo, plus Pieter and Betty van der Meer.

Restoring the Amity House is no slap-on-some-paint and vacuum-the-carpet kind of project. Among the tasks were stabilizing the porch, ripping out and replacing flooring, removing ceiling tiles, re-working the plumbing and electrical systems, repairing plaster walls, sanding and painting walls, installing light fixtures, switches and outlets, redoing the drainage around the building – and that is the short list.

“We have about 200 Friends members,’’ Ringle said. ”Around 50 are active, and the others are very generous.’’

Once the Amity House is finished, the Friends will continue work on Kirby’s Mill, a water wheel that manufactured electricity for Kirby’s adjacent workshop. Ringle said it will be another two years before the mill is restored.

The Friends also are restoring the Garfield House, which Kirby built as a dance hall whose floor bounces to the feet of dancers because it rests atop streetcar springs. They will also continue their invasive species and latrine cleaning work.

Another group of park volunteers have restored the first floor, roof and exterior siding of the Oviatt House. When their restoration is finished, the building will function as a museum.

The speed with which these projects are completed depends on the Friends’ access to money raised by the RJRD board and the volunteers, themselves. The RJRD is hoping to pass an operating levy in November that will generate $210,000 per year. ∞

Not only does Corey Ringle guide all of the Friends’ projects, she manages materials and supplies, oversees compliance issues and frequently pulls up her sleeves and works along with the volunteer crews. In this photo she is wood that had rotted from water seeping into the building. Photo by S. Norris.

Peter van der Meer(right) replaces rotted
wood on a window frame as Doug
Wisnieski helps. Wisnieski replaced most
of the plumbing and wiring in the house.
Photo submitted.

Water had seeped into the dining room
windows and rotted the wood. Volunteers
have worked to stabilize and seal up
all of the buildings in the park. Photos

Dean and Polly Bowman sanded most
of the floors in both stories of the house

Volunteers restored the kitchen in the Amity
House to be ready for use.

Photo (main/on cover): Close to 20,000 hours of volunteer labor have gone into restoring two century buildings in the Richfield Heritage Preserve. Pictured are the living and dining rooms of the Amity House and before and after photos of the Oviatt House. Photos provided by Friends of RHP, Oviatt House 1836 or taken by S. Serdinak.