by Chris Clemens
I’ve driven the stretch of Route 96 that passes right through Ovid, New York a few times over the years. Each time I’ve taken note of the town and sort of noticed some intriguing sights, but it wasn’t until I found some photos on social media of some finer details that I became more interested. Huge thanks to my pal Christopher Brandt of the My Perfect Little Money Pit blog for posting those photos and turning me onto a wonderful little piece of history, architecture and art tucked in to one of the small towns in the Finger Lakes. Seeing them online totally inspired me to drive out myself and see it in person.
The Three Bears
The affectionately named ‘Three Bears’ are unique in that they are believed to be the only three adjacent Greek-Revival style public buildings that remain standing in the entire United States. Their small, medium and large sizes earned them the nickname long ago, and they’re still often cited as an outstanding piece of local history. The largest of the three buildings served as the courthouse and the smallest as the county clerk’s office when they were both built in 1845. Later in 1859, the ‘Mama Bear’ was wedged between the two originals and became the courthouse as it outgrew the smallest building. Over time, other offices outgrew their spaces and each building has since hosted a long list of different of municipal branches, including the Ovid Free Library that was founded in 1899.
Ovid Municipal Building
Down the hill and across the street from the Three Bears you’ll find Lost Kingdom Brewery and Firehouse Distillery. With a modern offering of booze and spirits, those names are a clever nod to the property’s history. At one time the property was occupied by a church that was later replaced with the present structure, which you’ll notice looks a heck of a lot like a firehouse. This building was designed by an architect from Geneva, New York named John C. Ehrlich. They first broke ground on August 4, 1958 and completed it later that same year. The $316,950 municipal building was donated by Mr. Walter Ford, a retired mathematics professor from Harvard whose wife Edith had grown up in Ovid. At the time, the charitable gift was unprecedented for a town with a population of only 650.
The municipal building housed a mayor’s office, village and town records along with an office for the fire chief with an attached garage for the fire trucks. The facade and sides are pink limestone imported from Minnesota while the rear of the building is a matching pink brick. A 30 foot tall clock tower gracing the front of the building is in itself a work of art. Today, it’s reminiscent of mid-century modern architecture but at the time, it was pretty radical for a small, aging town in the Finger Lakes.
Edith B. Ford Memorial Library
While the municipal building was being imagined and constructed, the Ovid Free Library was quickly running out of space inside the Mama Bear building up on the hill. Ford commissioned Ehrlich once again to solve that problem.
The historic home of Martha Rafferty once sat in the spot where the current Edith B. Ford Library sits, perfectly between the old municipal building and the Three Bears. Coincidentally, the top floor of the Rafferty home had previously housed a printing press that cranked out the local newspaper after having previously served as the Ovid Town Hall. After Rafferty’s passing, the aging home lay badly in need of renovations. Ford and the town saw fit to replace it with what is possibly one of the most uniquely aesthetic libraries in all of the Finger Lakes.
Using the same pink limestone that the Ehrlich used in the Municipal Building, the library at quick glance looks commonplace and just simply similar to its older sibling across the street. But if you stop to look closer, you’ll find that the library is anything but ordinary.
The straight lines and symmetry are pretty obvious at first glance, but while approaching the building you’ll notice smaller details that were included in the design that really make it stand out. The bevel-like underbelly to the roofline creates a visually striking contrast to the perfectly flat roof, but you’ll find that the design continues on the ceiling inside. Those same lines seemingly interrupt what would be a flat, top-edge to the windows in the top part of the exterior walls, each of which is joined by stained glass art. It seems uninviting at first to have windows that you can’t peer in or out of, but from inside the library, it’s obvious that the window design was meant to let in tons of really beautiful, natural light.
A quote from Tolstoi is embedded in the stonework above the entrance, which is preceded by tile work that begins a visual storytelling of print publishing. Beginning with a depiction of first making cave wall drawings, then stone tablets that ultimately evolve to a printed book, the storyline continues inside the library to surround readers with an illustrated history of sharing printed information. The stained glass windows reveal even more from inside with the natural light illuminating them–each is a brightly colored homage to great thinkers and writers like Socrates, Darwin and Einstein.
The Edith B. Ford Memorial Library is small in comparison to most, but the architectural uniqueness and its legacy in a small Finger Lakes town makes it an spot you should definitely place on your exploring bucket list.
Resources and Additional Reading
Edith B. Ford Memorial Library website
Edith B. Ford Memorial Library on Facebook
“New Municipal Building Nears Completion” May 19, 1959 – The Geneva Times
“Village Building Going Up” June 14, 1964 – Rochester Democrat & Chronicle
“Ovid’s Three Historic Bears Still Going Strong” June 17, 2012 – Finger Lakes Times
Seneca County Courthouse Complex at Ovid on Wikipedia
“The Three Bears” on Seneca County website
Chris Clemens is the Founder/Publisher of Exploring Upstate. From his hometown in Rochester, he spends as much time as possible connecting with the history, culture, and places that make Upstate New York a land of discovery. Follow him on Twitter at @cpclemens