Historic Diefendorf Hall Renovation Project and the Friends of Fort Plain
Throughout its history Diefendorf Hall has made a significant contribution to the character of this old Erie Canal village. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places and at the center of Fort Plain’s Historic District, it continues to provide a distinctive sense of place for local residents and visitors alike.
Diefendorf Hall, as it was known, is an Italianate structure alongside a row of similar commercial buildings on Main Street. It was built by John I. Diefendorf, only feet away from the Erie Canal. Diefendorf Inn, next door, also served as the family home. Both of these buildings remain as prominent community icons.
Diefendorf Hall is reported to have been used as a gristmill, a distillery, a mercantile, storage space for packet boat cargo with a “music hall” housed on the second floor. Second story music halls were very prominent in Erie Canal villages and used as social centers for canal travelers and local residents. The second story space at Diefendorf Hall is thought to have been used for such events while the first floor was used for shops of various kinds.
The building is also historically significant because it hosted Women’s Rights Movement leaders, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton on March 25, 1867. Mark Twain, who visited Fort Plain in 1868, is thought to have spoken here.
In the early 1900’s Diefendorf Hall was remodeled into a theatre, removing the second floor and creating a mezzanine area with a large stage at the far end of the first floor. This became the Rialto Theatre. It hosted vaudeville shows, musicals and dramatic productions, along with early picture shows.
After sitting idle for another decade, a front page story in the Fort Plain Standard, Thursday, June 15, 1933, cheers the purchase of the building by the American Legion- Auxiliary. This local undertaking was described as “one of the most important projects to be put into action in this community in recent years”. It was described as a “splendid local project affording ample room” with an auditorium to seat 500, a stage, kitchen, additional rooms, and considerable lawn in the rear of the building.
Until the early 1960’s, the building was used as a center for social and cultural activities hosting entertainers, speakers, banquets, community dances and public events. Some longtime residents of the village still remember the active social calendar at the American Legion building on Main Street.
As the economic fortunes of the village turned, the building experienced several other transformations housing various retail stores on the ground floor through the 1990’s. Later, it remained empty and neglected until it became a community project for the Friends of Fort Plain group in 2008.
The Friends of Fort Plain, a group of community volunteers, envision Diefendorf Hall as a Village Center for local residents and visitors. It will include a welcome center with a free wi-fi.
“Waiting for the parade, Main Street, downtown Fort Plain.”
Vision for Diefendorf Hall
Visit us at Diefendorf Hall where we are renovating a downtown Erie Canal Era commercial building/music hall. We are raising funds to reinvest in this neglected building on Main Street in an effort to restore our downtown and promote economic activity in our community. We are working on foundation repairs after the Otsquago Creek flood of 2013. Much of the foundation was washed aside and basement flooding lasted nearly 4 days. Waiting for the structural repairs to open Diefendorf Hall to travelers, guests and community activities. While we wait, we continue to make plans for the renovated Diefendorf Hall. A local artisans’ shop and public assembly space will be available for residents and visitors, alike. In the large space, we plan to install the façade of the original Erie Canal Lock grocery acquired from the New York State Museum, an artifact that traces the roots of the village to local shop keepers on the Erie Canal. We are looking forward to having visitors make Diefendorf Hall a destination. Located on Main Street and en route to Cooperstown, it is an ideal place to stop. From the Canalway Bikepath, head to town on River Street. Stop at Haslett Park and then on to 47 Main Street, less than a block away. It is easily visible from the corner of Canal Street and Main Street. We will provide storage space for cyclists, restroom facilities, WiFi, a rest stop, all within walking distance of groceries, bank, post office, library, public park and restaurants. Information will be available to travelers. Recommended itineraries for sights and recreational activities will also be available. Meet up with locals all too eager to tell you about stories of our area. There is much history here, dating from Native Americans, George Washington’s visit, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, Frederick Douglass, Mark Twain’s visit on his Lyceum Tour and many more notables who stopped by. The Erie Canal made villages like Fort Plain into population centers and while showing some wear and tear, there are many interesting stories to hear and places to visit.
Moving Day: The Fineour "Lock Grocery" comes back to Fort Plain
Source: Courier-Standard 2008 “Fort Plain Twenty Years Ago” (in 1988)
“An important piece of New York’s Erie Canal History was saved from oblivion when the New York State Museum salvaged an entire 19th – century building that will become part of the museum’s new exhibits on upstate New York. This is one of the oldest Erie Canal-associated buildings to be salvaged and reconstructed by a museum. It will be exhibited to show the day-to-day activities along the canal, a way of life common then and seldom portrayed now. The “Lock Grocery” in Fort Plain served passengers and crew of packet boats on New York’s Erie Canal in the 19th century as well as the local community. Located alongside the 150 year old Lock 32, one of the earliest locks constructed on the old waterway, the majestic Greek Revival building provides a window through time to the days when the Erie Canal was the main artery for trade and commerce between east and west.”
The New York State Museum returned the artifact to the Friends of Fort Plain, May 2015. The group plans to exhibit the two story façade of the Canal Store inside Diefendorf Hall as a primary source of local history.
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