Onondaga Historical Association (OHA) was officially incorporated on April 29th, 1863 in the midst of the Civil War. The Charter states, “The said corporation is created for the purpose of collecting and preserving historical, genealogical, scientific and literary material” and “the buildings in which its collections shall be kept and its affairs carried on shall be located in the city of Syracuse, in the county of Onondaga.” For 155 years, OHA has continued to abide by its original charter while expanding its reach and footprint in the community.
OHA has had a number of homes during its century and a half in Syracuse. Its first was in Number 2 Corinthian Hall on North Salina Street. During that time, OHA was busy with public lectures, social and literary events, and exhibitions. In 1865 it even held a ball/fundraiser – “With a view to encourage the laudable efforts of the Onondaga Historical Association, to complete the formation of a Cabinet and Library, the undersigned gentlemen have concluded to offer to the citizens of Syracuse and vicinity, a Grand Soiree, at Wieting Hall. . . .” (Courier and Union 2/25/1865).
By 1866, OHA moved to its second home in the Clinton Block, on the western edge of Clinton Square, which provided excellent visibility for its public events and visitors. In 1871, Dr. John Wieting, an active board member of OHA, arranged for the collections of OHA to be moved to his building, the Wieting Block. However, by the mid-1870s the Association became, for the most part, publicly inactive. For a variety of reasons, including economic trouble and apparent public indifference, its exhibits and collections, which had been on display in Wieting Hall, were packed up for storage and placed in the Onondaga County Savings Bank – today’s Gridley Building – and later in the loft of the Syracuse Savings Bank building (1880s). OHA’s collection would remain in storage for over fifteen years. This difficult time in the Association’s history turned out to be a blessing in disguise. On July 19, 1881, the Wieting Block caught fire and was completely destroyed. Although the majority of its collections were safely stored away in a nearby building, OHA did not escape completely unscathed. The early records of the Association, meeting minutes, and some books were lost in the fire.
Despite the lack of public engagement, a Syracuse Standard article from February 23, 1890, praised the work of Onondaga County historians, particularly Dr. Rev. William M. Beauchamp (later OHA president), but it emphasized the need for an active historical society:
“There is a great need in Syracuse of a Historical Society, whose business it would be to collect and preserve those things that relate to our history… The fact that such a society has existed here and is now inactive or dead is no argument that such an organization might not be [re]established.”
It seems that the journalist’s plea was heard, because it was shortly after that, in the early 1890s, that there was a revival of interest in the Onondaga Historical Association. Following the 1894 County Centennial Celebrations, of which OHA was a major proponent, the collections were taken out of storage, rooms were rented in the Syracuse Savings Bank building and, after refitting the rooms for exhibition, the OHA collections were once again opened to the public.
In his will, William Kirkpatrick, a long time supporter of OHA, left funds to be used for an OHA building. In 1905, OHA purchased the former Central New York Telephone & Telegraph Company building at 311 Montgomery Street. This building was built only ten years earlier in 1895/6, but the telephone company had already outgrown it and had moved into its new building down the street at 321 Montgomery Street.
Around 1980, OHA, in cooperation with Onondaga County, acquired its second building, coincidentally, also a former telephone company building, at 321 Montgomery Street. This large building was to be used for storage, offices, and to establish a public-friendly historical museum. For almost 25 years, the collections of OHA were split between these two Montgomery Street buildings. The archives and research center stayed at 311 and, for the most part, the artifacts and museum inhabited 321. In 2005, 311 was sold and the entirety of OHA’s collection was once again under one roof.
Over the last ten years, OHA has worked to bring its building back to life, restoring the façade, installing new permanent exhibits, new temporary exhibit galleries, and expanding its Gift Gallery Museum Store. Today, OHA is more than a museum, providing an extensive services, research and educational centers, retail operations, the Skä•noñh – Great Law of Peace Center, the St. Marie Among the Iroquois Mission site museum, and countless exhibits throughout the community, OHA continues to grow in order to preserve and tell the stories of Onondaga County’s history.