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History of the Cupola

Historic image of the Empire State Winery on the shores of Keuka Lake, Yates County, NY

The building that many of us remember as the home of the American Legion was originally the home of
the Empire State Wine Company, established in 1886. The magnificent Georgian Revival stone building,
topped by its beautiful cupola, was built in 1896. Until Prohibition, the Empire State Winery was one
of the largest in the area. Right here in Penn Yan, in this building, the winery produced ”State Seal
Champagne”, dry and sweet wines, and brandies.

While it stood atop the building, this cupola could be seen for miles down the lake. On foggy days, it
helped guide grape- and wine-laden steamboats towards the Keuka Lake Outlet, and into the “Port
of Penn Yan” where table grapes and wine were shipped by train to New York City. Thanks to the
Empire State Winery, the steamboat harbor and the trains down the Outlet, Penn Yan was at the heart of Keuka Lake’s burgeoning wine and grape industry. The winery survived prohibition, but barely. It closed in 1956. Shortly thereafter the building and the surrounding property, which now includes the Top of the Lake Restaurant, Knapp and Schlappi Lumber, and Fireman’s Field, was purchased by the American Legion.

Because of the high costs of upgrades needed to bring the old building up to code, the Legion sought and got permission to demolish the building in Jan. 1989. This action raised concern among citizens committed to historic preservation, including members of the village’s  Historic Preservation Commission and Virginia Gibbs, President of the Yates County Historical Society. Legal action postponed the demolition, but in the end, attempts to forestall the demolition, or to find anyone who could purchase and restore the building, failed.

In the summer of 1989 the building and the property were transferred to the owner of the Hilltop Inn on
East Main Street in a land swap. The Legion moved to the former location of the Hilltop and in June of 1990, the building was demolished. During the demolition, the crew of City Hill Construction made sure that the building’s cupola and corner stone were saved.

The Cupola After Demolition of the Empire State Wine Company

Today the Cupola is a sad, but visible reminder of the vital role Penn Yan played in Keuka Lake’s grape and wine industry during the steamboat era. The building’s cornerstone is still visible near the Top of the Lake Restaurant. The Cupola sits in the bushes nearby. It has sat there for 24 years. Earlier hopes to make it part of a waterfront development never materialized.


The Cupola’s Potential for Penn Yan

With the opening of Birkett’s Landing, The Water Street Wine Bar,  The Flick Art Gallery on Main Street,
the refurbishment of the Garret Winery Building on Lake Street, the Keuka Art Show, the condo

development  on the former Penn Yan Boat property, two new hotels,  and plans to extend the Outlet Trail to Red Jacket Park, Penn Yan is at the beginning of an exciting, historic renaissance.

A Restored Cupola, sitting as a link to our past, near its historic location on the newly extended Keuka Outlet Trail, visible from the lake, will be a great enhancement to this renaissance and to the “New Penn Yan.”

Here it will once more welcome boats into the Keuka Outlet, luring their passengers, as well as pedestrian tourists and hotel guests on the Trail, into the village and its stores and restaurants.....while informing them of Penn Yan’s historic role in the Keuka Lake’s grape and wine industry. 

It will extend the timeline and story of the Keuka Outlet Trail’s “Pathway Thru History” forward, to the emergence of the grape and wine industry in the steamboat era. From there it will point visitors along the Keuka Outlet Trail to the culmination of this history on the Keuka Lake Wine Trail.

A restored and strategically placed Cupola will become Penn Yan’s icon. It will be Penn Yan’s favorite location for Instagram selfies, helping to make Penn Yan a destination, attracting even more guests to our new hotels and B&Bs and patrons to our stores and restaurants.

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How did we get here?

In every story there are those who make a significant difference. The man who has inspired us and led the team with his vison is Steve Knapp. Born in the Town of Barrington, Steve graduated from Dundee Central School, in the Finger Lakes Region of Western New York State, in 1961 and then left the area to attend college and graduate school. After living in Philadelphia for over 30 years, where he reared his three sons and operated a graphic design business, he moved back to the Finger Lakes in 2002. He and his friend Nancy now live on Knapp Road in Barrington, south of Penn Yan, New York, where they enjoy one of the premiere views of Keuka Lake and one of the finest views in the Finger Lakes Region.


Steve is a professional photographer and a lover of history. Steve's photos include those of many of the region's 11 Finger Lakes, as well as pets, farms, barns, animals and several of the region's villages. His interest in the geology of the Finger Lakes comes to expression in his photographs of the region's many waterfalls, gorges. Steve saw the forlorn Cupola in the bushes along side of the current Hampton Inn property and it's restoration became the focus of his dedication and drive for the past decade. It is Steve's vision of the importance of the Cupola's restoration that is the foundation and the inspiration for our Save the Cupola Project !

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Steve Knapp
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